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Scenes from a D3 Football Game, SJU vs. Thomas More University

Image gojohnnies.com

The game starts gray and cold. The temperature is in the low 20s, and there is a noticeable breeze. Light snow is falling, but the weather forecast says it shouldn’t last. Alas, the weather forecast is wrong, and the snow picks up. By late in the second quarter, the field is white.  A guy with a shovel on the sideline keeps running out every few plays to clear a two foot wide path so the players can see the goal line.  The teams play on, oblivious, even seeming to enjoy sliding tackles and diving for passes, cushioned by a few inches of powder.

Half-time arrives. Every November, during the football game closest to Veterans Day, we honor the services of men and women in the Armed Forces. We invite an active duty alumnus back to be honored and to represent all the alumni and fans who have served.  This year, the brigadier general waits quietly on the sideline as time winds down.  Once the second quarter ends, many of the Johnnies, rather than heading right for the locker room on a chilly day, take a detour to shake this alum’s hand and thank him for his service.  He is surprised and touched by this gesture.  Later that afternoon, he leaves his alma mater feeling uplifted and hopeful for the future.

Image Jennifer McNelly

The field is now covered in snow, and the athletic director and assistant director have a problem. They have to figure out how to clear the field during halftime.  Shovels are rounded up and handed out to a small crew of student workers.  And then, a bit like the parable of the loaves and fishes, other students, attending as fans, come out of the stands and ask for shovels too.  The group – including many practiced Minnesotans – sets to work, and the field is clear by the time the players return. The athletic staff are tickled pink.  Burgers and brats are rounded up to feed the crew, and the hungry students think they’ve been fed at a Michelin two-star restaurant.

The final gun sounds, and the two teams make their way across the field toward each other. Suddenly two or three Johnnies are on the ground, on their backs. Those in the press box look at each other perplexed.  Then they smile. The players are making snow angels on the field.

Image @ccarrIX via Twitter

The stadium is largely empty as two visiting fans make their way through the home team’s bleachers.  The visiting team came over 1500 miles on a bus, and these visiting parents drove almost that same distance.  Had the game turned out differently, the visitors might have had a chance at making the playoffs, but these parents are not disappointed. They had gotten to see their son play his last college football game in a beautiful setting.  As they moved toward the exit, they said that their son had always wanted to play a game in the snow, but since his college is in Kentucky, that had never happened, until today.  They think it was a sweetly fitting note on which to end his college career. The offensive lineman’s father says, “We will be cheering for the Johnnies in the playoffs. It would be great for our son to be able to say that his last game was played in the snow against the eventual national champions.”

Image gojohnnies.com

One of the Johnnies is interviewed about the game.  After some questions about the playoffs, he is asked what it was like to play in these weather conditions.  He smiles delightedly and says, “It was like being a kid again and playing snow football in your backyard.”

How many D1 football players had as much fun in their games before tens of thousands in the stadium and hundreds of thousands of TV viewers? I’d venture to say not very many.

By |November 13th, 2018|Categories: Alumni, Kudos|0 Comments

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|1 Comment

Do Clever and Kind Go Together? *

Welcome to faculty, staff, parents and especially to the 2018 candidates for induction into the  Theta of Minnesota Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and among its most prestigious academic honor societies.  I am delighted to be with you here on this gorgeous spring day in Collegeville to celebrate your academic successes.

I’d like to share with you a quote from the Polish-born American Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel that I think is very appropriate for this academic occasion at our Catholic and Benedictine institutions.

Near the end of his life Heschel said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

Now that I am well into at least early middle age, I have lived long enough to find that I agree with Rabbi Heschel’s observation—to a point.

Ever since I came to Saint John’s in 1977, I have lived almost entirely in the academic world, either as a student, faculty member or administrator.  In this world it is completely natural and appropriate to admire people who are academically successful—intelligent, creative, quick, insightful—“clever people” in Heschel’s phrasing.  I too admired these people and still do, but I also came to realize, even during my undergraduate days, there were other human traits that were at least as admirable as intelligence.

As Heschel describes his changing views, his quote suggests, at least implicitly, a juxtaposition between clever and kind.  Is Heschel possibly suggesting the two can’t go together?  Villains in literature and film are almost always clever, while the good souls are often at least naïve and sometimes even simple.

As we are here today to honor our most academically successful students, I think it is important to recall that one of the incredible strengths of our Catholic and Benedictine academic institutions is that while we absolutely celebrate academic rigor, we also honor and try to live by Benedictine values—with an emphasis on respect for individuals and commitment to community.

In my experience, clever and kind very often do go together.  In my 40 years of association with SJU, I have found the vast majority of the most exceptional individuals I have met at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s are both clever and kind.  Being one in no way diminishes the other.

At CSB and SJU we believe in the importance of both cleverness and kindness, and that is what we are celebrating today as we honor you as the newest members of the only Benedictine PBK Chapter among the 286 institutions that host a chapter.

I encourage you to take all that you have learned and developed at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s with you as you leave our institutions.  I wish you the best as you use your cleverness and kindness for your future success and for the good of the world.

*A version of these remarks was given at the PBK induction ceremony on April 25, 2018.