The origin of the football rivalry between St. John’s and St. Thomas goes back, oh, a hundred years. It involves booze and an expulsion and a bazillion dollars in philanthropy, and it brings us to Saturday, where two teams coached by Italian-Americans of different generations will reprise one of best games ever played in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
“I love the history about it,” said Tommy Becker, a senior linebacker for the University of St. Thomas. “Do you know the story of Mr. O’Shaughnessy?”
That would be the late Ignatius Aloysius O’Shaughnessy, the namesake of O’Shaughnessy Hall, the gymnasium that was razed to build the $52 million Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex, where we sat early this week when Becker broached the subject.
The story is laid out in detail in this 2007 article in the college’s alumni magazine, but here’s the quick version:
O’Shaughnessy switches schools
The Johnnies and the Tommies met in football for the first time in 1901, and O’Shaughnessy’s 76 yards rushing helped St. John’s win, 16-0. The following January, the 16-year-old O’Shaughnessy and two pals were expelled from school for blowing off Sunday vespers to drink beer in the woods. (I’ll skip the Irish joke here if you skip the Italian joke later, OK?) O’Shaughnessy intended to take a train home to Stillwater but got off in St. Paul and started walking, eventually reaching the St. Thomas campus.
The Rev. John Dolphin, the university president, came upon a cold, hungry O’Shaughnessy and asked what he was doing. O’Shaughnessy told Dolphin the truth, right down to the reason for his expulsion. Impressed by the boy’s honesty, Dolphin accepted O’Shaughnessy as a St. Thomas student.
O’Shaughnessy captained the 1905 football team, earned a degree and eventually acquired great wealth as an oil magnate. Over a 35-year period, he donated more than $8.5 million to the school, including funds for the gym, the library and several classroom buildings. He gave millions more to Notre Dame and other colleges before his death in 1973.
“It’s funny how things work out,” Becker said.
Donations vs. trophies
No doubt. The Tommies got the money, and the Johnnies the trophies.
St. John’s has been THE team in the MIAC since forever under John Gagliardi, the winningest coach in NCAA history. Four national championships. Thirty-one MIAC titles, seven in the last nine years. Every once in a while some team comes along to try and knock the Johnnies off their perch, and Coach Glenn Caruso’s Tommie bunch is the latest. St. Thomas is 22-5 in two-plus seasons since luring the loquacious Caruso, a self-styled “overachieving Italian,” from Macalaster.
They almost had the Johnnies last year in Collegeville, rallying in the final 10 minutes after falling behind 14-0, sending the game to overtime on Greg Morse’s four-yard touchdown pass to Jake Friedrichs with three seconds left in regulation. St. John’s won the coin toss and deferred, which proved critical. Brady Beeson gave the Tommies the lead with a 28-yard field goal. But the Johnnies’ Kellen Blaser ran eight yards with an option pitch, leaping and extending the ball over the left pylon, for the touchdown that won it, 20-17.
“The thing I remember most,” Becker said, “is we’re just about to go into overtime and I go up to Dr. [Mark] Dienhart, an executive vice president here [and the former University of Minnesota athletic director] and I said, ‘Are you glad you came?’ He said, ‘I’ll be happy here if we win here.’ And I said, ‘You know, he’s right.’ I remember just saying that to him. And then we lost, and I felt like I let him down.
“It was bitter. I sat on that bench and watched the St. John student section storm the field, thinking that, I want that feeling, but … We were close, but we didn’t make it. Got to work harder to get there. It was just a bitter feeling, an awful feeling.”
Said Caruso: “It was, by a good chunk, the worst game we played in three years. I think what we learned from last year was, you can’t play a C-plus game going into rivalry week and expect to be successful.
“You’d be foolish to say St. John’s didn’t do anything to win it — they were very comfortable playing the type of game they played, more than we were last year. It was all on the line in overtime, they made the play and they won. For us to play maybe our worst game in a rivalry situation was not good to see.”
To a man, the Tommies rooted for a rematch with the Johnnies in the NCAA Division III playoffs. But it didn’t happen. St. John’s, after an undefeated regular season, lost to Coe College in the first round. The Tommies advanced to the quarterfinals, beating Coe in the round of 16 before Linfield of Oregon knocked them out. The Tommies finished 11-2, to 10-1 for St. John’s.
Another big battle
Both teams come back loaded, so Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff in the woods of Collegeville has been long viewed as the conference’s premier game of the season. St. Thomas comes in 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the latest D3Football.com poll, while 19th-ranked St. John’s is 3-1, losing 23-20 in overtime to Wisconsin-Eau Claire in a non-conference game. It’s pretty gutsy to schedule your big rival for Homecoming, but that’s what St. John’s did. Gagliardi, who hasn’t had a losing season since 1967, didn’t amass 474 victories by backing away from challenges.
A year ago, Becker did not expect be a part of this again. Becker enrolled in St. Thomas in 2008 after one redshirt season and one playing season at the University of Minnesota, as a Glen Mason recruit. The MIAC had been the only Division III conference in the country that counted redshirt years against a player’s eligibility, so Becker expected he’d be done last season. But last fall the MIAC changed the rule, thrilling Becker, who still needed a year of school to finish his degree in entrepreneurship. Becker will be one of five fifth-year seniors among eight transfers expected to start for the Tommies on Saturday. (St. John’s started five transfers last week.)
By returning, Becker also mended a feud with Joe Schafer, an offensive line transfer from Wisconsin who played against Becker in high school. Shaefer carried a grudge from the 2005 State 5A Championship, when they battled across the line from each other. Becker and Wayzata beat Schafer and Cretin-Derham Hall, 28-24, and Schafer played much of the game with a broken toe after Becker stepped on his foot.
“It’s all right now, though,” said Schafer, from Mendota Heights.
Now, they have a common goal. St. John’s officials anticipate as many as 15,000 people for the game, which would set an MIAC stadium record. Reserved seats are already sold out, and general admission goes on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday. Parking? Better get there early.
“I get even more excited for this game than other games, and so does everyone else,” Becker said. “Around campus, the feel is rejuvenated almost — professors asking about the game, students walking by and saying good luck on Monday and the game’s not until Saturday. It’s pretty overwhelming. Not much has to be said to the new guys. They kind of get it for the vibe we have.”
A vibe more than 100 years and millions of dollars in the making.