Friday, May 10, 2019

Success is all relative: A look back at St. Thomas football before and during the Caruso era

Play action from the Tommie-Johnnie game in 2011.
They should have won the game. For those that want to be salty about it, the Tommies were robbed. At the 1-yard line with a minute to play, running back Ben Wartman was handed the football and tried to break his way toward the goal line through the pile of players up the middle, looking to break the plane for a touchdown. It looked like he made it.

But the officials didn't call it that way. 

Wartman was ruled down just short of the goal line on a score that would have given the Tommies the lead in the first rivalry game under head coach Glenn Caruso against St. John's on Oct. 18, 2008, at O'Shaughnessy Stadium. On the next play, at second down and inches, the handoff from the Tommies failed to connect and St. John's recovered the fumble with 19 seconds left on the clock to seal their 12-9 victory.

Photos released after the game clearly showed Wartman had reached the endzone, according to an Oct. 31, 2008 edition of The Aquin, the St. Thomas student newspaper.

"After watching the film with [the head of officials], it was clear it was not only discouraging the call was missed, but that there was no conference between the officials to discuss [the play]," Caruso told The Aquin.

That Tommie-Johnnie rivalry game during my senior year was probably one of the most exciting football games during my years as an undergraduate at St. Thomas, and the squad didn't even win. It was their best chance though. 

The Tommies came off a 2-8 season in which they started 0-4 for the first time since 1969, didn't win a game at home and ended the season with the resignation of their head coach Don Roney. The 2007 football team lost 51-34 at St. John's, allowed 30-or-more points in seven of the eight losses and turned the ball over 31 times over the eight losses. Roney finished his 10 seasons with a 54-44 overall record, 52-32 in the MIAC. 

During my time at St. Thomas, the football team went 19-20, going a combined 0-8 against St. John's and St. Olaf. Attending a football game wasn't a top priority for a lot of students on campus, because let's be real, everybody loves a winner. Even those students that attended often made a mass exodus somewhere around halftime. Maybe homework seemed like a better option. 

Playoffs weren't on the radar, let alone competing for a national championship. There was no big radio deal with WCCO; that came later in 2011. The phrases "move up to DII or DI" weren't in the vocabulary when discussing St. Thomas football. 

Well, what a difference a decade and a new coach can make. 

One of my Aquin stories from 2007.
After Roney resigned on Nov. 13, 2007, Glenn Caruso was named to the head coach position the following January, hired at 33 years old by then-St. Thomas Athletic Director Steve Fritz, who retired as the AD at the end of 2018-19. Caruso is the 29th St. Thomas football coach and was chosen after a national search. Known for rebuilding programs, he came from down the street at Macalester College, where he inherited a program that went 0-9 and coached them to 2-7 and 4-5 records. He also helped to rebuild programs at North Dakota State and South Dakota.

The turnaround, once he arrived further west on Summit Avenue, was pretty immediate. It started with Caruso defeating Macalester in his first game on the St. Thomas side of the field with a 35-10 home victory. The 2008 Tommies finished with a 7-3 record, notching five more wins than the year's previous squad.

"The No. 1 thing that we want to do is we want to make sure that we change the culture around here and the attitude and the mentality that football is once again a dominant force on campus," Caruso told me before his first season with the Tommies, in an interview during my time as a student reporter on campus.

Though the word "culture" can often be seen as a cringe-worthy buzzword by some, Caruso certainly got the campus excited about football again. Seminarians were regulars at the games, "Caruso's Crew." There's now a victory bell and victory song. Right away, Caruso started a QB Club at the local watering hole, Plum's Neighborhood Bar and Grill, as an informal film session for an hour to discuss the previous and upcoming games with anyone from the public wishing to attend.

"The biggest thing we were looking for is somebody who really could kind of take this campus by storm," Fritz said.

Again, mission accomplished. 

Through 2018, Caruso carries a 118-19 record at St. Thomas, going 78-10 in the MIAC. St. Thomas had won a total of 97 games in the previous 17 seasons before Caruso arrived. To compare, he's won 118 games in his first 11 seasons under his "pride and passion" reign with the Tommies. They even went 10-0 with three perfect regular seasons from 2010-12. Twice he's led the Tommies to the Division III national championship game, the Stagg Bowl, with losses to the powerhouse Mount Union in 2012 (28-10) and 2015 (49-35).

When the Tommies won the MIAC championship in 2010 during Caruso's third season, it was the first time St. Thomas could claim that honor since 1990. The Tommies defeated St. John's 20-17 in a game played at Target Field in September 2017 with 37,535 fans in attendance. The two rivals also have plans to play on Oct. 19 at the new Allianz Field.

The Tommies ring the victory bell after a 2011 win over SJU.
So yes, there has been plenty of success for St. Thomas football under Caruso. They've dominated teams. They've become so good that there's a battle cry for them to "move up," which isn't as easy as fans think. 

But here's what I say: The success is all relative. St. Thomas helped found the MIAC 99 years ago, and the major dominance from the football team has come in the past decade. That's not that long.

That's why it seems so ridiculous about what's potentially, or even likely, to happen later this month. As reported by the Star Tribune last month, there's an effort among the St. Thomas MIAC rivals to expel the school from the conference. Nine votes would be needed out of the 13 schools in the MIAC. First, though, they'd have to change the league bylaws, since the only reasons on the books to expel a school at the moment included unethical or illegal behavior. That right there should tell you how absurd this is.

Any decisions regarding the issue were postponed at an April meeting, though the vote could happen later this month. If the vote is successful in ousting St. Thomas, the school would be out of the MIAC after the 2020-21 school year.

No one is really talking publicly about the situation, that is until I saw a story from the Star Tribune this morning in which the Augsburg president said there is a consensus to boot St. Thomas from the MIAC. The fact that everyone is being so quiet on the issue publicly is also rather odd to me. There can only be speculation as to which schools will vote in favor of tossing St. Thomas out of the conference.

The whole thing is mind-boggling. I completely understand other teams being frustrated with a good St. Thomas football team, one that defeated St. Olaf 97-0 in November 2017. I understand how that comes off as poor sportsmanship. I do. Running up the score and all that. But kicking the school out of the conference because you're mad about it, and having to change the rules in order to make that happen? It seems ridiculous.

By the way, the Tommies finished third in the MIAC in football last fall and didn't make the playoffs. Bethel and St. John's both made the postseason and are the two other powerhouse football teams in the conference.  If this vote goes through to oust St. Thomas, it's a slippery slope to see how long it will be before the rest of the schools come after the Johnnies and Royals. It's a precedent that shouldn't be set.

Even though the Tommies lost that close game to the Johnnies in 2008, it was still one of the greatest atmospheres to be part of for a football game on campus. The game at Target Field was a blast, as I'm sure it will be at Allianz Field. I'd hate to see that rivalry end. I'd also hate to see St. Thomas kicked out of its conference for some pretty juvenile reasons. 

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