ESPN will anchor two studio shows live from a college football venue on Saturday. You know of the first one – College GameDay will be live from Tucson No. 9 UCLA at No. 16 Arizona – but you may not be aware of the second. Before ESPN throws it to the desert, SportsCenter will be on site in Collegeville, Minn., for one college football’s oldest and most unique rivalries – the 83rd Tommie-Johnnie Bowl, pitting Saint John’s University against the University of St. Thomas.
Dating back to 1901, the two Division III Catholic schools have met annually since 1952 (St. John’s holds a 51-31-1 lead) but the schools have split the past four meetings. The squads enter Saturday’s tilt undefeated, with St. John’s ranked ninth nationally and St. Thomas 15th in the Division III coaches’ poll.
Equally important to what happens on the field (and what prompted ESPN to visit rural Minnesota in the first place) is the excitement the Tommie-Johnnie Bowl inspires between the two fan bases. The 2010 game set the Division III attendance record, and four of the 10 highest-attended Division III games of all time pitted these two rivals.
With just hours before the Tommie-Johnnie Bowl Edition of SportsCenter airs live to the nation (7-9 a.m. ET Saturday), FootballScoop spoke with St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso on how this came about, what it means and his scouting report for the game.
FootballScoop: When did you first learn this was happening?
Caruso: We had gotten word a few months ago that it was possible. Any time you hear something like that it’s exciting but it has to be tempered because you never know if it will really come to fruition. And then we got the word last week that they were going to cover our game. There’s a ton of excitement inherently that surrounds the Tommie-Johnnie Game and everything that goes on with it, and this has just kind of magnified it. It’s been a pretty awesome week.
FootballScoop: For someone who many not be familiar with the Tommie-Johnnie Bowl, can you explain the history and significance of this game?
Caruso: The two schools are about an hour and a half apart. Our school, the University of St. Thomas, is a bigger school in a metro area, the Twin Cities. Their school is a smaller school out in the country. Both schools are Catholic. Both schools are obviously very proud of their identity and their football team. It’s a rivalry that dates back to 1901, and the last several years, whether the game has been at our place or their place, the crowds have gotten enormous. We actually set the national Division III attendance record a couple years ago at about 17,000 with this game. It’s been a really, really strong rivalry for a lot of years. A lot of that has to do with two great teams going up against each other, it has to do with a lot of the same kids being recruited by both schools because of the location, and it has to do with a guy like John Gagliardi was a fixture in this rivalry for 50-plus years. Whether I’m on the the Johnny side of it or our side of it I think that’s something to be recognized.
FootballScoop: What’s it been like for your players, your program and your university to be inside the ESPN tractor beam for a week?
Caruso: It’s obviously a national stage. It’s pretty awesome. They were here all week long filming. They were here the other day just filming practice and they came back to do B-roll and interviews. Today we had a pep fest on campus and the SportsCenter bus comes rolling in from the main part of campus while there’s a thousand people screaming, so that’s pretty awesome. We’ve had our fair share of successes but let’s be honest, we’re not Alabama. We’re not on national television every single week. This will now be the fourth time in the last four years ESPN has national coverage of our games. For a Division III athlete that’s definitely the anomaly, and it’s a pretty cool experience.
FootballScoop: How do you see Saturday’s game shaking out?
Caruso: When we came in and we built our team we built it on running the ball and defense. Now that they’ve had a coaching shift, they kind of have come to the same spot that we did. You’ve got two teams that absolutely take a ton of pride in running the ball and stopping the run. Very similar. Both teams are going to be highly ranked in the country, top 10-15 depending on what poll you look at. What I do know is that every game that I’ve gone into in this rivalry, you expect that it could go one of a couple ways and it seems like it never does. You’ve got to be really good at figuring out how the game is flowing and then adjusting from there. It’s just one of those games where you have two tremendously familiar opponents of each other; if you don’t capitalize on the opportunity to adjust quickly then you’re behind the 8-ball. If you do, you’re in pretty good shape.