John Gagliardi Was The Only Good Coach

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Graphic: Elena Scotti (GMG), Photo: AP

Drew Magary’s Thursday Afternoon NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo runs every Thursday during the NFL season. Email Drew here. Buy his book here.

John Gagliardi died last week at the age of 91, and if that name is familiar to you it’s likely because Gagliardi is the winningest college football coach of all time. The fact that Gagliardi won all his games at the NAIA and D3 levels, mostly at tiny St. John’s University in Minnesota, means that his record will be enduring but also strangely peripheral, given the cultural and visible dominance of FBS college football. Gagliardi won 489 football games. He won four national titles. He also, remarkably, had a winning record as an ice hockey coach. He even dabbled in coaching the basketball team at Carroll College in Montana in his early years. And yet, all of those little factoids don’t begin to communicate just how much of an anomaly Gagliardi was.


I remember learning about Gagliardi the first time back in the ‘90s, when he was the subject of a College GameDay human interest story, one of those segments where ESPN would send Steve Cyphers—who was Tom Rinaldi before Tom Rinaldi was Tom Rinaldi—out into the field to do a soft-focus piece of reportage from parcels of the college football landscape that were usually too small or obscure to get regular notice. St. John’s, which has an enrollment of under 2,000 students, very much qualified for such treatment.

Gagliardi was already a legend back then, both for his gaudy record and for the unorthodox manner in which he piled up all those wins. Gagliardi famously had no playbook. He never used a whistle. He never recruited. He insisted on being called “John” instead of coach. He banned tackling from practice (the next time a Gruden or a Harbaugh bitches about being hamstrung by practice restrictions, point them to Gagliardi’s record). He held no meetings. Team stretches were strictly a parody of OTHER team’s stretching routines, with players doing the “Head Shoulders Knees & Toes” dance instead of barking out calf stretches at one another. Every senior on the team was named captain. He famously kept a running list of Nos to adhere to, one of which—No Slogans—I would like printed out and stapled to Mike Lombardi’s fucking head.


Oh, and he never yelled. That’s the thing that threw me when I first saw that Cyphers report. Cyphers asked Gagliardi about yelling at players and Gagliardi responded, “No no no, that’s insanity.” When I was growing up, all of my coaches yelled. It didn’t even occur to me that they might NOT yell. Yelling was coaching, as far as I was concerned. And yet here was one of the most decorated men in the sport, laughing at its uselessness. Calling it outright crazy. It took me a very long time to understand just how right he was about that.

Now, I am rightfully cynical when it comes to coaches. These men are not saints, and the second you treat them as such, they usually go the full Paterno. I’m also leery of the Wooden-ization of coaches, where they become overly revered for paternalistic shit like insisting on teaching players how to tie their shoes correctly. Gagliardi coached over the span of seven decades and remained squeaky clean, but he was able to flourish in part because, through his reputation for winning, he could stock the St. John’s roster with over 150 players, many of whom were overqualified to play D3 ball. And since he was playing small college ball, he didn’t have to worry about money issues forcing him to compromise his methods or his integrity. He hated losing just as much as any of them. His quirks were, in some ways, a luxury.

Or were they? It’s easy to write off Gagliardi’s style as something that could only work in his specific niche of the CFB universe, and yet a handful of his techniques have been replicated at higher levels with considerable success. Mike Leach famously eschewed having a formal playbook at Texas Tech, preferring instead to teach plays exclusively in person instead of on paper (as Gagliardi once noted, players never read the things anyway). NFL teams now routinely shorten practices and limit contact to keep players fresh throughout the season. And every college and pro team, save for the University of Maryland, now allows players to have a water break whenever they need it. In some ways, Gagliardi’s methods were before their time.


But, in many more unfortunate ways, they still are. Gagliardi essentially preached a philosophy of anti-coaching, one that prized self-reliance and self-motivation and abhorred cruelty and authoritarianism. These were not bullshit, repackaged, supposedly out-of-the-box ideas like you find coming out of Silicon Valley. Gagliardi’s philosophy was deeply HUMAN, and deeply trusting. It also happened to be highly effective, so much so that similar techniques are now widely used in parenting books, academic teaching, and other fields.

Where you WON’T find that much of Gagliardi’s hands-off philosophy is in the very sport where he excelled. There are an awful lot of NOs on his list that major football coaches still heartily say YES to, because they’re control freaks, and because there’s money at stake, and because it’s too risky to deviate from the norm, even when the norm is a proven failure. In 2018, it still counts as a mighty leap in progress when a small number of NFL coaches begin to routinely go for it on fourth down more often as a matter of strategic principle. Doug Pederson went for two when he was down by eight last week and the Fox crew nearly fainted in response to his decision, even though the stats prove that unequivocally that going for two is the correct move there.


And those are just small strategic changes. In the grand scheme of things, coaches like John Gagliardi and Kevin Kelley remain needless exceptions, treated as small school novelties by a football culture that is, in every conceivable way, incredibly SLOW. Just so fucking slow, I’m amazed the forward pass ever got legalized. For all of the late night film sessions and all of the tape eating and all of the whizzbang play diagramming that football coaches and administrators do, they remain woefully slow and conservative when it comes to foundational principles of how they deal with people and how they run a football team, which is strange because a lot of football teams suck.

When I was in high school, I went to football camp, and one of the coaches there was this old dude named Coach Lake. And Coach Lake was nice. He was just the nicest coach you’ve ever met. I don’t think I ever saw him get mad. Every day during stretches, he would call out to everyone “How YOU doin?!” And you had to reply back “OH VERY WELL.” He would crack up an entire camp of aggro teen boys just by repeating “How YOU doin?!” over and over again. And I remember it being odd because it was one of the few times a coach ever made me feel good. Think about it. How often has a football coach made you feel good? I’m not talking about the time they gave you a starting job, or the time they celebrated some sweet-ass victory with you. I’m talking about a football coach making you feel good as a matter of routine. I’m talking about a coach making you feel good every day, and not just because you were talented. How many coaches like that have you known?


This is a nation that is endlessly horny for tough love, and one that sees newer methods as unmanly and stupid even when they’re proven to succeed. John Gagliardi was a huge exception to all of that, and it remains a deep and lasting tragedy that he ever had to be one in the first place. Sometimes coaches are the ones who need the most coaching.

The Games

All games in the Jamboroo are evaluated for sheer watchability on a scale of 1 to 5 Throwgasms.

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Five Throwgasms

Chiefs at Patriots: This ends one of two ways. Either the Patriots crush the Chiefs, marking them as frauds and leaving everyone horribly depressed, or the Chiefs obliterate the Pats, thus setting up the stage for them to collapse against them later, likely in the AFC title game. So really, it’s a matter of whether or not you’d like to be depressed now, or whether you’d like to get strung along for a couple months more before having your hopes get REALLY smashed. More than anything, I want Patrick Mahomes to drive a fucking stake through the heart of this franchise. But I also know the NFL is not designed to make you HAPPY. I’m already annoyed.

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Four Throwgasms

Steelers at Bengals: Oh goody, it’s the semi-annual Death And Dismemberment Bowl. Neat. And Vontaze Burfict came back last week just in time for it! I, for one, am excited to see eight different players get carted off thanks to assorted stompings, chain whippings, and compound orbital fractures. They may as well play this game in a fucking mortuary. At least it would be louder than Paul Brown stadium.

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Three Throwgasms

Chargers at Browns: I’m getting pissed at the Browns for not tying as often as they should. They should be 1-1-3 right now. I desperately wanted them to have the Full Gary Moeller record, and then watch as every NFL analyst lost their SHIT because ties are for commies. And then Roger Goodell would have 600 meetings to address the tie crisis. And then the competition committee would cut overtime down to five minutes, inadvertently causing MORE ties. And then the NFL would run a PSA campaign featuring serious-looking doctors with sideline monitors talking about what they’re doing to prevent ties before they happen. The Play To Win campaign would cost $80 million and do precisely nothing. I wanted all of that. I feel cheated.


By the way, Chargers patriarch Alex Spanos died this week, and it’s clear now that NFL owners have a death pact wherein every other owner has to issue a solemn release if one of their rich asshole colleagues kicks the bucket:


That’s what your $2 billion gets you: two sentences from Danny Snyder about what a giant among men you were. What a bargain. I’d rather burn my money in an oil barrel.

Bucs at Falcons: Jameis is officially back. I hope he gets eaten by a puma.

Ravens at Titans

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Two Throwgasms

Seahawks at Raiders (in London): This London game is part of the 1 p.m. slate because SOME people out there had the unmitigated gall to bitch about the London games being on too early here on the American mainland. You listen to me, you persnickety bastards: it’s a long, long Sunday morning with kids before I get my football action, so I’ll take ANY football any way I can get it. You fuckers just screwed me out of a chance to ignore my family by watching the Raiders lose, and then seeing Jon Gruden blame someone else for his own glaring fuckups. “We did a horrible job coaching that game … Tell you what, I’m gonna go look at the tape and see who’s responsible for that. It was probably Reggie’s fault.”


Bills at Texans: The Bills signed Derek Anderson this week, roughly the 5000th QB signing in the past calendar year that proves Colin Kaepernick’s collusion case against the league. And given the insane passing numbers being put up in the first four weeks of the season, it’s worth thinking about how Kaepernick would fare in THIS particular version of the NFL. When Kaepernick first got cast out of the league, stooges like Albert Breer tapesplained it away by saying his unemployment was the result of the read option being phased out of the league. Now the very best NFL offenses borrow liberally from college playbooks and run a whole shitload of misdirection plays and RPOs that aren’t the same as the read option, but can definitely be used effectively with a mobile quarterback.

Going by the numbers, Kaepernick was somewhat efficient during his final season in San Francisco, but anyone with a brain could have told you he had regressed. He struggled to move the offense down the field, but that tends to happen when the owner has gutted your roster and your head coach is Jim Tomsula. Kaepernick already proved he could succeed with an actual coach running things. I wanna see the fucker play, and not just because I’m a filthy liberal. I want to see him PLAY. It’s doubly insulting that the league and its heralds put on a bullshit show about how he can’t play anymore, all while opening up offenses for players with his explicit skill set. Gimme a fucking break.


Eagles at Giants: No offense to Jay Ajayi, but I don’t think his injury is all THAT devastating to the Eagles’ chances. Three other backs on that roster have a YPC average that’s the same or better than what Ajayi had when he went down. My man wasn’t queen of the chess board. They can sign some pud off the street and still underachieve in the EXACT same way. Don’t you worry.

Jaguars at Cowboys

Rams at Broncos

Colts at Jets

Panthers at Skins

Bears at Dolphins

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One Throwgasm

Cardinals at Vikings: He can still be red zone poison, but I don’t think there’s much doubt left that the Vikings made the right move paying Kirk Cousins his money. Don’t get me wrong: he will absolutely throw a horrific fourth-quarter pick in December that costs this team a playoff berth, but that’s a given when you’re dealing with this franchise. At least Kirk will rack up some yards before laying a wet turd at the worst possible moment. Teddy Bridgewater is a backup now. Case Keenum has more picks than touchdowns. And Sam Bradford just became too expensive to keep active on game days. You start any game for this franchise and it follows you around like herpes for the rest of your career.


Niners at Packers: Here is a tweet from Big Teach…


Big Teach, you are correct. Joe Tessitore absolutely calls these games like he’s presiding over a WWE or UFC pay-per-view. He’s gonna sell you CJ Beathard like he’s trying to get a ’95 Civic off the lot. “This young man from Iowa has SO MUCH HEART.”

Pregame Song That Makes Me Want To Run Through A Goddamn Brick Wall

“Double Ferrari,” by Double Ferrari! You know those Ferraris that are, like, DOUBLE Ferraris? Reader Michael gets what I’m asking:

The album art features a horse taking its final gallops across a moon-like planet as its entrails are torn apart by atmospheric pressure. There was a point in the song where I was worried that a singer would wail in and ruin the double guitar sonic assault, but that never happened because a band bold enough to name a song after themselves knows that you never mess with success once you’ve found your shredding space.


You’re right about Singer Angst. When I’m listening to a new band, I have that mounting dread that the singer is gonna come in and just fucking ruin everything. Happens all the time. Double Ferrari eliminates that problem by punting on a singer altogether and going at you with nothing but balls-out RIFFAGE, and for that I am grateful. Do these riff chug? My friend, they do indeed chug.

Gregg Easterbrook Memorial Haughty Dipshit Of The Week

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This take is a bit old now, but reader Jeff would like to direct you to this C4 plastique explosive of a take from Garrett Snider, grandson of former Flyers’ owner Ed Snider. Seems Tommy Boy here has some issues with Gritty, the new Flyers mascot. And this was back when Gritty was cool, before Barstool had a chance to ruin him.

Flyers fans don’t need Gritty. They have grit.

See, we’re already on solid ground here. Ed Snider was a billionaire who founded the Ayn Rand Institute, so it makes perfect sense that his fuck trophy’s fuck trophy would write an op-ed praising the notion of self-motivation.

“Grit” is a positive trait and one with which I’d be proud to be associated. It went mainstream here in Philadelphia.


Ah yes, who can forget the day that Philadelphia, land of dumpster pools and Crisco power lines, invented grit.

My friend, Penn professor and psychologist Angela Duckworth, put it on the map when she published her widely acclaimed bestseller, appropriately titled, Grit.


I hate this little brat so, so much already.

The story of the Flyers embodies the concept of grit.

Ed Snider had Sarah Palin drop a ceremonial first puck. Such grit.

Flyers players have always had grit.

Is that Philly slang for brass knuckles tucked into your hockey garters?

Their fans are the grittiest in the league — and they don’t need a Chucky doll to prove it.


What the fuck does that even mean? They’re FANS. They sit there and drink beer and boo. They don’t fucking do anything. They’re not even supposed to do anything. That’s like a Comic Con panel telling you Iron Man fans are the grittiest in the MCU.

Grit is the quality that puts people back in their seats game after game…

You’re thinking of gullibility.

…and it’s one of the many characteristics of the Philadelphia fan that I think should be honored and celebrated. Gritty unfortunately misses the mark.


It’s a fucking guy in a costume.

Beyond his concerning appearance…

He looks like a discarded Chinese Zodiac animal. What exactly concerns you here? Gritty couldn’t break an egg.

He plays into the (often incorrect) stereotype of the antagonistic Philly fan.

Your fans eat horseshit, curse out old women, and throw full beers at random passersby. Have you even MET a Philly fan? Maybe you should take a stroll outside the Penn Club once in a while, JUNIOR. I can’t believe I live in a country where billionaire trust fund babies get column space instead of a one-way ticket to the glue factory. We should burn down Garrett Snider and use him for jet ski fuel.


Cryptkeeper Al Davis Lock Of The Week: Broncos +7

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“EEEEE HEE HEE HEE HEE HEE!!!!! Sorry, Sean McSLAY. I know you like all your fancy passing ZOMBIEnations. But I think you’re going to have a real problem with DEADver!!! After all, GRIM Te-BOOOOO isn’t their quarterHACK anymore! And one look at Von KILLER and SCARED Goff might turn pale. Or should I say… IMPALED?!! EEEEEEEE HEE HEE HEE HEE HEE!!!”

2018 Cryptkeeper record: 2-2-1

Fantasy Player Who Deserves To Die A Slow, Painful Death

It’s Alvin Kamara, who did not rack up his customary 41 fantasy points last week. What the fuck, Al? I was behind in my matchup, but I had you and Michael Thomas going so I wasn’t sweating it. Then I saw that the Saints took the Skins to the woodshed and I was like, “O ho ho! BIG NIGHT FOR DREWBEAR!” But no! No, those guys ceded all their points to a bunch of other losers and puds. The fucking balls on these men. Is it too much to ask that a player score an unreasonable amount of fantasy points every week, with ZERO dropoff at any point? I don’t think so. You men owe me pushups.


Bad Local Commercial Of The Week!


Jim Adler has been a Houston ambulance chaser for decades. He started out as the “Tough, smart lawyer,” and now he’s the “TEXAS HAMMER!” I bet he could get confirmed for the Supreme Court.


He absolutely could. By the way, this ad is awesome. I’ve already violated the spirit of this segment by posting an ad that has actual production values. Please cleanse your palate with this suitably horrifying used car ad from Vermont, from Michael:

I can barely make out what he’s saying or why. It’s for the best.

Fire This Asshole!

Is there anything more exciting than a coach losing his job? All year long, we’ll keep track of which coaches will almost certainly get fired at year’s end or sooner. And now, your potential 2018 chopping block: 


Dirk Koetter*

Vance Joseph

Adam Gase

Todd Bowles

Hue Jackson

Jay Gruden

Bill O’Brien

Jon Gruden

Jason Garrett*

Mike McCarthy

Dan Quinn

Pete Carroll

Steve Wilks

Pat Shurmur

(*potential midseason firing)

The funniest thing I heard last week was when Thom Brennaman said, verbatim, that Mike McCarthy “coaches with GUTS.” Sometimes, I swear that they deliberately force these broadcast teams to always tell you the exact opposite of what you see and feel.


Also, people got mad at me last week for not including Vance Joseph. Please note that I pull this list out of my ass every week, and that it is not legally binding unless proposition 304 passes, and we all pray it will.

Great Moments In Grandpa History

Here’s Pedro with a story I call WORST BLOOD:

When I was a kid, my grandpa had one of those Swiss Army knives that was the size of a brick. He used it for everything – even the little scissors, which are useless. One day, I saw him limping towards his room and then to the bathroom. He had stepped on a piece of glass and when I went into the bathroom, he was digging the piece out of the sole of his foot with the swiss army knife. Not even wincing. As I stood there gaspíng, he started chitchatting with me, like he wasn’t doing some Rambo shit at the same time. After he was done, he put on a bandaid, went to the kitchen to make himself a black cow and sat down on the living room to watch a documentary on WW2 on the Discovery Channel.


Ah, I love me a good old fashioned foot digging session. You never know what you might find when you get in there!

Gametime Snack Of The Week

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Really fucking big blueberries! I saw these things at the grocery store and had to have them. They’re just like regular blueberries, only, like, BIGGER. They’re as big as superballs, man. It’s fucking crazy. I eat them by the handful and pretend I’m eating straight gravel. One benefit of eating mutant growth hormone blueberries is that they do not get smushed. When you buy a pint of regular blueberries, half of them have already been smushed down into makeshift preserves. These berries are strong enough to withstand the rigors of berry transit. You could play billiards with them, though I don’t recommend it.

Gametime Cheap Beer Of The Week

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San Juan! ROWRRRRRRR!!!!!! From reader Andrew comes the sexiest, shittiest Peruvian beer I’ve ever laid eyes on:

I proudly submit this masterpiece of a can, San Juan of Pucallpa, Peru. Pucallpa is situated up against the Amazon rainforest, and this beer makes every effort to remind you of that fact. At 80 cents a can, it gives you something to do and takes your mind off the deadly animals surrounding you. In supermarkets they dress up attractive women in spandex leopard outfits and have them stand near the fridge.


I’m moving to Pucallpa. Look at that fucking can! THE NATURAL TASTE OF THE JUNGLE. I believe it! I absolutely believe that this is rainwater strained through a river of guano. I wanna drink it until my insides bleed.

Jim Tomsula’s Lifehack Of The Week!

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“People paying for mushrooms at a store… that’s just absurd. Lift up a rock once in a while, okay?”

Sunday Afternoon Movie Of The Week For Cardinals Fans 

Weekend At Bernie’s 2. Weekend At Bernie’s was one of the worst movies of the 1980s, but I assure you its sequel was much, much worse. This franchise was already based on a faulty premise—namely, that people wouldn’t notice a dead guy being dead—but the sequel goes ahead and disregards ALL logic by having Bernie walk around and punch people and even get laid. I’m pretty good at suspending my disbelief, but when they show Bernie walking on a fucking beach with a lady, my inner Gregggggggg kicks in right away. HE’S DEAD. HE CAN’T FUCKING WALK. DON’T TREAT ME LIKE A FOOL.


Gratuitous Simpsons Quote

“I’m not sure random locker searches are permitted by the Supreme Court.”

“Pfffffft. Supreme Court. What have they done for us lately?”

“Let’s move.”

Enjoy the games, everyone.