On a rainy day last month, Glenn Caruso took a break from his e-mail to answer his phone. When he was asked how things were going, he said without a hint of sarcasm: "I'm living the dream."

It got even better for the St. Thomas football coach last Saturday, as the Tommies beat Carleton to finish their regular season 10-0 for the first time in school history. Compare that with Winter Park, where Vikings coach Brad Childress is hanging by a thread that might as well be a noose. Or Dinkytown, where speculation about the Gophers' seventh coaching change since 1979 is a more popular sport than actually watching a 1-9 team.

This has been a lamentable season for most Minnesota football fans, but it doesn't have to be that way. There is an alternative to rooting for players who strike fear into the hearts of caterers and coaches who promise roses while delivering thorns. You'll find it up north, where Minnesota Duluth --10-0 this fall and 36-2 over the past three seasons -- holds the No. 1 ranking in NCAA Division II. It's in Arden Hills, where 16th-ranked Bethel (8-1) is gunning for the Division III playoffs, and in St. Paul, where the No. 4 Tommies will host a D-III playoff game Nov. 20.

Those locked into the football hierarchy will look down their painted noses and say that D-II and D-III don't measure up to the big time. That's true. These schools offer college sports; they are not sports colleges. Their athletes are more likely to graduate and less likely to lead police on drunken moped chases. They have an actual playoff system that isn't controlled by power conferences.

That Division I football has evolved into a multimillion-dollar business, bearing little in common with the stated ideals of college athletics, doesn't seem to bother the vast majority of fans who just want their teams to win. But St. Thomas' success -- and that of other D-II and D-III powers in Minnesota -- provides a refreshing reminder of how genuinely fun football can be when it's not tied to that endless pursuit of money.

Division III leaders recently launched an effort to spread the word about their approach to athletics, believing that most people aren't aware of their mission: to view sports as part of a well-rounded college education, not as a cash cow. "It has to be about learning and growth," said Alan Cureton, president of Northwestern College in Roseville and a member of the D-III presidential advisory group. "That's who we are."

Two of Minnesota's small-college stars -- running backs Ben Wartman of St. Thomas and Isaac Odim of UMD -- just won $18,000 postgraduate scholarships from the National Football Foundation. At St. Thomas, players lack the sense of entitlement that's become the norm in Division I; they dive into volunteer activities and participate in the full spectrum of campus life.

They aren't playing to keep an athletic scholarship, impress NFL scouts, get on SportsCenter or secure future marketing deals. They play for the sole enjoyment of the game, of being part of a team. Under Caruso, they also provide reliable entertainment on Saturdays, with a dynamic offense that averages nearly 41 points per game and a big-play defense led by former Gopher Tommy Becker.

Caruso's success already has generated an assumption that he's itching to jump to D-I. Everybody wants money and fame, right?

Not necessarily. "I love it here," he said. "I think I've found a place that really lines up well with who I am, that allows me to just be me and not have to pose as some other person. When you can find a job that allows you to achieve everything you wanted to professionally, without feeling like you've compromised your morals or beliefs, I think that's a pretty special thing. I've found that here."

UMD finishes its regular season Saturday at Minnesota State Mankato. The Bulldogs, the highest-scoring team in Division II at 46.9 points per game, will be trying for their 21st consecutive road victory and their third consecutive Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference title. The Tommies have the week off to savor their first outright MIAC championship since 1983.

Over the next few weeks, you can watch the Gophers limp to the finish, again. You can watch the Vikings navigate their raging egos and self-imposed land mines. Or, for a fraction of the cost, you can head to St. Paul or Duluth and just enjoy football for football's sake. It might not be as glamorous, but this season, it's been a heck of a lot more fun.

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com