John Gregory has succeeded in football by keeping it simple.
Be it as a player — Gregory's high school team went unbeaten in his junior and senior seasons — or coach, Gregory has succeeded over his 68-year involvement in the game with a limited playbook.
Simplicity is something Gregory, a former CFL head coach with Saskatchewan and Hamilton, addresses in his newly released book 'So You Want To Be a Football Coach' (available on Amazon for $24.95), which he penned with his wife, Carolyn.
It's an approach that's worked well for the 80-year-old Gregory, a native of Webster City, Iowa. A four-sport athlete in high school, Gregory was an elite all-state selection as a senior running back-linebacker-kick returner and earned a scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa.
Upon graduating to the coaching ranks, Gregory won a championship at Iowa Central Community College, two Grey Cups (assistant with Winnipeg in '84, then as Saskatchewan's head coach in '89) and five division titles in the Arena Football League.
He was named coach of the year in both the CFL and AFL and is a member of eight Halls of Fame, including the University of Northern Iowa (2003), Saskatchewan Roughriders Plaza of Honour (1996) and Webster City High School (1994). Gregory served as the commissioner of the National Arena League before stepping down after the inaugural '17 season.
Gregory has remained busy since. In addition to becoming an author, Gregory has conducted coaching clinics — most notably for the Mexico City-based International Arena Football League, which is scheduled to begin play this year — while scouting for CFL and NFL teams.
Gregory's book includes a quarterback training plan, not a surprise considering Gregory coached Kurt Warner (Pro Football Hall of Famer), Aaron Garcia (two-time AFL offensive MVP) and Matt Nagy (Chicago Bears head coach) in the Arena ranks. It also lists football plays, simple play-calling methods, practice and installation plans, quarterback reads and a conditioning program.
But Gregory also discusses the value of simplicity, a lesson he learned from the late Harley Rollinger, his former head coach at Webster City High School.
"You don't need many plays," Gregory said. "When we came to play football in the fall, he (Rollinger) gave us our playbook and on offence it was two sheets of paper hand-written and one sheet on defence.
"We had about four run plays and three pass plays. Sometimes we put in a new wrinkle, however not very much."
But it worked. Rollinger compiled a 172-31-8 career record and eight times posted an undefeated season. Still, sometimes Rollinger's players questioned his approach.
"Halfway through our senior year (when) we were undefeated, some of the players asked me to talk to (Rollinger) and see if we could add a few plays," Gregory said. "The players felt we'd been running the same plays since junior high and people knew exactly what we were doing.
"He said, 'Oh really? Do (opposing teams) know which way we're going to run the play?' I said, 'No, I don't think so.' He said, 'If we block them up will the play work?' That was the end of the conversation."
When Gregory assumed his first head-coaching job at Lake City (Iowa) High School, he adopted Rollinger's principles. The result was a 6-3 record in his opening season.
"So now I think I'm pretty smart," Gregory said with a chuckle. "I go to all these coaching clinics and saw a guy whose book I read who had formations by colours — red, blue and black — and certain plays he ran from each.
"I thought that was a really good idea because people would never know what we were running so the next year that's what I did. Well, we lost our first six games. I looked at the film and nobody knew who they were blocking or what they were doing. So for our last three games we went back to the Harley Rollinger offence and won all three."
During Gregory's tenure as the athletic director/assistant football coach at Iowa Central (1967-70), the program went 24-3-1 and won the '69 Wool Bowl with an offence consisting of four running plays and five passing plays. Gregory also recruited the late John Matuszak, a hulking defensive lineman who went first overall in the '73 NFL draft to the Houston Oilers.
"When we played in the '89 Grey Cup (where Saskatchewan edged Hamilton 43-40 on Dave Ridgway's late 35-yard field goal), we only had four running plays and I think seven pass plays," Gregory said. "We had some other pass plays on the chart just in case, but we ran the same routes for most of the game.
"At the end, we did hit a post route on the backside that put us in position for the field goal."
During his AFL tenure with the Iowa Barnstormers, Gregory teamed up with Warner, who'd later lead the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title. Gregory also enjoyed Arena League success with Garcia and Nagy under centre, always going with a handful of offensive plays.
And it was Garcia who reminded Gregory about the importance of sticking with what works.
"We're playing against New Jersey and ran a play with receiver Mike Furrey (now the Bears' receivers coach) called Z Option31 10 times in a row," Gregory said. "Mike was extremely quick and could get open and when they doubled him we'd hit the underneath routes and go down the field and score.
"There was another play I liked so I went to Aaron and suggested we go with it. He said, 'Why?' I said, 'Well we've run that play 10 times in a row,' and he asked, 'Why wouldn't we run it again?' So I said, 'OK,' and we ran it five more times. You know how many points we scored that game? Ninety-nine."
Another lesson Gregory carried into coaching was writing commitment notes to himself. He first did that as a five-foot-six, 126-pound high school player.
"I told my friends I was going to be a first-team all-state player as a senior and get a scholarship," Gregory said. "They all laughed at me and made fun of me like, 'You're not even going to have a chance.'
"I went home and cried all the way and sat down on my bed and felt what a fool I'd made of myself. But I wrote a note to myself that I was going to make all-state and get a scholarship. I put it in my drawer and looked at that every single day."
Gregory also did that in 1983 when he came to the CFL as Winnipeg's offensive-line coach.
"When I first went to Canada I wrote a note to myself that I wanted to be a head coach and win the Grey Cup and I pointed towards that," he said. "I never told anyone, but I made a commitment to myself."
And it was Gregory's grandmother who taught him the importance of patience and determination. Each Sunday, Gregory and his family had dinner at his grandmother's residence, where he'd also play checkers with her.
"She beat me every time," Gregory said. "I'd get mad and tip the board over, I was a really bad sport.
"One time, my aunt and uncle and mom and dad asked my grandmother to let me win just once. But she said, 'John will win when he deserves to win.' And then I beat her, then I beat her again and again.
"The city had a kids' checkers tournament and I won it going away and got a nice trophy, my first trophy. I won when I deserved to win and I've always remembered that."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press