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  • Writer's pictureRoss Pattermann

Trailblazing Tommies Complete Transition to D1

St. Paul, Minn. - It's the middle of July and the 2021 college football season is just weeks away. The best football minds in the media have released several FCS preseason polls, and at the top are the usual suspects.

There’s North Dakota State and South Dakota State, Montana and Montana State, James Madison, Sam Houston and plenty of other established programs with proven track records.

At the very bottom, the team expected to finish dead last in the rankings at season’s end, are the St. Thomas Tommies. Tommie head coach Glenn Caruso, who has been at the helm of the private Catholic school located in St. Paul, Minnesota since 2008, easily recalls that day.

University of St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso speaks to his team prior to their Pioneer Football League match-up with the Butler Bulldogs in Indianapolis on November 19. The Tommies defeated Butler, clinching their first ever PFL title. (PC: Dan Borgeson)

“I do remember that July day in 2021,” Caruso says. “I was in my truck and my son said we’re 128, and about ten seconds later he asked how many teams are in the division, and my daughter says 128. I think the follow up response to that from my son Cade is probably indicative of why were able to grow. His response to that was ‘That’s awesome.’ I think that embodies who we are as a program in that we are not assuming we deserve anything before we get the opportunity to work.”

You can forgive the prognosticators and pundits for their early dismissal of St. Thomas. After all, the Tommies were about to embark on a history making season. Not only was 2021 their first year in the Pioneer Football League, they are the first program in history to make the leap from Division Three and straight into Division One.

“My wife and I got married 22 years ago, and I remember our first year she asked what I wanted out of this whole deal,” Caruso says candidly. “I said I just want to do something that no one's ever done in the history of college football.” Wish granted.

Culture leads the way

Caruso places a heavy emphasis on culture, and ever since the Tommies became charter members of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) in 1920, they’ve enjoyed a culture of success. Under Caruso, St. Thomas has reached new heights, making two trips to the Stagg Bowl in 2012 and 2015. The Tommies won the league title for a seventh time in ten years in 2019 – their last in the MIAC and D3.

During that stretch St. Thomas went 55-1 against league opponents. Football isn’t the only thing the Tommies excel at, and over the last 20 years, the Tommies have won over 70 percent of all conference titles, prompting their rivals to vote them out of the MIAC in May of 2019. Caruso is also big on seizing opportunities, and he highlighted this when he broke the news to his players.

“It was posed pretty simply,” Caruso explains. “I said we had an opportunity to do something no one’s ever done in the history of college football, and they’ve been playing a lot of football since October of 1869 when Princeton first played Rutgers . . . and we will always see everything as an opportunity, whether it poses as good or if appears as bad at the beginning, and this was certainly something that was pretty good.”

The Tommies were granted a waiver from the NCAA to enter the ranks of Division One, with the majority of their athletic teams joining the Summit League. Caruso says it was the Tommies’ culture that got them through that first year, in which St. Thomas finished a respectable 7-3, losing only to perennial Pioneer Football League powers San Diego and Davidson.

“I couldn’t imagine going through a transition with a team that had any less than stellar culture because that’s what kept us focused and buoyant and on track in even in the toughest of times,” Caruso says about the Tommies first as a Division One program.

The University of St. Thomas football team holds aloft the Pioneer Football League trophy. It was the Tommies first PFL title in school history, and their first title as a FCS program after becoming the first program to transition from NCAA D-3 to the FCS in 2021. (PC: Dan Borgeson)

It was a strong debut, especially given that the Tommies came into the 2021 season without having played a snap of competitive football for 658 days after COVID-19 forced them to miss the 2020 season. Caruso was able to once again find the silver lining.

“I do think the opportunity that year in 2020 allowed us to focus only on the University of Saint Thomas football team, and no one else. It forced us to where we had to be thoughtful and humble and process oriented,” Caruso says. “I think that probably lessened the learning curve in making the jump. So again, not a net win with COVID, I'm not saying it is, but being that it happened, this program is always pretty good at trying to pull out the positives, and that that was one of the positives of that situation.”

Excellence is a habit

With one year in the PFL under their belts, the Tommies were confident going into 2022. Less than two years after being projected to finish dead last in the FCS, the Tommies exceeded all expectations – except, perhaps, for their own.

The Tommies began last season losing their first game to Southern Utah 44-13, but quickly rallied and went on a ten-game winning streak that culminated with revenge wins over San Diego and Davidson. And on a blustery and windy November day in Indianapolis, St. Thomas defeated the Butler Bulldogs 27-13. That victory secured St. Thomas its first ever D1 conference crown.

The Tommies finished 2022 with a 10-1 record, including a perfect 8-0 in the PFL, and were ranked inside the top 20 of the FCS in just their second season as a Division One program. The Tommies are the first program to move from D3 directly into D1. (PC: Dan Borgeson)

“I think the reason why we even had a shot was because our team, our coaches, our administration are routinely focused on what is the next right step to take at this moment,” Caruso said when asked about winning a PFL title so quickly. “It probably was not as sweeping a moment as Disney would make it if they were to do a movie about it, just because the intention of the program is to be process oriented, not results oriented.”

From projected to finish dead last in the FCS 2021, less than two years later the Tommies finished 2022 ranked 20th in the FCS. Normally a conference title comes with an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, however, under NCAA rules, St. Thomas will not be eligible for the postseason until 2026. This probation period is designed to give teams a chance to adjust to the step up in competition and avoid incurring financial losses from upgrading facilities and increased travel expenses.

Members of the University of St. Thomas celebrate winning the PFL title outright after defeating Butler 27-13 last year. It's the Tommies first conference title since winning the MIAC in 2019, and comes on the 100th anniversary of their first ever conference title. (PC: Dan Borgeson)

Caruso says he’s not concerned about the postseason just yet. He’ll worry about that when St. Thomas is eligible. For now, he concerns himself with the experiences his student-athletes are receiving during their time as a Tommie.

“Whether or not we win or lose, I want us to be able to consistently grow every day. Now I'm smart enough to know that if we grow a little bit every day, we will be just fine and be where we need to be relative to the metrics that other people look at,” Caruso says. “So, you know, the thought was, ‘This is great. It's a nice win, our program is moving in the right direction, but now we get to wake up tomorrow and work just a little bit harder to make everything right.”


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