Before the football season began, Glenn Caruso decided he needed to reinforce the one-for-all, all-for-one ethos that has undergirded his tenure at St. Thomas. So the coach had rubber bracelets made for the players and staff, printed with one word: FAMILY.
The idea, Caruso said last week, was to remind everyone in the program that selflessness has been integral to the Tommies' rise -- and that it would be particularly important this season, after the graduation of four All-America players. "The acronym stands for 'Forget about me, I love you,''' Caruso said. "When we talked about the next step this program has to take, we wanted to make sure we stayed on a completely selfless path. And the kids have really rallied around the idea of family."
With unity as their lodestar, the Tommies will carry a 13-0 record into Saturday's NCAA Division III semifinals for the second consecutive season. While that has revived discussion of whether Caruso might seek a higher-profile job, the bracelet on his wrist proclaims the principle that brought him here -- and could keep him in St. Paul for the long term.
Caruso is 56-7 in five seasons at St. Thomas, one victory away from becoming the most successful coach in the school's 109 years of varsity football. If the No. 3-ranked Tommies beat No. 5 Wisconsin- Oshkosh on their home field Saturday, they would reach the national championship game in Salem, Va., for the first time. It also would continue Caruso's streak of increasing his victory total in each season of his career as a head coach, which began in 2006.
Every offseason, Caruso said, he has received opportunities to move up the coaching ladder. He has turned them down because of the way family and football fit together at St. Thomas. Caruso emphasized that as much as he likes to win, his priority will always be his wife, Rachael, and children Anna, 8, Cade, 7, and Truman, 5 -- and at St. Thomas, he said, the two mesh in an environment that feels true to his ideals.
"When we came here, we had the opportunity to go to bigger schools," Caruso said. "For some reason, people think bigger is better. But what is better for the general coaching population is not something I care about. I'm still here because I believe in the mission of the university, and I love that I can reach all our personal and professional goals without marginalizing our family. I'm sure there are other places out there that do a great job marrying up the family with the profession. All I know is I have that here, and I'm happy about it.''
Athletic director Steve Fritz said Caruso is on a one-year contract, like all coaches at the school. Fritz understands college football is a business, he said, and despite Caruso's love for St. Thomas, he is not assuming anything.
"We hope he's here for a long time, and we're doing everything we can to make it a good situation for him," Fritz said. "I hope it's a lifetime of one-year contracts."
Caruso said his goal entering this season was the same one he sets for the Tommies every year: to get a little bit better. Thus far, the team has equaled its 2011 accomplishments, winning its third consecutive MIAC title -- something the school had not done since 1947-49 -- and going undefeated in the regular season for the third year in a row. The Tommies have gone 37-2 over the past three years and enter Saturday's game with a 16-game win streak at home.
Fritz said he believed Caruso had the potential to elevate St. Thomas football to the same level of achievement as the school's other championship- caliber sports. Still, he never imagined it would happen so quickly. Fritz credited the swift rise to Caruso's recruiting ability and organizational skills, which allowed him to capitalize on the additional money the school dedicated to staff and facilities.
Caruso's players agreed, saying he has filled his roster with young men willing to follow his lead. Fifth-year senior Mike Valesano said Caruso frequently talks about building an elite program, rather than an elite team. He also models the ethic he wants to build in his players, Valesano said, with the idea of unity as the guiding principle.
"We all have the same mindset and goals, and that's our strongest asset,'' said Valesano, a linebacker from Brainerd. "Everything [Caruso] says, he lives it. He's working his tail off for this team every single second of every day, and we see that. With him putting that much effort and time and love into us, it allows us to give everything we have to the team, too.''
Caruso has been asked whether he might become a MIAC fixture in the mold of John Gagliardi, who recently retired after 60 seasons at St. John's. He said the uncertainties of life keep him from looking very far into the future, but when he came to St. Thomas, he saw it as a place where he could retire.
For now, he is content to chase that next historic victory, wearing a bracelet that reflects the prism through which all else flows.
"I'm pretty sure that on my deathbed, I can die peacefully knowing I didn't run out on a field in front of 80,000 people,'' Caruso said. "I can die peacefully knowing I never signed a $2 million contract or had a nationally syndicated TV show. I'm probably the most competitive guy you'll ever meet, but around here, I feel very comfortable that our personal and our professional [aims] work in unison. And that, to me, is such a big deal.''