I wasn’t able to watch or listen to the St. John’s-St. Thomas game on Saturday so I spent much of my afternoon refreshing Twitter on my phone, searching for updates from St. Cloud Times writer Frank Rajkowski and a handful of fans at the game. It’s not an enjoyable way to follow a football game; the only thing worse might be attending an NFL game and being surrounded by drunks, felons and drunk felons.
And so I learned on Twitter that the Johnnies upset the No. 2 team in the Division III rankings, holding on for a 20-18 victory when St. Thomas missed a field goal on the final play of the game. It was the Johnnies’ first victory over the Tommies since 2009 and followed two straight routs at the hands of their rivals. A month ago, when I wrote about Gary Fasching taking over for John Gagliardi, I included a line about simply wanting St. John’s to beat St. Thomas and nothing else this season would really matter. The Johnnies did, and suddenly every game from here on out does matter.
The result shocked me as much as anyone, including the Tommie fans who watched their first-ever football game in the hours before their blood alcohol level went from .1 to .3. My prediction had been for a 42-7 St. Thomas victory, figuring this year’s game would go much like the past two years when the Tommies either overwhelmed the Johnnies from beginning to end — like they did in 2011 — or pulled away in the second half, like they did in 2012. The Tommies hadn’t lost a regular season game since 2009 — which came in OT against the Johnnies — and they had won 27 MIAC games in a row, one away from the record held by…St. John’s.
And that dominance by the swells from St. Paul is what proved especially maddening about the past few seasons. I didn’t get as worked up as other fans about some of the Johnnies struggles. The 7-3, 6-4, and 5-5 records of the past three years certainly weren’t what SJU fans had grown accustomed to, but a look at the team’s history under Gagliardi showed that there had been other down years like that. History also showed the Johnnies always bounced back and always bounced back to become a national contender. Gagliardi didn’t dominate every one of those 60 years in Collegeville, even if it felt like it. His greatness played out in how average years were only sprinkled in among the great ones.
No, what made these past three years truly different in Collegeville was what took place at the same time in St. Paul, where Glenn Caruso finally showed St. Thomas what geography and money could accomplish if paired with a great coach. The Tommies got better every year and finished second in the nation last year. It’s one thing to watch the Johnnies struggle; it’s something else when the Tommies succeed at the same time.
The Tommies-Johnnies rivalry is strange in many ways. Yes, one school is in the big city and the other is in the woods, but they’re both private Catholic universities and countless students would have gone to the other school if they didn’t pick the opposite one. Their graduates are getting the same business jobs that still probably won’t pay enough to easily pay off the ridiculous debt racked up at both schools. This isn’t like my old school Worthington Community College battling against the Tommies or Johnnies. It’s more like a sibling fight. Then again, sometimes no one fights like family.
Caruso proved especially annoying to SJU fans. Complaints about his arrogance are commonplace, as are other things that make Johnnies roll their eyes even while St. Thomas fans are bowing down to his likeness and acting like he’s the second coming, if not of Jesus himself then of Thomas Aquinas. For instance, in a Star Tribune story last year Caruso talked about the family atmosphere at St. Thomas. It’d be bad enough using that cliche about a sports team but the Tommies went one step further, creating rubber bracelets “printed with one word: FAMILY.” Caruso told Rachel Blount “the acronym stands for ‘Forget about me, I love you.'” Even from their cramped cubicles, Tommie worker bees could hear the guffaws of Johnnies from the executive offices down the hall. SJU fans also scoffed at Caruso’s habit of leading the team onto the field while holding hands with two Tommie players. Pictures make it look like the Tommie players and their leader are preparing for an especially vicious battle of Red Rover. It seemed like a “look at me” move, the general storming the beach with the troops, especially in contrast with the longtime coach of the Johnnies, who casually strolled onto the field after the players took it. And if there was any doubt about where Gagliardi came down on the idea of hand-holding, former Johnnie defensive lineman Ryan Bielat wrote on the d3football.com board that he “went through a berating at the hands of John Gagliardi for hand-holding in the defensive huddle.”
Of course none of those thing would bother SJU fans if the Tommies didn’t do anything on the field. That’s the real issue with Caruso — his superb coaching ability. He performed near-miracles at Macalester and turned a near-moribund St. Thomas program into the conference’s best and a national contender.
Saturday’s result doesn’t erase any of that. And it hardly guarantees St. John’s the conference title. The 3-0 Johnnies could easily be 0-3, winning their games by a combined eight points. If the Johnnies lose games against Concordia-Moorhead, Bethel and Augsburg this season no one would be surprised. The MIAC is loaded, with three teams in the Top 25 and five teams receiving votes.
Still, SJU’s victory again has Johnnie fans feeling confident, or at least grateful for having bragging rights against the Tommies. Fasching has started his Johnnie career with three thrilling victories and already one that feels like a game-changer. It’s a great moment for Fasching, the longtime assistant who wasn’t necessarily the top choice of many to take over for Gagliardi, a position held by Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant. Three games in it’s impossible to make long-range predictions, especially at a school where fans take 60 years before taking the full measure of a coach’s career.
But Fasching and the Johnnies accomplished more than many thought possible, even a week ago. Even if there’s no real reason to, Johnnies can again feel superior to Tommies in their everyday life, because for one Saturday they once again proved superior on the football field.