D3 College Football’s Best Rivalry: Johnnies vs. Tommies

SPECIAL to sportsfeelgoodstories.com by Gene McGivern, St. Thomas Sports Information Director.

 

Life is like a box of chocolates. Most of the time, that is.

An exception comes with the approach of the annual Tommie-Johnnie football game. This week, with the lead-up to game day, you always know what you’re going to get.

After two consecutive games played on the Johnnies’ campus in Collegeville, the 2011 edition of the St. John’s vs. St. Thomas football series returns to the UST campus and O’Shaughnessy Stadium in St. Paul. Kickoff is 1:10 p.m. this Saturday.

1946 St. Thomas vs. St. John’s Program

The annual showdown of two Minnesota Catholic universities was was once called the “So is your mother-of-all Minnesota sports rivalries.”

Four of the last eight games have been decided by three or less points. In all, 32 of the 79 meetings have been decided by seven or less points.

The rivalry has generated memories, winning streaks, streakers, funny moments and even a new word: Rurple. That’s the color you see when you scan the crowd, as red and purple shirts blend together in the same seating areas.

A little media hype and a lot of sunshine could produce enough “Rurple” to make a run at a UST stadium record for atttendance. The record crowd was 8,521 set 29 years ago, also for a Tommie-Johnnie clash. UST officials are bracing for a crowd of 10,000 to show up. Last year’s heavily-anticipated clash at St. John’s drew an announced crowd of more than 16,000, which is believed to be an NCAA Division III attendance record.

If you can’t make it over to St. Thomas, a live video produced by UST can be accessed at www.mnsportsnetwork.com. The game can also be heard live on the radio statewide on WCCO 830 AM, as well as on three affiliates of St. John’s radio network.

If Homecoming games are more about celebration, the Tommie-Johnnie battle is more about preparation. In days leading up to the game, the Division III pace at both schools shifts into a Division I gear. More media requests for interviews and credentials pour in. More administrative meetings are held to plan for extra security, parking needs, ticket sellers and concessions workers. More calls and e-mails come in with questions about tickets, parking and tailgating. More on-campus buzz resonates as students make their game-day plans. More adrenalin flows in practices. There’s an additional degree of focus and planning by the coaches and players for a game that has both tangible and intangible rewards for the winner.

Fans, parents and alumni make plans, and often talk with the enemy. Tommie and Johnnie alums mingle at their workplaces, churches, gyms and restaurants and engage in friendly smack talk. A few have standing wagers on each year’s outcome. Several families have dads and sons or brothers that have attended the opposite school.

Johnnies vs. Tommies

There’s no shortage of storylines again in 2011. This marks the 80th all-time meeting in the series, which began with a clash on Thanksgiving Day 1901 at Lexington Park in St. Paul. It also will be the 60th consecutive year the teams have squared off. Several key players on the field Saturday were recruited hard by the opposing school, and ex-high-school teammates regularly find themselves on opposing sidelines in this rivalry.

St. Thomas’ Glenn Caruso and St. John’s John Gagliardi

And there’s this nugget: Both teams are coached by out-of-state natives of Italian heritage. The Johnnies are led by an 84-year-old gentleman from Colorado named Gagliardi, the son of an auto mechanic. The Tommies are guided by a 37-year-old Connecticut native named Caruso, one of seven children and the son of a lawyer.

After a decade of St. John’s domination in the series from 1998-2007, all three games played since Glenn Caruso became the Tommie head coach have been thrillers. The 2009 and 2010 games in Collegeville each went to overtime after fourth-quarter excitement. St. John’s won 20-17 in 2009, but the Tommies won 27-26 in 2010. In a 12-9 Tommie loss in 2008, UST was denied a chance at victory in the final 50 seconds. A disputed non-call on an apparent touchdown was followed by a lost fumble near the goal line on second down.

Incentive couldn’t be much higher for the 2011 matchup. Beyond school pride, Saturday’s game has immediate implications for both teams.

Clemens Stadium, “The Natural Bowl,” at St. John’s University was the site for last year’s game

St. Thomas can end a seven-game home losing streak to the Johnnies, a streak that dates back to 1992. More importantly, UST needs a win to continue to control its destiny in its quest for an NCAA playoff berth and an MIAC title. A loss, though not crippling, would be damaging for the Tommies. St. John’s is coming off a bizarre 32-31 home loss to Augsburg. The Johnnies drove 72 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the final 90 seconds, and appeared to find the Johnnie magic that’s been missing over the last couple of seasons. Then Augsburg hit SJU with two Hail Mary completions in the last 18 seconds and stole back a victory as time expired. For the Johnnies, what better way to bounce back and salvage their season than to come into St. Paul and and beat their rival?

St. Thomas brings in a 4-0 record, No. 3 national ranking and an 18-game regular-season win streak. Even though St. John’s comes into the 2011 game with an uncharacteristic 2-2 record and has a less experienced team than past SJU juggernauts, longtime followers of this rivalry still expect a close game for four (or even five) quarters. Each of the last three games had a few mistakes and clutch plays swing the outcome. Longtime fans recall the Tommies’ stunning home upset in 1992. And in 2003, a Johnnie team that went on to win the national title trailed at St. Thomas late in the game and needed a field goal in the final seconds to avoid overtime.

One of the fascinating elements to the football rivalry is the incredible legacy of John Gagliardi, whose 63-year college coaching career includes 59 seasons in Collegeville. The guy his players call “John,” just one month shy of his 85th birthday, has 480 all-time wins, the most of any college football head coach. Since losing four games in a row to St. Thomas from 1954-57, Gagliardi has a 42-11 record against the Tommies.

The 2011 Tommies can become the first UST team since 1986-1987 to post back-to-back wins over the coaching legend. If UST stays focused all four quarters, reduces mistakes and makes enough big plays, many feel they will secure a “W” they can savor long after they hang up their helmets.

Tim Fischer is a senior development officer at St. Thomas. His work ethic and leadership as an all-district offensive tackle from 1980-83 led to his induction into the UST Athletics Hall of Fame. He still ranks a win over the Johnnies in his senior season with any of his career highlights.

“As a player, this game means everything,” Fischer said. “And for some alums, this game still means everything. As time passes you gain a perspective on what a great rivalry it is. My coach Mark Dienhart told us this before we took the field: ‘Over the years, you will run into St. John’s guys many times in the business world, in your neighborhoods, or at parties. What you do today will either help you or come back to haunt you. Play hard between the whistles and play with tenacity, but in the end how you perform today will determine whether you get bragging rights.’

“And Mark was exactly right. I’ve met, worked with and coached with a lot of St. John’s grads, and find them to be really good people. I think that’s one of the best things is to see how many successful guys there are today from both schools, guys that benefited greatly from a great college education at both schools.”

It’s fitting that this year’s game is played in O’Shaughnessy Stadium, which is named after Ignatius O’Shaughnessy. Long before he made his fortune in the oil industry and donated millions to Catholic colleges St. Thomas, Notre Dame and St. Catherine, O’Shaughnessy played in the football rivalry — for both teams. He was a Johnnie freshman in the first meeting back in 1901 and rushed for 76 yards in the St. John’s win. After a few classmates and he skipped a vespers service for a gathering in the woods, all were expelled from St. John’s. O’Shaughnessy took a train to St. Paul, admitted his error and threw himself at the mercy of a St. Thomas priest. He was given a second chance and enrolled as a Tommie, and starred in football and in the classroom in St. Paul before graduating in 1907.

O’Shaughnessy isn’t the only guy to suit up for both teams in this rivalry. Brady Beeson was a backup kicker for the Johnnies from 2006-2008. He transferred to St. Thomas in 2009 and was a standout as a senior for the Tommies. He made 7-of-11 field goals and 58-of-63 PAT kicks and helped the Tommies finish 11-2 and reach the NCAA playoff quarterfinals.

“No matter what the teams records are, it seems like the game is played close and is competitive,” Beeson said. “The days leading up to the game are fun. It’s an exciting time. At St. John’s, I know we always respected St. Thomas and didn’t dare take them lightly. It’s the same at St. Thomas, although with Coach Caruso, he always preaches a one-week-at-a-time philosophy. But certainly in this rivalry, it’s a little bit sweeter to take home a win.”

Beeson’s own “rurple” experience suiting up for each school provides the latest funny wrinkle in the rivalry.

“When I was kicking for St. Thomas in the 2009 game, I played against four of my old roommates — Andrew Gurbada, Steve Fuertsch, Russ Gliadon and Dan Franta,” Beeson said. “They were chirping at me pretty good during the game.”

Unlike that box of chocolates, you know what to expect as the 2011 edition of Tommie-Johnnie approaches. Count on another entertaining game and a fun atmosphere.

There will be some parallels to box of candy, though. You can expect a few nuts to show up, and you can be sure that one group — either the purple or red — will leave with a sweet taste in their mouth.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Gene McGivern has worked as a sports information director in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for 24 years, the last 18 at St. Thomas. An award-winning sportswriter, he authored a book on former Michigan and Iowa State coach Johnny Orr and co-authored a book with then Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green.  Check out Gene’s Blog at TommieSports.com

Photo Credits:

– Clemens Stadium:  Brace Hemmelgarn

– All other photos:  The University of St. Thomas

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Editor’s Note:  Check out coaching legend John Gagliardi’s acceptance speech from a few years back.

John Gagliardi Speech Video

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