Reusse: Bethel's ready for another go-around

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2011 - 6:35 AM

It was a grand year in the MIAC in 2010, when the Royals and St. Thomas went deep into the Division III football playoffs.

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Steve Johnson will begin his 23rd season as Bethel’s head coach on Saturday. Last year the Royals beat St. Thomas in the national quarterfinals before losing to Mount Union.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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The Robertson Center at Bethel University is nearing its 40th anniversary. The second floor houses the offices and the locker rooms for Bethel University's athletics.

A year ago, this had the feel of a place that you would expect to house Division III sports teams and other student activities.

Then, the University of St. Thomas opened its $54 million Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex last fall. Next door, the $66 million Anderson Student Center will be opening in January 2012.

On Wednesday, a visitor to the office of Bethel football coach Steve Johnson noted what has taken place with the St. Thomas facilities and then said:

"The word is the Tommies killed it in football recruiting -- that they were getting players that had interest from [Division] I-AA schools."

Johnson smiled slightly and said: "I'm sure that's true. St. Thomas had great players a year ago, and it's going to have them again. But I still think we might be able to gain 4 yards on the counter."

St. Thomas was 10-0 in the regular season and won a pair of playoff games. That set up a Division III quarterfinal vs. Bethel -- the first time two MIAC teams had met that late in the playoffs.

The Tommies nudged Bethel 10-6 on Oct. 23 at O'Shaughnessy Stadium. The rematch was again at St. Thomas on Dec. 4, and Bethel plowed to a 12-7 victory.

"We threw four passes," Johnson said. "We ran 46 Counter seven times in a row to hold the ball at the end of the game."

As the MIAC runner-up, Bethel was under the radar at the start of the playoffs. It went on the road to beat Wartburg (Iowa), Wheaton (Ill.) and then the Tommies. The run ended with a 34-14 semifinal loss to Mount Union, the D-III machine from Alliance, Ohio.

"Bethel is always going to be under the radar," Johnson said. "St. John's has been good for 50 years. When you've been good for 50 years, there's a chance you're just plain good.

"St. Thomas is the giant in the middle of the city, the school where a kid from the metro says: 'I have three schools I like; I think I'll go to St. Thomas.'"

Johnson will start his 23rd season as Bethel's head coach on Saturday vs. Simpson (Iowa) at Royal Stadium.

When he took over in 1989, this was Bethel's status in the MIAC: The Royals went 3-6-1 and Johnson was named the league's Coach of the Year.

Bethel won its first MIAC title in 2000. It shared the title with St. John's in 2001.

That was always the obstacle for the Royals and Johnson -- getting past the Johnnies and John Gagliardi. It wasn't until 2006 that Bethel won at Collegeville. Starting then, Bethel has won four of five against St. John's.

And now, with the combination of the aggressive Glenn Caruso and the grand new facilities, the Royals and the Johnnies appear to both rate as pursuers of St. Thomas.

"We never had any luck with St. John's when we spent so much time worrying about them," Johnson said. "A few years ago, one of my coaches said:

"I'm so tired of walking around hearing the same thing from people: 'When's the St. John's game?'

"It was right then that we started working on a new attitude -- that we were going to spend the week of the game worrying about the Johnnies, but not listen to anyone talk about them six weeks before the game.

"Same with the Tommies. We're going to be excited to play that game, but not until the week they are on the schedule [Oct. 22 at Bethel]."

The Tommies' gangbuster recruiting for this school year didn't prevent Bethel from bringing in a robust freshman class. There are also 12 transfers, including Brandon Marquardt, a powerhouse who should be able to run the 46 Counter in the same style as recent Bethel greats Logan Flannery and Phil Porta.

"We don't have the wow factor a kid is going to see when he visits St. Thomas," Johnson said. "But those aren't the kids we get at Bethel, anyway.

"Our students sign a Covenant for Community Life. This is a spiritual place. We trust each other because we tell the truth to each other.

"This is a dry campus. If you're looking for a party, you probably don't want to go to Bethel."

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. preusse@startribune.com

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