On a sunny August morning, during football practice in Collegeville, running back Stephen Johnson caught a short pass and turned to run the ball upfield.
A linebacker appeared ready to stop him with a punishing tackle, but the defender merely wrapped his arms around Johnson. But the tackle never came — no hit, no pop, no one thrown to the ground. The play simply slowed to a walk and ended.
On Saturday, when the Saint John's Johnnies kick off their football season with a home opener in Collegeville, the players will be ready for hits from Northwestern College. They may well be better able to absorb them, having been spared such physical punishment in practice.
It's a philosophy that John Gagliardi, head coach at Saint John's University, has followed for nearly all of his 64 seasons. The team plays in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in NCAA Division III.
"We make contact," he said. "But it's like almost touch football."
Limited contact in practice flies in the face of conventional football culture, in which many coaches seek to build tough and imposing teams. But as concerns about injuries and concussions in contact sports grow, Gagliardi's approach is becoming more mainstream.
Not only does it limit injuries, but as the most winning coach in all of college football Gagliardi, 85, has shown it can work. The only drawback of coaching, he said, is "seeing people hurt."
“They thought I was nuts! ... The only thing that saved me is that we were winning.John Gagliardi
That attitude — one where injuries are the worst of all possible things — has been a cornerstone of Gagliardi's coaching philosophy for decades. Brain researchers say it's an approach that makes sense — so much so that across the nation, his methods are receiving attention and a handful of converts.
College and high school coaches and leagues are adopting guidelines that limit contact during practices to prevent life-long injuries and concussions.
SAFETY PAYS OFF
If Gagliardi's record is any indication, the limited contact in practice also may pay dividends on the field, where he has 484 wins, 133 losses and 11 ties. He boasts four national titles and 30 conference championships.
Gagliardi came to St. John's in 1953 from Carroll College in Helena, Mt. Then 26, he already had several conference titles and a decade of coaching experience under his belt. But the old-timers were ready for him with advice.
"When I first got here, we had a guy, an assistant coach who thought we should ... 'hit more,'" Gagliardi recalled. "And in spring football we'd try it. And it seemed like every time we did somebody would get hurt more than we'd like."
Games in which key injured players could've made the difference frustrated the young coach. He said by the late 1950s, the team had moved completely away from tackles and full contact during practices — a far cry from hard hitting drills still common elsewhere today.
"They thought I was nuts!" Gagliardi said of other coaches. "The only thing that saved me is that we were winning. Otherwise you're so far out of the picture. You're so different than anybody that you couldn't, couldn't explain it unless you won."
Decades later, other colleges are starting to replicate Gagliardi's approach.
Last year the Ivy League announced that during the season it would limit teams to two full-contact football practices per week.
Gagliardi's approach has directly influenced Eden Prairie High School head coach Mike Grant, the son of former Minnesota Viking's head coach, Bud Grant, now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Mike Grant played for Gagliardi in the 1970s and later served on his coaching staff.
Grant said the contact-driven practices that typically come with the old-school, military coaching style are inefficient because they can limit a team's game-day players to the survivors of tough practices. Often, he said, such drills have nothing to do with football.
"You get people hurt in it so that your best players aren't playing in the game, which ya know is kind of a fundamental thing," he said. "You want your best players to play. But not all coaches think that.
"John and I think our best players gotta play because you win with the best players."
Like his mentor, Grant has a record that supports his unorthodox approach. Eden Prairie has won seven state championships since he took over the program in 1992.
Grant said part of the high school game is learning, so his coaching staff teaches tackling. But they use foam pads and don't run full-contact drills.
"I'm not sure that hitting teaches it better, because when you're hitting kids aren't necessarily focusing and doing things the right way," he said. "We also are really concerned to not have kids have long-lasting physical problems."
REDUCING HEAD INJURIES
Chief among those concerns is head injury.
A study of three Division I teams published in 2010 in the Journal of Athletic Training reported that players took an average of 6.3 hits to the head per practice and 14.3 per game. By the end of the season, some players in the study received more than 1,440 hits to the head.
Once an athlete has one concussion, they're more susceptible to a second or third, said Kevin Guskiewicz, the founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center.
Guskiewicz, who studies sport-related brain injuries at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said for student athletes, concussions can create added challenges at a critical time for learning and development.
For those that have had multiple concussions, he said, "the research suggests that the recovery will be longer and that eventually there may be some consequences later in life."
Those consequences include an increased risk of depression and potential for a form of early onset Alzheimer's.
Guskiewicz said it's critical for athletes to think about life after sports. That's one of the reasons he calls Gagliardi's approach to limiting contact during practice "genius."
"The argument I think is that ... if you're not working on these techniques and skills in practice, but asking the athlete to do it on Saturday in a game, then are they potentially predisposed to injury," Guskiewicz said. "And I think he's sort of shot that theory down."
Some football players new to Gagliardi's team say limited-contact practices can take some getting used to.
"A couple of guys got tackled cause [they were] getting a little frustrated, so they started hitting a little harder," said Erik Roti, a freshman from Wayzata recruited by Gagliardi to play running back. "John kind of looked at us [and said] 'I don't know why you guys need to, feel the need to tackle each other. You're all on the same team. You're running plays how you're supposed to. Let up. You can still practice well and let up when you're about to hit.'"
Gagliardi said there will always be skeptics. But he brushes them aside.
"When you're one of the first to do something, you're ridiculed," he said "Then you better win otherwise you're not going to get a chance to do it very long. Fortunately we won."
It's impossible to know how many injuries Gagliardi's coaching style has prevented. What does stand is his record, championships and legacy.