Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #001. First published in the St. Cloud Times Aug. 28, 2007

"The renewal of human community."

Times Writers Group applicants were asked to say what their angle would be. This phrase, from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical & Cultural Research, where I was executive director from 1984-2004, is what I told them.

The Times requires a "news peg" for each column — a connection to something newsworthy that is happening, happened a little while ago, or will happen soon.

Earlier this month the University of Minnesota football team spent a training week at St. John's University, and not long before that, the Times had a story about Park Industries of St. Cloud being named among the 50 Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America. These are my news pegs.

Tim Brewster, the Gophers' head coach, waxed ecstatic about the symbolism. "It's going to be a tremendous opportunity for us to rub elbows with the winningest college football program in America."

He sounded awe-struck by John Gagliardi, like a teenager by a rock star: "When you can introduce a guy as the winningest football coach in the history of college football, that's truly an amazing statement."

But Brewster's admiration for Gagliardi stops short of emulation: "We have very, very different styles in how we coach our football teams."

Proven winner

Brewster's remark begs a question: Why has no other coach (as far as I know) adopted Gagliardi's approach? There is certainly no lack of evidence that it works.

Gagliardi's famous "no" list — no tackling in practice, no calisthenics before games, no coaches' whistles, no elaborate play books, to name a few — goes so against the grain of "the way things are done" that no one else seems willing even to give it a try. Gagliardi doesn't cut anyone from the team, lets the quarterback call most of the plays, and eschews hype.

Right after the Johnnies' victory in 2003 that put him ahead of everyone else, he said this: "We're happy with what we're doing. We're not looking for converts. We're not trying to do anything. We're not trying to change the world. We've got this little spot here in Central Minnesota we're happy with."

For more than half a century Gagliardi has been renewing human community on the gridiron. The bond his players have with each other, with him, and with the university is as tenacious as any human connection I've ever seen.

We have this treasure, but people, including Brewster, simply gawk, and don't go and do likewise, and I wonder why.

The right way

Another icon of our region is Tom Schlough, CEO of Park Industries, the largest maker of stonecutting equipment in North America. At a time when, according to many measures, typical CEOs receive compensation more than 250 times that of average workers, Schlough takes home less than 10 times as much as the average Park Industries worker.

"Nobody ever got excited about making the boss rich," he says, but across America, "making the boss rich" is most certainly "the way things are done."

Look no further than reports about the $26 million package for the CEO of Northwest Airlines coming after the airline's employees had taken huge financial hits.

Park Industries, with more than 300 employees, takes profit-sharing seriously and has one of the highest retention rates of any company in the country. It is well-known for actually living by its stated principle: "respect for the people we serve and the people we work with every day."

Right here in our neighborhood we have two outstanding renewers of human community. Gagliardi's style of coaching and Schlough's way of doing business aren't simply strategies.

They are expressions of a profound conviction about what we human beings are and what we mean to each other.

Gagliardi says "we're not trying to change the world," but if more of us tried to be like him and Schlough — respecting others and not bashing them, acknowledging the simple and revolutionary truth that we all do better when we all do better — the world would change.