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A Most Benedictine Coach

Listen…with the ear of your heart.  Prologue–The Rule of Saint Benedict.

John Gagliardi was born into an Italian-American family in 1926.  I never heard John talk about the role religion played in his upbringing, but it seems highly likely that a Catholic family in that era would have been regular church goers, prayed before meals, encouraged children to pray at bedtime, maybe said an occasional rosary together as a family, and for the adults to have had their own personal prayer life.  What was certain was that John did not have any exposure to the Benedictines.

When he was recruited from Carroll College in 1953, John did not know much about Saint John’s University, to say nothing of the Benedictine tradition that is the foundation of Saint John’s Abbey and University.  John, however, was deeply Benedictine even if he didn’t know it at the time, and, through grace or luck or both, he found himself at the perfect place to live out a 60-year Benedictine coaching vocation.

Much has been written about John’s coaching gifts and philosophy, but I have always thought that John’s success on the gridiron and far beyond was succinctly captured by the first word of the Rule of Saint Benedict: Listen.

John was famous for being able to adjust a game plan in real time, particularly during halftime, to account for new information, changing conditions and the opposition’s own plans.  A player of John’s recounted how this happened.  “John relied on his players on the field to tell him what was happening on the ground and what they were experiencing in the game.  He would then take that information and use it to adjust what we were doing.  At halftime we would revise our game plan in order to use what his players were telling him.”  John was willing to listen and learn about football from his 20 year-old players.

John, of course, is most famous for his football success, but in a different era in college athletics, coaches often were called upon to coach multiple sports, often regardless of their knowledge of said sport.  In his time at Saint John’s, John coached track and field, a sport with its sprinters, shot putters and discus throwers that is at least tangentially related to football.

But John was also the Saint John’s hockey coach for five years, 1954-59.  The sport has hitting, like football, but the similarity ends there.  John knew nothing about hockey when he started.  In fact, at a time when practice was typically outdoors, John was known to call off practice when he got too cold standing on the edge of the rink, not a policy that a true hockey aficionado would countenance.

Yet among the 16 hockey coaches at Saint John’s who coached more than one season, John Gagliardi has the highest winning percentage, a fact he wryly loved to share with his young hockey coaching colleagues, including Olympian John Harrington who is number two on that list.

How did a guy who literally knew nothing about hockey—I’m not sure he could even skate—lead his teams to this success?  My hypothesis is that he simply listened.  He learned about hockey from his players.  He listened to what they suggested and shared about their individual abilities and each other’s talents, and then John built a team and let them play.

My favorite story of John’s listening comes from one of John’s early All-Americans.  This young man came to visit campus with his parents.  As they were touring with John, the young man noted, with some surprise and mild consternation, that John was talking almost exclusively to his mother, who thought that football was a “dumb” game.  As he eavesdropped on the conversation, he heard John say to his mother, “After your son graduates from Saint John’s, do you think he will go on to get an MD or a Ph.D.?”

On the way home, Mom made it clear that Saint John’s was the perfect place for this young man.  He went on the get a Ph.D.

Listen to understand.  Listen to learn.  Listen with empathy.  Listen with the ear of your heart.

Life lessons from Saint Benedict and John Gagliardi.

Rest in Peace, John Gagliardi, a Benedictine coach if ever there was one.

Posted on October 15, 2018, John Gagliardi Day in Minnesota.

By |October 15th, 2018|Categories: Alumni, History, Kudos|0 Comments

Football: Concussions and Character

Football players are back on campus at Saint John’s, thus signaling the official end of summer.  The imminent start to the football season has also raised perennial questions about football player safety, particularly around the issue of concussions.

Image of brain in human headThere was a little controversy recently at the Atlantic Coast Conference media days when University of North Carolina head football coach Larry Fedora said “he doesn’t believe it’s been proven that football causes the degenerative brain disease CTE and [he] offered a passionate defense of [the] sport.”

In this controversy, I found the medical issues, while important, less interesting than the defense of football Fedora gave.  He argued that to significantly change the nature of the game or to give up on the game altogether would lead to “the decline of our country.”

Fedora elaborated, saying:

A few years back, I had an opportunity to ask a three-star general, I had a question for him. I said, “What is it that makes our country, our military, superior to every other military in the world?” He was like, “That’s easy. We’re the only football-playing nation in the world.” He said, “Most of all of our troops have grown up and played the game at some point in their life at some level, and the lessons that they learned from that game is what makes this [nation] great.”

Denise McAllister, commenting on the controversy agreed, writing:

Fedora has a point. Throughout human history, contact sports have been a means to strengthen men to protect their homes, clans, tribes, and countries. Through rough play and facing the power of other men on the field, men were trained to be warriors — a clear advantage for any community that wants to develop strong defenses.

Young men were knocked around in game-playing to toughen them up for life as well as war. There wasn’t much concern about their welfare because the scrapes, bruises, and broken bones were deemed a necessity. Of course, past generations didn’t have the benefit of science to show the long-term effects of these activities, but I would wager that even if they did, those generations wouldn’t change their behavior. Contact sports had an important place in society.
….
Moms and dads in the suburbs who are pushing to end football at all levels or keeping their kids from playing any risky sport don’t experience the daily struggles and physical threats faced by past generations. They enjoy the luxury of flaccidity. They don’t value football and its risks because they have experienced no need of the particular lessons taught by football. They’re so removed from hardship that they don’t even see the value of climbing trees.

Regardless of whether one finds these national defense arguments persuasive, I would argue that Fedora and McAllister make a valid point about tradeoffs that is important to remember.  Life is filled with risks.  Once one makes the decision to get out of bed in the morning, virtually every decision afterward has risks.  Playing football is such a decision.

As a Division III institution, Saint John’s University’s football program does not have the public relations or economic impact most Division I programs do, but our players face the same risks of injury that other college players do.  Every player, possibly with input from parents or physicians, must decide whether the potential risks of short or long term injury—the costs—are more than offset by their love of the game and all it gives them—the benefits.

I certainly know Johnnie football players who have expressed concern about letting their sons play the game they themselves did.  By implication, these same Johnnies might have made a different decision for themselves if they had had current medical information available when they played the game years or decades ago.

But I know a lot more Johnnie football players who not only do not regret college athletic choices but would not change them for the world, and they delight in their young sons’ and current Johnnie players’ love of the game.

Gagliardi on the sidelines

This thought experiment is made more interesting at Saint John’s because of John Gagliardi’s forward looking practice methods that minimized the risk of injury in practice decades before that became fashionable.  Johnnie football alums with full information about CTE risks might rightly calculate the risk of injury to their younger selves or their sons or current Johnnies as relatively low because of John’s choices then – and growing influence now – but game day contact and injuries remain a risk under any practice regime.

These Johnnies, who would relive their football days in a heartbeat, argue that beyond their simple love of the game, football and John and Gary (Fasching) taught them life lessons that continue to pay off for years and decades after they hang up their helmets: teamwork, graceful losing, magnanimous winning, courage, perseverance, etc. etc.  In short, football helped form their character.

Life lessons can be learned in many ways, but I think it is safe to say they can rarely be learned cost free.  Football has provided many generations of American boys and men pleasure and learning.  While there can be little doubt that playing football carries with it risks, especially of head injuries, that are real and far better understood than ever, those risks have to be set off against the real benefits football provides those who play.

Parents must make thoughtful and informed decisions for their sons, and young men must make such decisions for themselves, but each decision is personal and the answer is not obvious.

Concussions and character are inextricably intertwined in this most American of sports.

Football sidelineApproximately 175 young men reported for football practice in Collegeville last week.

SJU opens against UW-Stout on September 1.

Go Johnnies.

By |August 17th, 2018|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments

Loneliness, Men and Saint John’s

Loneliness seems to be in the news a lot recently, in both expected and unexpected places.

Cigna, the international insurance company, did a recent study that evaluated loneliness among Americans. National Public Radio reported on the study, noting that “Americans Are A Lonely Lot, and Young People Bear the Heaviest Burden.”  Business Insider also reported on the research, emphasizing how widespread the problem is: “Loneliness may be a greater public health hazard than obesity — and experts say it has hit epidemic levels in the US.”

Using sociological data from interviews with women who work closely with men, Men’s Health magazine specifically explored men’s mental health and found, according to one interviewee, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing [this] work, it’s that many men are extraordinarily lonely.”

The NPR podcast, The Hidden Brain , also explored loneliness among men using interviews and data from the ongoing eight decade long Harvard Study of Adult Development.  The podcast, suggesting at least one cause of male loneliness, was titled, “Guys, We Have a Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men.”

The reports on the Cigna study both made the link between emotional health and physical health.  The NPR story noted this connection and how it can affect the young:

Loneliness has health consequences. “There’s a blurred line between mental and physical health,” says [Cigna CEO David] Cordani. “Oftentimes, medical symptoms present themselves and they’re correlated with mental, lifestyle, behavioral issues like loneliness.”

Several studies in recent years, including ones by [BYU researcher Julianne] Holt-Lunstad, have documented the public health effect of loneliness. It has been linked with a higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. It has been shown to influence our genes and our immune systems, and even recovery from breast cancer.

And there is growing evidence that loneliness can kill. “We have robust evidence that it increases risk for premature mortality,” says Holt-Lunstad. Studies have found that it is a predictor of premature death, not just for the elderly, but even more so for younger people.

The latest survey also found something surprising about loneliness in the younger generation. “Our survey found that actually the younger generation was lonelier than the older generations,” says Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna.

. . . .

“Too often people think that this [problem] is specific to older adults,” says Holt-Lunstad. “This report helps with the recognition that this can affect those at younger ages.”

Both of the latter two media sources also went beyond loneliness and linked men’s mental health to their physical health.  The Men’s Health article noted:

Our country is steeped in a quiet mental health crisis: the suicide rate for men is much higher than it is for women, having risen nearly 50% between 1999 and 2010, and men tend not to seek help for depression, due to the cultural stigma associated with mental illness.

In her book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendship and the Crisis of Connection, Harvard researcher Niobe Way (not part of the Harvard study) attributes this in part to the absence of an emotional support system for men. Before becoming adults, Way theorizes, young men have extraordinarily intimate friendships with each other; but as they grow older, they are pressured into giving up these close ties and becoming stoic and independent, leaving them totally isolated and unable to speak with anyone about their struggles.

The Hidden Brain podcast quotes Robert Waldinger, the current director of the Harvard Development study:

[The Harvard Study has found] very strong connections [between mental health and physical health]. That was one of the surprising things that began to emerge in our data in the ’80s. We found that people who had warmer, closer connections lived longer, developed the diseases of middle age, those chronic diseases, less soon and had better health longer on average than people who didn’t have warm, close relationships.

These data on loneliness and its health effects among men and the young are important and worrying on their own, but I was also thinking about these issues when I had two recent encounters with Johnnie alums that were at odds with this conventional wisdom about men.

The first was with a group of alums from the 1960s, all past their 50th reunion. They had come together to celebrate a classmate and friend, not at a funeral, which might be the usual reason for gathering at their age, but at a small town celebration honoring this friend.  They came from some distance to be in his hometown, and they honored him for a life of successes and service. At the same time, they celebrated their almost 60 years of connection to each other that started at Saint John’s.  Even as their personal and professional lives had taken them far and wide and each had their own strong families, there is a tie that had remained important for them across both time and distance.

The second story was of a group of guys in their 40s who had all lived on 3rd Tommie short as freshmen.  They are in the midst of their own time consuming professional successes—literally from coast to coast.  They are also in the prime of child rearing years, with more activities and scheduling to contend with than any of them had ever experienced as kids.  Yet they are staying in touch, making a point to get together regularly, with supportive and loving spouses who encourage this little “cult of Saint John’s.”

One of this band had a life threatening health scare a couple years ago.  It was shocking for the young healthy man who had been an exceptional athlete, and it was an emotional jolt to his friends.  Each of his friends sprang into action—supporting him and his family individually and as a group.  The support has continued over the years and shows no sign of abating as the Johnnie’s health continues to be a challenge.  One of the group described how this event had made their bond even stronger and every one of these Johnnies fully expects the group to be part of his life until they shuffle off this mortal coil.

Those are but two examples of exceptional, yet completely typical, Saint John’s friendships.

The Saint John’s network is rightly famous for the professional connections it provides to graduates, but this network, or maybe more aptly, this brotherhood, is important to Johnnies in other ways that are not as often remarked upon.  While I have no definitive empirical data to support this contention, my gut and experience tell me that the holistic experience at Saint John’s provides most Johnnies with deep emotional connections that often last a lifetime; connections that are fundamentally different than those developed at most other colleges and universities.  I have had the rare opportunity and gift to see these friendships in my role as President, and I have lived them with freshman friends from 3rd Mary (and a Tommie interloper!) over 40 years.

As I have reflected on Johnnie friendships and talked with others about their experiences, I think there are at least three unique aspects of the SJU experience that contribute to these lifelong bonds.

  1. In the woods.  Collegeville is beautifully isolated.  We have woods, prairies, lakes and each other.  We do not have the distractions of a big urban area, or a university like the “U” nearby or the easy temptation to head home for the weekend.  We fully expect to live a residential experience on campus and know that our friends and classmates want that same kind of experience.  From the first weeks of freshman year, we are making a literal commitment to be there for each other, and that provides the basis for building long and strong relationships.
  2. All men.  Of course we love the Bennies and most would not have chosen SJU without knowing they would be in our classes and part of our social lives, yet for most Johnnies, often within the first year, we also come to appreciate our single sex campus and dorms.  We do not need to put on airs or show off for the women who live down the hall or upstairs.  At its best, we live in a fraternity—“the state or feeling of friendship and mutual support within a group.”  It is a brotherhood that provides the rare opportunity to develop deep emotional and spiritual ties.
  3. The monks.  Johnnies also have rare role models of male friendship living just down the hall or upstairs.  We have faculty residents, most of whom are monks who have made an exceptional life choice to commit to a community of men for spiritual and emotional reasons.  We observe them up close and at a distance as they enjoy the joys of deep male commitment to their community and to this place.  Observing it becomes both completely normal and powerfully affecting.

Each individual Johnnie friendship and every tight SJU group will have their own unique history and dynamic, but I think in each story there is likely there are elements of the physical place, our single sex setting and the Monastic community that are foundational to these relationships.

Aruba Johnnies jump into poolThe impact of Saint John’s on our emotional lives starts in Collegeville as young men grow into adulthood.  A preternaturally wise and thoughtful 2018 grad put it this way: “I think men in our society often have a problem socializing and getting past the issues of masculinity and connecting emotionally with other males.  I think Saint John’s is this weird, strange, unique place in the middle of nowhere where you can connect emotionally with other males, where you can develop emotional maturity, and you can become the best version of yourself.  In the middle of nowhere, in the woods, you can form these friendships that last a lifetime, and you can become a true version of yourself, you don’t have to put on a face, you can be friends with people and experience life in a very real way.  Saint John’s has transformed my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined.”

Ideally, as graduates emotional lives grow and develop, those Saint John’s friendship remain central, both in the day-to-day of life and at times of challenge or crisis.  Johnnies see each other through, to the very end of life.

In exploring the emotional lives of men as they grow and age, the Harvard study asks participants a surprisingly simple question, “If you were alone, who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or afraid?”

I believe that for very many Johnnies, the answer would certainly be, “Another Johnnie.”

By |June 7th, 2018|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments