ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — When Glenn Caruso took over as the head coach at St. Thomas four years ago, he believed this perennially unremarkable football program could become a consistent winner and even a national power.
Success has sure come quickly. The Tommies will take their 13-0 record to play defending champion Wisconsin-Whitewater on Saturday in the NCAA Division III semifinals, the first time in school history they’ve been this far. They’re averaging more than 40 points per game, and their defense has given up only 40 points total over the last nine games.
This, from a team that went 2-8 in 2007. This, from a program that began in the late 1890s and once featured Vince Lombardi Jr. but played in the postseason only four times before Caruso came and not since 1990.
The formula for transformation Caruso brought was simple.
He sought certain players, with the skills for his on-field schemes but also the willingness to work hard at rebuilding, rely on and trust their teammates, and express the confidence to share in his aggressive vision. They had to be guys who embraced the well-rounded college experience emphasized heavily in the NCAA’s non-scholarship division, where academics and community are as important as much as the sports themselves.
“We believe that balance can be struck here,” Caruso said.
Caruso added: “I don’t understand, in today’s society, all the attention directed to style over substance. There’s this idea that things need to be bigger and better and quicker all the time, and that was not our ideal. We were not going to allow that to penetrate our culture. We want these kids to leave here as good fathers, good husbands and good leaders, just as much as we want good football players.”
The Tommies will need to be good on Saturday to keep their championship hope alive.
Only Mount Union and Whitewater have won more games than St. Thomas since the start of the 2009 season, but that’s a tough two-team clique to crack. They’ve played for each of the last six championship games, known as the Stagg Bowl, and Mount Union — the Ohio university in Saturday’s other semifinal against Wesley of Delaware — has 10 of the last 18 titles.
Whitewater’s streak of 43 straight victories is the fifth-longest in college football history.
“You try to find weaknesses,” James said, “but it’s dang near impossible to find them.”
Caruso’s first recruiting class included a running back from suburban Chicago named Colin Tobin, who hoped to play for an Ivy League school and also considered attending Macalester, another Division III school a few blocks from St. Thomas where Caruso previously coached.
“His vision was inspiring. It was something I wanted to be a part of,” Tobin said.
Tobin added: “Right away that first year, you could hear people talking about the new coach and the new style that we were bringing and the new face of Tommie football on campus, and it’s only grown stronger each year. I think people are finding it to be a pretty trustworthy team.”
Fifty career touchdowns for Tobin later, the Tommies are 43-6 since Caruso took over as a 33-year-old. They went 7-3 his first year, then 11-2 and 12-1, advancing to the national quarterfinals each of the last two seasons.
“When he wanted the job I think he knew it was there. There was a large foundation of support that wasn’t really tapped before,” said junior center Curtis James. “He gave new life to the program.”
With an undergraduate enrollment of more than 6,100, by far the largest in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, a business school that produces plenty of prospects for the area’s many Fortune 500 companies and a tree-lined, limestone-framed campus located halfway between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, St. Thomas has a lot of built-in advantages for attracting elite Division III-level athletes.
But while most of the other sports thrived, football has frequently been so-so, perpetually overshadowed — and beaten — by rival St. John’s and coach John Gagliardi, who has more wins than any other college football coach in history. Student apathy toward attending the games was apparent for decades.
With Caruso’s guidance, the environment has changed.
“You beat St. John’s 63-7 and by the time you’re back in your locker room, you’ve got 81 texts. And I’m a guy with limited texts,” he said.
St. Thomas games are now broadcast by WCCO radio, the strongest AM signal for hundreds of miles. O’Shaughnessy Stadium has had turf, new seating and an enhanced sound system added in recent seasons. Right behind is a gleaming $52 million multi-purpose athletic building, which opened last year and includes drastic improvements for the team like open-face oak lockers.
The natural reaction around the MIAC, in light of the Tommies’ sudden surge, has included grumbling claims that St. Thomas is becoming a small-college version of the Yankees.
“St. Thomas as an institution is making a pretty sound commitment to excellence in whatever area they choose,” Caruso said, “and we don’t feel like we have to be apologetic about striving for that excellence.”
Several MIAC schools have made facility upgrades in recent years, actually, signs that the so-called arms race that steers major college football has trickled down. But as most people in Division III circles will mention, the benefit is just as much for the entire student body as it is for the sports teams.
These upgrades were in motion before St. Thomas started going undefeated.
“We’ve worked like have none of it,” Tobin said. “Our work ethic has stayed the same all four years. … You can’t credit 13 wins to new facilities and things like that. It comes from the work that’s put in by the individuals.”
According to Dan Dutcher, the NCAA’s vice president for Division III, close to 25 percent of the students at Division III schools participate in athletics. The institutions are encouraged to offer as many sports as possible, even though none of them produce revenue like football and basketball do in Division I. With 40 percent of NCAA member schools in Division III, it’s the largest class.
“We don’t want this to be just Division I or Division II light,” Dutcher said.
There’s a clear mission at work at this level, one the NCAA took exhaustive steps toward refining in the last decade. Redshirting was eliminated in 2004, another differentiation from the scholarship levels of sports.
St. Thomas has become a place where players like James, a walk-on at Minnesota, have rediscovered a love for football after deciding the Division I experience was not for them. Instead of devoting 40 to 50 hours per week to the sport, he’ll carve out 20 to 25. The stadium is a lot smaller and the games aren’t on TV, but the trade was worth it, James said, reflecting on what he called an otherwise-positive experience with the Gophers.
“You can just get so caught up in all the politics and all the drama, it was like, ‘When do we just play football?’” James said.
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