Benedictine Hospitality: “Wanna race?”

Three Johnnies smiling at cameraAs one of the public faces of Saint John’s, I get the opportunity to meet many of the guests who come to our campus. Invariably, first time visitors make two observations about Saint John’s. First, that we have a stunningly beautiful campus and second, that everyone is so friendly. One visitor even asked whether we taught our students to identify guests and then to hold doors open and say hi to them!

The first comment is not so surprising. The monks chose brilliantly when they decided that the woods and prairie around Lake Sagatagan would be home to the Abbey and University. The second compliment is perhaps a little more surprising since many of our campus visitors are from Minnesota, a state that has a well-deserved reputation for nice and polite people.

But after so many of these conversations, I have become convinced that our Benedictine hospitality and sense of community does set us apart, even for Minnesotans. What is particularly striking is that this behavior just becomes second nature for faculty, staff and students. The latter group pick up on the social ethos quickly and make it their own, as the encounter below suggests.

Sarah Gainey, the Environmental Education Coordinator at Saint John’s Outdoor University, recently wrote the following to football Coach Gary Fasching, and I am using it here with her permission:

I work at Saint John’s Outdoor University coordinating outdoor field trips for visiting preK-12th graders from the surrounding area. We normally hold our field trips outdoors in the Abbey Arboretum, but because a lack of snow this week, I was holding indoor field trips for 5th graders in the McNeely Spectrum. I would like to share with you an amazing interaction I witnessed last Thursday between members of your football team and a 5th grade class visiting Saint John’s.

The class arrived early to eat lunch before our field trip. After they ate, they were allowed to run around the track, but were instructed to leave anyone alone who was in there working out, which included 3 members of the football team doing conditioning drills. As a few of the 5th graders crossed the track in front of the football players, one young man said to them, ‘Hi there! Wanna race?’ The wide-eyed look of excitement on the boys’ face was priceless and they responded, ‘We aren’t allowed to.’ I quickly intervened and said, ‘Go ask your teacher if it is okay.’

A few moments later, the entire 5th grade class was lined up and ready to race the 3 football players. After a ‘ready set go’ everyone ran as hard as they could and the football players beat all the 5th graders. It wasn’t how the race ended that was memorable, but instead the way the players treated the students that is going to be remembered by every student, teacher, and Outdoor U staff member that witnessed the interaction.

These were kids from a school in St Cloud with a high poverty rate and who have to deal with a whole host of issues no one that age should have to worry about. My main objective is to instill in these and all the kids who come to Saint John’s for field trips a love of science and the natural world. But often times the field trip ends up being more about life, having a positive exposure to a college campus and college students, and about just being a good human being. Your football players helped me achieve that second objective probably without even thinking about it. They were just being kind and welcoming to a group of kids who will remember that day for a long time.

I didn’t get the players’ names but I did shake their hands and thanked them for what they did. And I wanted to thank you for having those kind people on your team. Those kids might not remember what I tried to teach them about science that day, but they will remember how they were treated by people at Saint John’s.

SJU Football Player

Photo: Richard Larkin McLay ’17

As Sarah notes, this simple, and mostly likely, reflexive kindness on the part of these three Johnnies may well have an impact that  reaches far beyond what the young men might ever imagine.

One of the biggest challenges our country faces in the years ahead it to address the achievement gap between students of color and majority students, a gap that is significantly larger for boys than girls. To take full advantage of the talents of this generation of young people, they will need post-secondary education, and the best way to make that happen is to instill in these children an assumption, at an early age, that college is not only a possible option but that it is an assumed option for most of them.

For relatively underprivileged elementary school children to come to a college campus and discover that people are nice to them, that college students are friendly and approachable, and that you have fun hanging out with them is a tremendous step in the right direction.

I am glad that Sarah did not get the name of the young men involved. Pick your favorite three Johnnies–it was them.

By |January 31st, 2017|Categories: Higher Education, Kudos|1 Comment

John Gagliardi Strikes Again

Last spring it was the Ivy League.  In an article entitled, “Ivy League Moves to Eliminate Tackling at Football Practices,” the New York Times wrote:

Ivy League football coaches have decided to take the extraordinary step of eliminating all full-contact hitting from practices during the regular season, the most aggressive measure yet to combat growing concerns about brain trauma and other injuries in the sport.
The move could influence how other football programs, from the youth level to the professionals, try to mitigate the physical toll of football, which has been played on Ivy League campuses since the 19th century.

The story says the move was inspired by Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens who started this policy with his program all the way back in 2010.

Now the NCAA is following suit by proposing changes to rules governing college football practices.  In a Wall Street Journal article by Matthew Futterman, the rationale and proposal are described:

In an effort to reduce concussions and other injuries, the NCAA is recommending that college-football teams abandon two-a-day practices and scale back the number of full-contact days.
The proposal, distributed to schools by the NCAA Sport Science Institute on Tuesday, would significantly alter the way college football teams prepare for competition.

As the article notes – and as the comments from WSJ readers attest – the policy is likely to meet with some resistance from players and coaches who think the policy might make players less prepared for actual game situations or even change the very nature of the game.  Interestingly, later in the article, Futterman notes that the new proposal actually would bring the NCAA practices closer to NFL policies, which were led by player concerns and were codified in the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement:

The changes in the NCAA preseason rules would bring it closer into line with the NFL, which has significantly cut back on full-contact practices. The league largely eliminated contact in off-season training and all preseason two-a-day contact sessions in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. The league now allows just 14 full-contact practices during the 18-week regular season, but 11 of them have to occur in the first 11 weeks and many teams don’t even hold that many.

John GagliardiAll these goings on might be mostly amusing to Johnnie football fans and players.  Of course John introduced these policies at Saint John’s well over 60 years ago and did so by simply applying common sense, as there were no longitudinal studies of head injuries; the science of brain trauma was in its infancy and players were just supposed to shake off concussions.

But on another level, these rule policy changes are not simply amusing because they affect the health and safety of football playing boys and young men – and not just as players, but over their lifetimes.  They might also even affect the future of football as a game, as the new understanding of risks raise questions for parents and the liability associated with injuries raises financial issues for teams and programs.

So it is important – both as an academic concern of simply getting the history right and a matter of justice – to recognize the role that John Gagliardi had in this sensible rethinking of how football practices are run and how players are treated.  I know of no coach who was as far ahead of his time than John.

However proud we are of John for his legacy of winning while educating successful men of character at Saint John’s University, the football world and future players owe John recognition for a legacy that is at least as important as his winning record, and will continue to touch lives for decades to come.

In an interesting coincidence, the WSJ story is introduced with a picture of two football players practicing, clad in red jerseys and white helmets. The caption says they are Nebraska football players. I prefer to think of them as Johnnies–as in the picture below.

By |January 24th, 2017|Categories: Kudos|0 Comments

Student-Athletes: Oxymoron?

The latest news came from Notre Dame.  “NCAA: Notre Dame must vacate wins after academic misconduct.”

According to the NCAA, the trainer was employed by the athletics department from fall 2009 through the spring of 2013 and “partially or wholly completed numerous academic assignments for football student-athletes in numerous courses” from 2011 into 2013. It said she did substantial coursework for two players and gave impermissible help to six others in 18 courses over two academic years. The NCAA said the woman “continued to provide impermissible academic benefits to football student-athletes for a full year after she graduated.”

But the news was only surprising because of the academic excellence of Notre Dame.

A few days later it was Cal State Northridge’s basketball program.

A story from Inside Higher Education this summer argued that there was an “epidemic” of academic fraud, with 15 Division I programs being punished in the last decade, including well-known institutions like Syracuse, the University of North Carolina and Southern Methodist University.

As Ohio University professor of sport administration, David Ridpath, put it:

It’s an epidemic and a problem that will continue until faculty take control of their campuses.  This can be changed, but we simply have to want to do it. This will not stop until we define what we are: professional sports being played in the higher ed space or a co-curricular activity played by students?

It can be enough to put one off Division I sports.

Fortunately at the Division III level the picture is very different.  Sports are part of a holistic education that combines learning inside and outside the classroom.  In D3 there are no scholarships and no big money to be made through television contracts.  Students truly do play “for love of the game” and athletes must perform (on their own) in the classroom or lose their eligibility.

Saint John’s University has a long tradition of recruiting smart athletes who take their academics as seriously as their athletics.  John Gagliardi’s 60 years of football graduates and Jim Smith’s 50 years of basketball graduates are filled with doctors, lawyers, CFO’s, college professors, CEOs and PhDs.  And the same is true among all other sports. A coach recently told me about getting his own healthcare from one of his former athletes.

I was reminded of this long tradition when the 2016 Academic All-Americans were recently announced for football.  There were 24 First-Team Academic All-Americans in football across the country this fall (they are listed below).  Three of them are from Saint John’s.  The only school to match that number was Carnegie Mellon University, the #24 US News ranked research university in the country, which happens to also play D3 sports.  Pretty good company.

On the second team of Academic All-Americans, there were two University of St. Thomas players, but that was it among the MIAC schools, one of the best athletic and academic conferences in the country.

Congratulations to Carter Hanson (also the only D3 Campbell Award finalist and the winner of this year’s Gagliardi Trophy which recognizes excellence in athletics, academics and community service), Lucas Glomb and Jack Pietruszewski.  We are proud to call you Johnnies. Many thanks to you and our coaches for reminding us that college athletics can be about true student-athletes playing a sport at a high level for love and not for money – a thought to bring a little cheer to the holiday season.



Pos.   Name   School   Yr.   Hometown   GPA   Major
QB Gavin Glenn Coe Sr. Adel, Iowa 3.81 Public accounting
WR Brendan Lynch Case Western Sr. Sarver, Pa. 3.45 Chemical engineering
WR Soren Pelz-Walsh Castleton Sr. Dummerston, Vt. 3.99 Physical education
TE Travis Lankerd Olivet Sr. Battle Creek, Mich. 3.95 Insurance & risk mgt.
RB Sam Benger Carnegie Mell. Jr. Hingham, Mass. 3.65 Business admin.
RB Duke DeGaetano Whitworth Sr. Bend, Ore. 3.82 Psychology
OL Cordell Boggs Gettysburg Sr. Taneytown, Md. 3.74 Biochemistry
OL A. DiFranco Albion Sr. Warren, Mich. 3.86 Accounting
OL W. Tyler Reid Carnegie Mell. Sr. Lees Summit, Mo. 3.70 Electrical engineering
OL Kyle Stucker Wabash Sr. Franklin, Ind. 3.82 Rhetoric
OL Elliot Tobin MIT Sr. Minnetonka, Minn. 3.92 Economics
K Alex Potocko Salisbury Jr. Clarksville, Md. 4.00 Physics / mathematics
DL Tim Bahr Concordia-Chic. Sr. Hartland, Wis. 4.00 Secondary ed / math
DL Michael Daniels Augustana (IL) Sr. Geneseo, Ill. 3.99 Accounting & finance
DL Brian Khoury Carnegie Mell. Sr. Davenport, Iowa 3.49 Electrical engineering
DL   Jack Pietruszewski    Saint John’s   Sr.    South St. Paul, Minn.   3.86    Environmental studies
LB Jack Campbell Johns Hopkins Sr. Chagrin Falls, Ohio 3.88 Biology
LB    Carter Hanson    Saint John’s   Sr.   Blue Earth, Minn.   4.00   Global business
LB Andy Warsen Elmhurst Sr. Wyoming, Mich. 4.00 Finance
DB Conlan Aguirre Hardin-Simm. Sr. Abilene, Texas 3.89 Math education
DB Corey Hunsberger Marietta Sr. Washington, Pa. 4.00 Petroleum engineering
DB    Lucas Glomb   Saint John’s   Sr.   Woodbury, Minn.   3.84   Biology (pre-PT)
DB Jack Toner Johns Hopkins Sr. Western Springs, Ill. 3.78 Economics
P Ryan Anderson Olivet Sr. DeWitt, Mich. 4.00 Business admin.
By |December 16th, 2016|Categories: Higher Education, Kudos|0 Comments