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Sad part of Tommies’ ambition: It risks the end of a special rivalry

If UST succeeds, Saturday’s annual St. Thomas-St. John’s football game may be the next-to-last in the MIAC’s most popular rivalry. UST is scheduled to exit the MIAC in the spring of 2021.

Tommy football
The University of St. Thomas is scheduled to exit the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in the spring of 2021.
Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas

Whether you like the University of St. Thomas or not — and plenty of you don’t — give the Tommies this: They think big. Their Hail Mary attempt to go directly from Division III to Division I, bypassing Division II, reflects the institutional ambition that irritated certain university presidents, leading to UST’s ouster from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). 

The NCAA specifically put in rules prohibiting such a move, protecting institutions and athletic departments from financial ruin if they jumped too far, too soon. That’s also why the NCAA requires a conference invitation before reclassification, which UST secured from the Summit League. While the Tommies await an NCAA ruling on their waiver application — UST athletic director Phil Esten said it can come at any time — life in the MIAC continues. 

Here’s the sad part: If UST succeeds, Saturday’s annual St. Thomas-St. John’s football game may be the next-to-last in the MIAC’s most popular rivalry. UST is scheduled to exit the MIAC in the spring of 2021.

The Johnnie-Tommie game dates to 1901, rich with lore, gamesmanship and provocative T-shirts, for a trophy that vanished several years ago under (allegedly) Johnnie control. The Johnnies dominated throughout famed Coach John Gagliardi’s 60 seasons, winning 43 times. Things began to even out when Coach Glenn Caruso arrived at St. Thomas in 2008. Now the game can go either way, with the winner usually claiming the conference title and its automatic NCAA Tournament bid. 

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The rivalry outgrew UST’s campus and barely squeezes into Collegeville anymore. Since 2010 Johnnies-Tommies featured five of the six largest crowds in D3 history per, topped by the unofficial D3 record 37,355 at Target Field in 2017. Saturday’s expected sellout crowd of 19,400 at Allianz Field, the new home of Minnesota United, will make it six of seven. (The Target Field mark is on borrowed time, given the 39,000 advance sale for Ithaca and Cortland State next month at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.)

“The legacy of the Tommie-Johnnie game extends far beyond the MIAC,” said Esten, a 1995 UST grad and former Tommies baseball player. “If that does go away, that’s one of the saddest outcomes — an unintended consequence, I suppose, of getting kicked out of the MIAC.

“Frankly, some of my best friendships after college have been with Johnnies. That’s one of the really unique things about that rivalry — competitors on the field, but really close friends off the field. I think that’s a pretty neat thing about it.”

St. John’s opposed the movement to remove St. Thomas, and did what it could to head it off. The whole thing still annoys Johnnies far and wide. 

“When word came out last spring that St. Thomas wasn’t going to be in our league any more, I was disappointed and saddened by it,” said Johnnies Coach Gary Fasching, St. John’s Class of ’81, who played for, coached with and succeeded Gagliardi as head coach. “Our rivalry with them goes back a long time, and it’s been great in every sport. To lose that is sad.

“From a standpoint of St. John’s, we love the rivalry and we love the relationship that we have. Even though people put us in opposite spectrums, there are a lot of commonalities between the two schools. We battle it out, but there are a lot of relationships between the two schools, between students and players. The MIAC is such a great league, and I have such respect for every coach and every team in our league. To see it not remain intact is disappointing from my standpoint.”

For what it’s worth, Fasching would love to see Johnnies-Tommies continue in non-conference play. That’s unlikely if the Tommies move up. Should the NCAA grant UST’s waiver request, Esten said the Tommies would apply for membership in the Pioneer Football League, a non-scholarship conference in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA). Then it’s up to the PFL to extend an invitation, which isn’t guaranteed.  

Games between FCS and D3 schools aren’t unheard of — South Dakota State beat Wisconsin-Oshkosh 41-3 in such a matchup in 2014 — but there’s little benefit for the higher-division school to play down. Same if the waiver fails and UST lands in D2. The Tommies appear unlikely to remain in D3 after all this, but stranger things have happened. Like getting bounced from the MIAC in the first place. 

“We love the rivalry,” said St. John’s senior quarterback Jackson Erdmann, last season’s Gagliardi Trophy winner as the best player in D3. “It’s so special. It’s so historic. It’s kind of mind-blowing for me to think about it coming to an end. But I’m fortunate that I got to experience it for my four years, and I had the ability to play in it.”

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For now, Johnnies-Tommies holds the usual MIAC championship implications. St. John’s (5-0 overall, 4-0 in the MIAC) ranks fourth in both national polls, while UST (4-1, 3-0) is 11th in one and tied for 13th in the other. UST’s 21-19 loss to UW-Eau Claire marked only the second in 24 non-conference games under Caruso. But it likely means the Tommies can’t lose another, or risk missing the NCAA playoffs for the second consecutive year. 

“You lose one game, more likely than not you can be home for Thanksgiving,” Caruso said.

Last year the Johnnies routed the Tommies 40-20 on an emotional afternoon in Collegeville. Six days after Gagliardi’s death, Erdmann threw for a school-record 470 yards while the defense forced seven turnovers, ending a four-game losing streak to the Tommies. And this Johnnies team may be even better. Erdmann ranks third nationally in passing efficiency, throwing for 1,485 yards and 16 touchdowns with two interceptions. The Johnnie defense stands No. 2 in the nation in rushing defense, permitting 37.8 yards a game. 

“We’ve got something special brewing up here,” Erdmann said.

UST counters with senior All-American Josh Parks leading a strong running game, one that will test the firmness of Allianz’s freshly-resodded soccer pitch. The Johnnies know all about Parks, a former University of Minnesota preferred walk-on who enrolled briefly at St. John’s in 2015, then moved on to UST before classes began. Last year Parks ran for a career-high 256 yards in Collegeville with a school-record 92-yard touchdown; this season he’s averaging a MIAC-best 120 rushing yards per game. He can’t wait for Saturday.

“It’s going to be electric,” Parks said. “When you think about college football in our division, this is kind of the pinnacle of it.”

Better catch it while you can.