MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It’s one of the oldest rivalries in college football.

On Saturday, St. John’s will play host for the annual Johnnies-Tommies game.

St. John’s and St. Thomas first played each other in 1901.

One-hundred-and-fourteen years later, there is a new twist on the historic rivalry.

ESPN is bringing its “SportsCenter On the Road” show to St. John’s University Saturday morning.

“It’s friendly that way, but believe me, St. John’s wants to win,” said St. John’s athletic director Tom Stock. “St. Thomas wants to win. Their fans want to win. It matters.”

Fourteen of the past 16 years, St. John’s football has led Division III in attendance, and that’s likely to continue.

The Johnnies average about 9,000 fans a game on Saturdays. Thanks to ESPN’s presence they’ve added extra bleachers and they’re now expecting 14,000 fans or more this Saturday.

Among those in attendance will be legendary coach John Gagliardi. He coached the Johnnies for 60 years and won four national titles. Now retired, he’ll be another fan in the stands on Saturday — and he’s looking forward to it.

“We are happy to have so many fans and they are really die-hards, I tell you,” Gagliardi said with a smile. “I’m just happy we won a few more than we lost, otherwise I may have been gone a long time ago.”

While St. John’s students and faculty welcomed ESPN to campus, St. Thomas was holding a pep rally of their own.

Doug Hennes has followed the rivalry closely over the years and wrote a book about former St. Thomas standout I.A. O’Shaugnessy, who actually started his college career at St. John’s.

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I.A. O’Shaugnessy (credit: Doug Hennes)

“He played halfback and offensive line,” said Hennes. “He helped the Tommies win the state title in 1905.”

With ESPN raising the stakes on Saturday, it seems like the only thing missing in this Catholic rivalry is the pope himself.

“It’s just created a lot of excitement and a lot of hype,” said Hennes. “Fans are really, really excited.”

While the two schools began playing each other in 1901, they actually have not played every single year.

Overall, St. John’s leads the series 51 to 31, and there has been one tie.

John Lauritsen

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