John Gagliardi, several years after his retirement as St. John's football coach, was asked what single word best described his coaching style. His choice: "Unorthodox."
Gagliardi, the winningest coach in college football history, died at age 91, his family announced Sunday.
He defied conventional football coaching wisdom with no-tackle, no-whistle practices and a request his players call him John, not Coach. That approach led to a career 489-138-11 record and four national championships in 64 seasons, the final 60 at St. John's.
His former players say his coaching affected their lives long after they were players. He would introduce freshmen to college football by holding up a dime against a bright sun and saying the dime was a football, the sun their life. Remember that, he said, and there would be no trouble keeping football in perspective.
Gagliardi, who influenced several other area coaches, including Eden Prairie's Mike Grant, received a deluge of e-mails from former players upon his retirement six years ago. That outpouring was surpassed Sunday as news of his death spread.
"Everyone sees the results, and obviously he's an iconic coach when it comes to results, but what people didn't understand [was] how you could win being so unorthodox," former St. John's quarterback Tom Linnemann said Sunday. "When you play for John, you realize that he was so smart in how he managed players psychologically. He was a players' coach before that term was invented. He had a lot of rules, but he ceded power and gave autonomy and trust in his players. He traded that for wins and accountability."
Longtime rival St. Thomas paid tribute on Twitter: "Impossible to put into words what John means to the sport & Division III football. Whether you played for or against him, he made you better."
"John was tremendously successful — unparalleled success from a football standpoint," Blake Elliott, an All-America wide receiver on Gagliardi's last national championship team in 2003, said when the coach retired. "But what isn't written about is how many lives he's touched. Think about what not cutting guys means: 60 years with 190 guys on every team. That's thousands of people that have had a positive impact by being around John."
Gagliardi credited much of his success with his "winning with no" philosophy, a list of "no's" that steadily grew throughout his career to more than 100. He gained the most notice for his no-tackling in practice and his refusal to cut players, which yielded rosters approaching 200 players annually. His one basic team rule, he often said, was "the Golden Rule — treat everybody like you'd like to be treated yourself. For the most part, we tried to do that."
In a wide-ranging interview in the summer of 2014, Gagliardi said his unconventional style is linked to the fact that he never intended to become a coach. So everything he tried, everything that worked, became a part of his style. A little bit here, a little bit there, all added together to become that ever-expanding list of coaching no's.
He published a pamphlet titled "Winning with No" that was used as a recruiting tool and a reminder for current players on why they had chosen St. John's. The list of 100 no's included these:
• No mission statement.
• No surviving without humor.
• No blocking or tackling dummies.
• No use of the words "hit," "kill," etc. …
• No rules, except the Golden Rule.
"Why?" he said when asked the origin of his coaching style. "Because I didn't know any better. … I was just hanging on by my toenails. No goals. I was just trying to survive."
Gagliardi's first coaching assignment came without warning, as a high school senior at tiny Trinidad Catholic High School in Trinidad, Colo. Gagliardi's teammates approached him with the idea of being a player/coach after the team's head coach was summoned to serve during World War II.
The school was considering disbanding the team, a perennial loser, before Gagliardi convinced the school he could handle being a player/coach. A rare winning season followed, and Gagliardi was asked to stay on, and he produced another winning season.
"The thing I really remember is that our coach before didn't allow us to have water [during practice]," Gagliardi said. "That was the prevailing thought back then: Don't drink water during practice. I just ignored that. … A lot of the things I did later were because I started that way, and it worked, so I never changed. As I got to a higher level coaching, people thought I was nuts. But eventually I think I've won over most of those people."
Gagliardi started taking night classes at the local junior college so he could play with the college's basketball team, not necessarily to pursue a college education. That allowed him to spend a total of four seasons coaching the Trinidad football team, and he did well enough to attract the attention of St. Mary's High School officials of Colorado Springs.
A priest at the school offered him two years of tuition at nearby Colorado College in exchange for coaching St. Mary's. After two seasons, Gagliardi had a college degree and an offer to coach Division III Carroll College in Helena, Mont., where his teams went 24-6-1 with three conference titles in four seasons. He also coached basketball, winning two conference titles in the four years.
A high school coach from Billings, Mont., who had attended St. John's persuaded Gagliardi to visit the Collegeville campus and talk about the school's vacant coaching positions for football and hockey.
"I was happy at Carroll College, perfectly content," Gagliardi said. "I didn't even want to look at this job. But I went, it was a much bigger school and they doubled my salary. I figured, what the hell. I'm single, why not? If it doesn't work out, so what."
Gagliardi coached football 60 seasons at St. John's and had the hockey team five years. He won 78 percent of his football games and had a 42-25-1 record (.630 winning percentage) with the hockey team.
"I coached a lot of sports along the way I didn't know much about," he said. "You just have to learn on the job, somehow. If there's a key, I think it's that I didn't alienate my players."
Staff writer Michael Rand contributed to this report.