John Gagliardi: The College Coach With The Most Wins Ever


“If you find a job you love, you never have to work a day in your life.” That saying perfectly applies to former Saint John’s (MN) head coach, John Gagliardi. He held that position from 1953 until 2012. He accumulated 489 wins over that time span which is the most in college football history. His career record is 489 wins, 138 losses and 11 ties. Coach Gagliardi has lead his SaintJ ohn’s Johnnies teams to four national titles. In 2006, he joined Bobby Bowden as the first active coaches to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. I was able to talk to the legendary coach recently. We talked about how he was able to sustain such a long and successful career.

 He told me that he took a one game at a time approach which helped him to keep on going over his career. Coach Gagliardi felt that he was priviledged to have made a great living doing a job that he would have done for free. He spoke at lengths about were the many great things that he experienced in his time as a head coach.

 Gagliardi said that he always did his own thing, beat to his own drum. That is probably what attributed to his unique coaching style. Initially, he stumbled upon a lot of ideas. He said that he approached coaching from a sandlot or intramurals perspective. This viewpoint resulted in 90 minute practices in which he didn’t use a whistle and didn’t have players in their gear hitting. He is known for his unique coaching approach which he called “winnning with no’s.” He instructed his players not to call him “coach”, he didn’t use blocking sleds and he didn’t require his players to lift weights either.

 Being a former collegiate player myself, I was baffled by this idea. I couldn’t see how a practice could be organized without a whistle and I in no way saw how games can be played without at least one live period of practice per week. I also could’t see how weight training could’t be mandatory.

 gagliardiwithtrophy_display_imageCoach Gagliardi simply replied to my reaction by saying; “It worked right away, so we kept doing it. The players loved it AND we won. I never had any problems keeping things in order without a whistle. The players are not going to go too hard or out of control in shorts an shirts. That toned them down.”

 He specifically sought out players that did a lot of tackling in high school, players that he already knew could hit. He focused on teaching his defensive schemes in practce instead. He trusted that they could make the tackle if they could execute his defensive game plan and defeat the opposing blocking scheme. It makes sense and who am I to question a coach who’s conference (MIAC) named their coach of the year award after him?

 Another thing that Coach Gagliardi did differently was hydrate his players during pratice. Back in the earlier days, coaches thought that if players drank water during practice it would harm them. Coach Gagliardi thought just the opposite. It turns out, he was 100% right. Now it is mandatory to have water breaks in practice.

 Coach Gaglairdi was always on the cutting edge from an offensive perspective also. He loved to look at what the opposing teams did and he patterned his schemes like a counter puncher. Coach had fun frustrating his opponents and tinkered with many schemes. He was actually one of the first to use the option. This came from the time that he spent looking at film and developing new ways to confuse his opponents. He even thought of a quadruple option but couldn’t install it because he didn’t have the quarterback to execute it.

 Unfortunately, Gagliardi had to give up his dream job last year. He wanted to still coach but at the age of 76 years old, he didn’t have he energy to keep going. He misses the game dearly but does get enjoyment out of watching various college and NFL teams including the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers and his local team, the Minnesota Vikings.

 I had to ask him about Colin Kaepernick once I found out that he watches the 49ers. We also talked about the other read option quarterbacks such as Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. He loved the way the coaches are letting them read whether or not to keep or handoff the ball in the pros. He also cited Chip Kelly and how he allows Nick Foles to have the option of throwing the ball on the read option types of plays.

 Gagliardi likes how these players now are proving that quarterbacks can take the hits. He was also amazed at how efficiently these quarterbacks are running the offense. Even after retiring Coach Gagliardi enjoys watching film. He is amazed at all of the things that can be done tech wise. He loves how he can record games and watched more than one at a time. The only thing that he hates is that he can’t work with athletes like Kaepernick and experiment with new wrinkles. We both go a good laugh after that comment.

These schemes working in NFL bring joy to his heart. It was a foregone conclusion that college coaches such as Chip Kelly could not go to the league and excel. Galgiardi said; “Chip Kelly has proven that great coaches can go to the NFL and have their ideas work despite what the so called experts think.”

Gagliardi also shared his veiws on the college playoff system. He is glad that division one will convert to the playoff system. “It’s obvious that the playoff system can work. It’s been done at the division two and division three levels. It has been a success and is proven.”

 In 2004 Gagliardi was nominated for an ESPY award. He said that it was quite an experience being in Los Angeles among all of the famous people. Gagiardi will receive the National College Football Awards Association’s Contributions to College Football Award as part of the Home Depot College Football Awards show that will air live on ESPN at 6 p.m. next Thursday. Past recepients of the award include broadcaster Keith Jackson and legendedary coaches Tom Osborne and Bobby Bowden. This is a well derserving honor for the coach who has won more games than any other in college history.