Reusse: St. Thomas succeeds in D-I but lacks rivalries, recognition

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

The final four games of the St. Thomas-St. John's football rivalry were played in three locations and attracted announced crowds that totaled 90,394.

The Tommies won the first two: 33-21 in 2016, with a Johnnies' then-record crowd of 16,514 in Collegeville; and 20-17 in 2017, in front of a Division III record-shattering official attendance of 37,355 at Target Field.

The Johnnies won the last two: 40-20 in 2018, on the week that St. John's legend John Gagliardi had died and 16,922 spectators were counted in Collegeville; and 38-20 in 2019, with 19,508 at Allianz Field.

By then, it was known St. Thomas was getting the boot from the MIAC after the 2020-21 athletic season. The Tommies applied with the NCAA to make an unprecedented move from Division III to Division I, and that received final approval on July 15, 2020.

The plan then was for one final D-III game with the Johnnies — and to be played on Nov. 7, 2020, in front of 40,000 or more spectators at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The pandemic wiped out fall football in the MIAC, and the attempt to play the game in the spring of 2021 never came close to fruition.

The Johnnies' opponent on Saturday is St. Scholastica, the small Duluth school that took the Tommies' spot in the conference, although at the bottom, not near the top.

This could've been Johnnies-Tommies Week; instead, St. John's challenge against woeful St. Scholastica will be trying to keep the margin well below the 98-0 that occurred in the 2017 nonconference opener, when then-Saints coach Kurt Ramler refused requests to go to running time.

St. Thomas moved to the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League in 2021. There are 11 like-minded FCS programs sprawled from coast to coast.

The Tommies' football rivalries here in the home base — with St. John's, with Bethel, with Concordia (Moorhead) and Gustavus — might be gone, but here's the good news for coach Glenn Caruso with the Pioneer:

"You don't have to worry about lopsided games,'' he said. "Drake has lost a bunch of games in a row, but it played us tough. Presbyterian is at the bottom, but it had us down at halftime last week in South Carolina.

"It's competitive, top to bottom.''

That's an excellent change for Caruso, considering it was some of the beatings his powerhouse teams gave to the MIAC's second tier through the 2010s that led to the refrain: "St. Thomas doesn't belong in the MIAC.''

A revised and popular theory has become that the Tommies wanted out – and that "throwing them out'' was the MIAC's narrative to assist in St. Thomas' effort to skip D-II and land in D-I.

What I know for sure is that, as far back as 2017, the Tommies were beating Carleton 63-0, Hamline 84-0 and, finally, St. Olaf 97-0, and there were MIAC contacts calling to say:

"The presidents are fuming and they want to throw 'em out.''

On Saturday, St. Thomas will be home for the biggest game of its two seasons in the Pioneer:

The University of San Diego Toreros will be in St. Paul. They have won 12 of the past 16 Pioneer titles. They also have the only two Pioneer wins in the FCS playoffs (as non-scholarship underdogs) — in 2016 and 2017.

St. Thomas leads the Pioneer standings at 4-0, and there are five teams with one loss. San Diego is 2-1, with a game at Stetson canceled due to Hurricane Ian.

Yes, big game for Tommies, on what's forecast to be a fine fall Saturday. The crowd should top the 6,177 and 6,588 for the previous two PFL home games, but …

St. Thomas students are on break this week. By most accounts, the students have been quicker to adopt to the new schedule than other generations of Tommies.

"You know what you're missing,'' I said to Caruso this week. "The Johnnies, Bethel … the teams that your fans want to see get beat even when they aren't playing St. Thomas. Nobody's checking the Marist score.''

Caruso nodded and said: "It's not my job to do more than get a bunch of committed young people to play winning football. And to be where we are in only our second season at this higher level, I would hope our alums are happy.

"What I do know, seeing the weekly results, is you can fall from the top to the middle in a hurry. This should be an outstanding game.''

As for name recognition for opponents, there's this:

Next Sept. 16, Caruso and the Tommies will be in Cambridge, Mass. to play Harvard, first named a national champion in 1874, in its season opener.

I'm in for that one. How 'bout you?