Mount Union, St. Thomas are bringing the purple power

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2012 - 2:20 PM

St. Thomas knew all along it likely would have to go through Mount Union to win a national title.

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St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso (center) has taken his team to the brink of an undefeated season and the school’s first national football championship. The Tommies will be on foreign soil tonight, though. After winning their first four playoff games in St. Paul, they will play in Salem, Va., a site their opponent is plenty familiar with.

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If Larry Kehres were a flashy guy -- the kind prone to piling on the bling -- he might have a dilemma on his hands. Or, at least, on his fingers. The Mount Union football coach has won 10 NCAA Division III titles, meaning he has reached his digital capacity to display his championship rings even as he pursues another on Friday.

St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso pondered that fact last week, shortly after earning the chance to try for his first. He insisted the No. 3 Tommies will not be intimidated by the top-ranked Purple Raiders, despite Kehres' mind-boggling résumé at the school in Alliance, Ohio. Mount Union has made the title game in eight consecutive years and 16 of the past 20. It is 77-13 in NCAA playoff games, has a record of 181-7 since 2000 and has won 331 games in Kehres' 27-year tenure.

This season, the Purple Raiders shut out six consecutive opponents -- preventing them from scoring for more than 377 minutes, a Division III record -- and have scored 249 points in four playoff games, also a D-III record. Kehres credits their remarkable success to a simple formula: setting high expectations and giving players clear and consistent guidance on how to reach them.

Kehres doesn't reflect much, he said, on a record that includes the most victories of any active coach in college football. With a senior class intent on winning the school's first championship since 2008, Kehres is thinking only about that 11th ring.

"They've used the last three losses [in the title game] as motivation," Kehres said of his seniors, who hope to end a title drought that is the longest of a run that began in 1993. "They want to make sure they're grinding out good days in everything they do. They've used it positively, no pouting, no moping. It's been an enjoyable season."

Caruso can relate. His Tommies lost 20-0 to Wisconsin-Whitewater in last season's semifinals and were driven to reach the championship game for the first time in school history. Friday's game will be their first against Mount Union, which fell to UW-Whitewater in the title game in each of the past three seasons.

St. Thomas aspired to reach the pinnacle that Mount Union has occupied for nearly two decades. Caruso, who has studied the Purple Raiders' progress since his college days at Ithaca, attended last year's title game to get a taste of what it is like to be there. He ran into Kehres at the teams' hotel, and the two coaches talked for more than an hour.

Caruso expected that if the Tommies rose to the heights of Division III, they would likely meet up with Mount Union. He said he finds that prospect exhilarating, not terrifying.

"I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't truly excited about having the chance to play a program like Mount Union," Caruso said. "Larry Kehres is not only ridiculously successful beyond most people's dreams, he's been able to sustain that over a long period of time. He is the standard in Division III football."

Like the Tommies, the Purple Raiders enter the game 14-0. They have won the Ohio Athletic Conference title 21 years in a row and boast an offense and defense that are both ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Sophomore quarterback Kevin Burke is the top-ranked passer in D-III and leads an offense that averages 55 points and 558 yards per game. The Mount Union defense is surrendering 8.9 points, 46 rushing yards and 180 total yards per game.

Last week, the Purple Raiders trailed Mary Hardin-Baylor 28-14 heading into the fourth quarter. They calmly rallied to a 48-35 victory, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 5 seconds left and returning a fumble for a touchdown on the game's final play. Kehres said the consistency of the defense and the offensive line has kept Mount Union on track, while Burke has grown more assured during a season in which he has improved his passing, his leadership and his ability to make plays.

As he has accumulated rings for every finger, Kehres noted that each journey to the title game -- including this one -- spawns its own joys and memories. "It's no less fun, just unique each time," he said. "We might have had a little more fun this year, because we learned to relax a little more while pushing them to do well."

The Tommies will be experiencing all of it for the first time. In each of Caruso's five seasons, they have inched a little closer, always visualizing themselves in this place. And after getting a taste of the title game as a spectator, he knew there was something more precious than jewelry waiting for them in Salem.

"My No. 1 takeaway was that if we were to get there someday to make sure we didn't wish a second of it away, to enjoy every moment," Caruso said. "Because it was pretty magical."

  • DIVISION III FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP MOUNT UNION VS. ST. THOMAS • 6 P.M. TODAY • SALEM STADIUM, SALEM, VA. • TV: ESPNU (104.1-FM)

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