|Yeah. It's a big venue. This is St. Thomas' year to host the rivalry game with St. John's, and that's why they're the home team in Minneapolis at Target Field.
Minnesota Twins photo
By Adam Turer
Don't let the unique location or record-breaking attendance numbers distract you. This game is about one thing, and one thing only: who will emerge as the frontrunner for the MIAC crown.
Yes, it's a rivalry. Sure, it's arguably the most hyped regular season game in D-III history. But for those involved, Saturday's showdown between the Tommies and Johnnies (or Johnnies and Tommies — this rivalry is so fierce that it actually matters to many which nickname comes first), is just the next big game on the schedule.
Filling the house
The NCAA does not recognize a record for single-game attendance in a Division III football game. Attendance counts are self-reported and most often are estimates rather than actual head counts. Here are the highest of those reported counts, for games between two Division III teams. Six of the top 15 are Tommie-Johnnie games, five of them played at St. John's.
Source: D3football.com research
17,535: UW-Oshkosh at UW-Whitewater, 10/8/16
“We just reiterate what we try to do every week and focus on having really good practices. If you do that, it eats up your days pretty quickly,” said St. John’s senior linebacker David Franta. “Guys that have been down the Johnnie-Tommie road before with all the hype know how to prepare. Everybody realizes this is going to be the best team we’ve played so far this year. Everybody realizes we’ve got to do everything as close to perfectly as possible. It’s just a more hyped up Johnnie-Tommie game. It’s going to be a cool atmosphere.”
The Tommies are the home team, something neither side takes lightly. This event was first discussed about five years ago. With the Minnesota Twins on a lengthy road trip and St. Thomas scheduled to host, this year made the most sense.
“I think the simple fact that playing this game in a venue like Target Field which allows for 30,000-plus people to watch the game speaks to both the excitement and demand that a game like this creates, as well as validating that playing at Target Field was the right decision,” said St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso. “There have been a lot of great college football games played throughout the nation at the Division III level over many, many decades and to be the team to set and hold an attendance record like this one is an absolute honor.”
Would St. John’s have given up its home field advantage to host this game at the Twins’ stadium? Likely not. But are both sides excited about the opportunity? You bet.
“I would have done it — better at a neutral site than at St. Thomas!” proclaimed former St. John’s coach John Gagliardi. “I think it will be a great game.”
“It’s all people are talking about around here,” said current Johnnies coach Gary Fasching. “To be honest, I haven’t mentioned any of that to our team. We know it’s going to be our biggest challenge of the year. We’ve got to stay grounded and stay focused.”
While the Johnnies are adamant that they would not agree to take a home game off of their campus, they are still excited about the opportunity to play a road game against St. Thomas in a special venue. This will be a groundbreaking and record-setting day for all of Division III football.
“It’s going to be a great venue, a great atmosphere for D-III football,” said Fasching.
Over 30,000 tickets were sold as of Tuesday. This will likely double the previous record attendance, set at last year’s UW-Oshkosh/UW-Whitewater game. (Not that the NCAA tracks record attendance for Division III games. That’s something D3football.com has compiled.) Once the game begins, all of the hype will become secondary. This isn’t a novelty neutral location game between non-conference powers; this is a longstanding conference rivalry with a playoff berth possibly at stake, especially after St. Thomas’s surprising early-season loss to UW-Stout.
The rivlary between St. Thomas and St. John's has blown up in terms of attendance, and has gotten more competitive on the field as well. St. John's had won 13 in a row before the Tommies won in 2010 and St. Thomas has won five of the past seven, including a postseason game.
|2007||at SJU 51, UST 34||12,123|
|2008||SJU 12, at UST 9||7,711|
|2009||at SJU 20, UST 17||12,903|
|2010||UST 27, at SJU 26 (OT)||16,421|
|2011||at UST 63, SJU 7||10,421|
|2012||UST 42, at SJU 21||14,286|
|2013||SJU 20, at UST 18||10,800|
|2014||SJU 24, at UST 14||12,483|
|2015||UST 35, at SJU 14||17,327|
|2015||at UST 38, SJU 19 *||8,025|
|2016||UST 33, at SJU 21||16,514|
|* NCAA playoff game|
“Everybody thought it was a cool thing. Once the season starts, it’s kind of in your head, but you still have those first three games of the season to focus on. Now that we’re actually in to this week, it’s coming up fast and we’ve got to be prepared come Saturday,” said Franta. “It’s definitely not going to hurt us at all being at Target Field rather than at St. Thomas. The only way to make the playoffs for sure is to win your conference. It’s a rivalry, but it’s a conference game. It’s easy to look at the rivalry, but also it’s a big conference game.”
Neither coach is concerned about his players’ ability to shut out the noise and focus on the task at hand. Both perennial Stagg Bowl contenders and playoff teams have been in big games before. This game could be played at Target Field, U.S. Bank Stadium, or a backyard in Minnetonka. The ramifications will still be the same.
“Our kids are pretty sharp. They know there’s going to be hype surrounding it, but they take it in stride,” said Fasching. “They all have a great affinity for this university, so they want to represent us in a great way.”
“We don’t hide anything from our players. We know emotions are going to be high regardless. Having the opportunity in front of that many people is unique,” said Caruso. “I think what we should all enjoy is the game itself. It’s two really good football teams, it’s a rivalry game. I think that gets lost in all of this. It’s about our league, both teams, the rivalry. I really think when you think about all the positive attention that’s been turned to these two schools and this conference, it’s going to be a great thing.”
John's legacy unrivaled
|John Gagliardi remains a fixture at St. John's home games.
2010 d3photography.com photo by Tim Ward
The Tommie-Johnnie rivalry has only grown more intense since Gagliardi hung up his whistle following the 2012 season. But he's not done teaching yet, at least for one more semester.
Now 90, Gagliardi is a living legend. His legacy resonates with this game and within the entire Johnnies program. He is respected by opponents and revered by his former players. So revered, in fact, that one of them wrote a book about it.
Warren “Boz” Bostrom played for Gagliardi in the early nineties. He returned to the St. John’s campus in 2004 as a professor. That’s when he reconnected with his old coach. Their friendship became something more when Boz started co-teaching Gagliardi’s popular Theory of Coaching course, now known as Leadership Lessons with John Gagliardi.
After spending time with John in his office, classroom, and home, Boz decided to document the many stories he was already sharing with family and friends.
“Time after time, I was always fascinated by something in the way he treated people,” said Bostrom. “There was a variety of little things that I saw that I had never seen before as a player. He was always trying to learn something.”
The humble coach had been approached about his biography before. His expectations were low at first.
“I thought well, it’s going to be a long, hard process. Writing a book is not easy. Boz had never attempted it. It’s not easy to put those thoughts down. A book is a long time,” said Gagliardi. “I figured, let him try it, and who knows, he might produce one.”
A Legacy Unrivaled: The Story of John Gagliardi was published in 2016. After reading it, I feel like I owe St. John’s a semester’s worth of tuition for auditing the class. Bostrom reached out to more than 200 former Johnnies players, and nearly 60 made the cut to have their memories included in the final print. The book gives a look into how Gagliardi treated not just his football players, but all of the students he interacted with on a daily or weekly basis.
“There’s so much to learn from him, I wanted people to have that resource of his whole body of work, especially from a former player who could tie a lot of those years together,” said Bostrom. “I wanted it to be something that would inspire others as well as honor the whole (Gagliardi) family.”
Gagliardi loves to learn even more than he loves to teach. The course’s final exam has been to email Gagliardi two things each student learned during the semester. The coach printed out each response and stored them in a file cabinet.
“The class was certainly special for me because one, I was a student employee in the sports information office, so I sort of had a relationship with him already. He at least knew who I was. And two, I took the class months after he broke the all-time wins record and SJU won the national championship,” said Ryan Klinkner, now the Athletic Media Relations Director at his alma mater. “All of the press coverage made him a celebrity. This class showed he was human.”
The class was originally open to only aspiring football coaches. Playing high school football was a prerequisite, and most of the class time was spent breaking down game and practice film. Then, the course evolved into what it still is to this day. There are guest speakers, life lessons, and even females in attendance (St. John’s and nearby St. Benedict, separated by six miles, are each single-sex schools but collaborate on co-curricular classes.)
“I don’t know about other classes, but what I find about most teachers or at least the ones I had, they were more interested in having you memorize whatever they were going to talk about that day. They were testing you, but I’m not sure you ever actually learned everything,” said Gagliardi. “I think the stuff we’re doing is applicable for all times and forever, and we’re not trying to trick them into memorizing a false answer. It’s part of life, answering the problem of the day or the moment.”
One of the big reasons why Saturday’s game is going to shatter attendance records is because St. John’s alumni stay so connected to the program. The current players also understand and appreciate the history of the program. That history is in many ways the John Gagliardi story.
“I’m hoping that our players understand the history of this place. That’s something I always try to impress upon our players: the history of this game not just here at St. John’s, but across the country, and John’s a big part of that,” said Fasching. “He left a mark on this program. We really haven’t changed a whole lot. We may do a few things differently, but the basic things that John did while he was here are the same. I think our kids embrace that they get to play at a great place where there’s a lot of history.”
After the book was published, Gagliardi heard from dozens of alumni and also from other coaching legends like Larry Kehres, Vince Dooley, and John Harbaugh. Most of the Johnnies envy Boz’s relationship with their former coach.
“It’s an amazing opportunity. So many of the former players remind me constantly of how lucky I am to have this relationship with him and get to tell his story. I’m just trying to make the most of it,” said Bostrom. “When someone emails you and talks about what they learned from John and can apply to their own lives, that’s the most gratifying thing. That’s what really spurred me on to write the book.”
The notoriously self-deprecating coach couldn’t help but joke about the final result.
“I thought it was very complimentary and it was nice to hear so many nice things,” said Gagliardi. “Maybe some of those things can be reproduced as my eulogy.”
Here’s one more, from the Johnnies’ biggest rival:
“What stands out more than anything else and that I respect at the highest of levels is his longevity. Wins, winning percentage, championships, those are all impressive. To me, what’s really impressive is that he was an institution at his institution,” said Tommies coach Glenn Caruso. “Nowadays, you don’t see that as much, guys that invest their families and careers at one place. What sets John’s legacy apart is his longevity. It’s impeccable. I think it’s something that coaches from my generation can learn from and aspire to.”
As part of my attempt to rekindle a love for football, I’ll be reaching out to players all season long to give them space to explain why they love the game. This week is Grove City’s Gabe Greco, whose passion for the game has not been deterred by the fact that he and his teammates are still seeking their first collegiate win.
Football has been an integral part of practically my entire life. My dad has coached football for over 30 years, so I came to love the game at a young age when I was introduced to it. From first throwing a tiny plastic football around with my father in our yard to now playing college football, I have loved the game all along the way. I did not really get to choose that football was going to become such a big part of my life at first, but I certainly learned to love the game throughout my childhood.
I still love football to this day because of how relevant it is to a young man’s life. There are lessons that cannot be learned in a classroom, and football has taught me many lessons I could not have learned without the experiences I have had playing the game. Thanks to all my coaches, teammates, and experiences, I have learned valuable life lessons that will greatly aid me in my life after school. From dealing with adversity to establishing a vision to embracing a hardworking mentality, my experiences as a football player have influenced my life greatly in a positive fashion. Along with all the lessons I have learned that will help me in life, I love football because I get to enjoy an amazing game with people who I have built lasting relationships with. I will not be able to play football all of my life, but because of football I have built lifelong relationships with those around me. Thanks to football, I get to learn new things every day and build great relationships and that is why I still love the game.
The Wolverines are seeking their first win since the 2013 season finale.
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There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!