‘It’s the greatest small-college rivalry in the country’

Jim Gagliardi, son of St. John’s University head football coach John Gagliardi, was quoted in a 1989 edition of The Aquin saying this about the annual Tommie-Johnnie football game. Twenty years later, his sentiments ring true as St. Thomas prepares for the trip to Collegeville, Minn., where another chapter in the historic rivalry will be written.

In years past, many Tommie-Johnnie games have been simply that – a rivalry game. This season, the matchup is that of two undefeated teams who sit together atop the conference rankings, which means the outcome is that much more important.

According to Ryan Klinkner of St. John’s athletic department, the last time the teams squared off at Clemens Stadium, home of the Johnnies, in 2007, they did so before an announced crowd of 12,123. With perfect records coming in and playoff implications fueling the always heated rivalry, the atmosphere in Collegeville is expected to be unprecedented.

“If the weather holds up, it could be a record game at St. John’s,” said Tom Stock, St. John’s athletic director. “We could be looking at 13 to 14 thousand people on Saturday.”

St. John’s is not unfamiliar to huge football crowds, and Clemens Stadium is well equipped to handle the crowds that will make their way to Collegeville. The stadium, which is often called “The Natural Bowl,” sits beneath large hillsides that funnel down and provide a venue for big games.

Clemens Stadium in Sports Illustrated’s top 10 destinations

<p>Clemens Stadium/Football.com</p>
Clemens Stadium/Football.com

St. John’s athletic Web site states that Clemens Stadium was included in Sports Illustrated’s top 10 “Dream Destinations” for all of college football. What Sports Illustrated considers a dream has been nothing short of a nightmare for the St. Thomas football team in recent history.

St. Thomas has lost nine straight games against St. John’s at Clemens Stadium, dating back to 1986. The Tommies have topped the Johnnies at Palmer Field and the Metrodome since then, but more than two decades have passed since a St. Thomas team won on St. John’s home field.

While history has stacked up against St. Thomas, it has no physical bearing on what takes place on the field Saturday. No one understands that better than St. Thomas senior place kicker Brady Beeson. Beeson transferred to St. Thomas after playing football for two seasons for Gagliardi at St. John’s.

Beeson said as clichéd as it sounds St. Thomas is treating the game just like any other.

“We need to just keep playing the way we’ve been playing,” he said.

The way they have been playing has the Tommies off to a 5-0 start and a national ranking in head coach Glenn Caruso’s second season. As someone who spent two years on the other sideline, Beeson knows how good Saturday’s matchup will be.

“They have quite a program up there. [Gagliardi’s] record and wins speak for themselves,” Beeson said. “But I’m happy to be here with coach Caruso. We have a great team.”

Late fumble ruined chance to beat SJU at home

Last year’s team gave St. John’s and Gagliardi everything they could handle. St. Thomas outgained the Johnnies 281 to 182 in yards and after a late comeback drive, St. Thomas appeared to have the game won. Then-sophomore running back Ben Wartman dove across the goal line, but the referee spotted the ball short just of the goal line with less than a minute to go. A fumble on the ensuing play gave St. John’s the ball with 19 seconds left, and a crowd of more than 7,700 watched as the Johnnies ran out the clock for a 12-9 win. St. Thomas was forced to walk stunned from the field with another epic defeat in the loss column against St. John’s.

But this year marks a new season for St. Thomas, and the team has a chance to erase last year’s memory and create one worth remembering for Tommie fans.

Stock summed up what thousands of fans are excited to see: “Come this Saturday, football is the show here at St. John’s. This is it.”

Jordan Osterman can be reached at jrosterman@stthomas.edu