John Gagliardi hadn't even been offered the football coaching job at St. John's when he first heard the question. During his interview for the position in 1953, a monk on the selection committee ended the conversation by asking him whether he could beat St. Thomas.
That told Gagliardi everything he needed to know about the rivalry between the Johnnies and the Tommies. Six decades later, as he prepares for Saturday's showdown against St. Thomas, he's still being asked the same question. Never mind that Gagliardi, in his 60th season as coach, has beaten St. Thomas 43 times. He knows when the teams face each other Saturday in Collegeville, neither recent nor ancient history will matter.
The sixth-ranked Tommies currently reign supreme in the rivalry, winning the past two meetings -- including last year's 63-7 thrashing in St. Paul -- and the past two MIAC titles. The Johnnies are seeking a return to prominence after finishing fourth in the MIAC last season and missing the NCAA Division III playoffs for a second consecutive year.
The last time the teams played in Collegeville, in 2010, an NCAA Division III-record crowd of 16,421 descended on Clemens Stadium. Even Gov. Mark Dayton is planning to attend Saturday's MIAC opener, lending even more hype to a series already overflowing with it.
"This will be my 60th time playing them, and I can't remember a time when it wasn't intense," said Gagliardi, who will coach his 600th game at St. John's on Saturday. "We're way ahead, but that barely means anything. And it means nothing that we've lost the last two. They're an exceptional team, and we're hoping for the best."
St. Thomas tight end Logan Marks echoed that sentiment.
"When I came in as a freshman, we were chasing them," said the senior from Mendota Heights. "Things have switched, but we still have a lot to prove. This rivalry is a really big deal, and we're expecting the Johnnies of old. It should be an unbelievable game."
Unbeaten starts for both
Both teams are 2-0 this season, and each has beaten Wisconsin-Eau Claire by three points. St. John's defeated the Blugolds 31-28 on the road last Saturday, extending its winning streak to six games since a fretful 2-4 start in 2011.
Offensive coordinator Jim Gagliardi said last season's problems stemmed from youth and inexperience. Through the first several games, the Johnnies used three quarterbacks and shifted some players among multiple positions, costing them stability and confidence. Connor Bruns eventually rose to the top at quarterback and helped his team evolve into a far more efficient and confident group by season's end.
Bruns, a junior, said the Johnnies carried that momentum into this season. During the six-game winning streak, they are averaging 40 points per game, easing some of the angst surrounding the program.
"We've moved on from last year's game [against St. Thomas]," said Bruns, who is ranked 12th in Division III in passing efficiency. "Last season was rough, with guys in and out of the lineup and going back and forth with positions. With more stability and consistency, our confidence level is a lot higher. That's huge."
The Tommies have moved on, too. Two-time MIAC player of the year Fritz Waldvogel has graduated, along with quarterback Dakota Tracy and running back Colin Tobin. They were instrumental in St. Thomas' rise to the upper ranks of Division III, helping the Tommies to a 36-4 record over the past three seasons and a berth in the 2011 NCAA playoff semifinals.
Tommies: Deep and physical
Coach Glenn Caruso said the Tommies' foundation remains unchanged. Their work ethic and discipline have fueled a streak of 26 consecutive regular-season victories, as well as a 10-game road winning streak in the MIAC. They remain a deep, physical team; quarterback Matt O'Connell has passed for 669 yards and four touchdowns in the first two games, with strong support from running backs Aaron Terrell-Byrd and Ryan Toney and receivers Dan Ferrazzo and Dan Noehring.
St. John's had beaten the Tommies 12 times in a row before falling 27-26 in overtime in 2010. Jim Gagliardi said last season's struggles were particularly tough on his father, though he credited John with keeping the staff and players unified.
John Gagliardi joked earlier this week that he should be retired -- considering he now is coaching grandsons of former players, as well as his own. Instead, he will be on the sideline Saturday, worrying about beating St. Thomas yet again. Same goes for the Tommies, who are chasing their longest winning streak in the series since defeating the Johnnies four consecutive times from 1954-57 -- back when Gagliardi was still learning just how emotional this rivalry is.
"There's been a lot of excitement this week, like there always is for this game," Marks said. "Our roles have kind of changed, and we know they'll be coming after us. We wouldn't expect anything less than another great matchup."