A persistent question from those with both a vested and casual interest in the ongoing story of the MIAC booting St. Thomas out of the conference is this: If the conference is going to oust one athletic powerhouse, why stop there?
After all, St. John’s has a much richer legacy in football — the college sport with the greatest visibility and most prestige. It wasn’t that long ago that the Johnnies dominated the rivalry with the Tommies, winning 12 in a row from 1998-2009. St. John’s is also the only MIAC school to win an NCAA Division III national title in football — doing it in both 1976 and 2003.
And the MIAC opened itself up to this question by citing “athletic competitive parity in the conference as a primary concern” for kicking the Tommies out of the conference — not enrollment size or some other factor.
It’s a good question, and one that becomes even more interesting with the knowledge that St. John’s reportedly would have voted against kicking St. Thomas out. Here are some attempts at answering it:
1) In looking at the last six years of MIAC football history, when both St. Thomas and St. John’s were very competitive, some interesting things come to light.
I looked specifically at how both programs fared in those six seasons between 2013-18 against Augsburg, Hamline, Carleton and St. Olaf — four schools that often finish at or near the bottom of the conference standings, all of whom were reportedly prepared to vote St. Thomas out of the conference if it came to that.
Both St. Thomas and St. John’s were a perfect 24-0 against those schools, sweeping them in each of the last six years.
But the final margins were considerably different.
St. Thomas won their games by an average score of 63-9; St. John’s won theirs by an average score of 44-7. The Tommies exceeded 60 points in 16 of those games — including the much-discussed 97-0 win over St. Olaf in 2017. St. John’s only exceeded 60 points twice.
Both are lopsided results, but the opportunity for hard feelings might be accentuated as scores climb higher and higher.
Maybe that’s a result of a perception fostered by the legendary late former St. John’s coach John Gagliardi (and continued by current coach Gary Fasching) that runs contrary to the perception of highly successful St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso.
Maybe St. Thomas was just a better team during those six years … though in the six regular-season meetings between St. John’s and St. Thomas during that span, each team won three times — with St. Thomas winning by a narrow 140-136 combined margin.
2) Perhaps this is about more than just football. In terms of overall athletic dominance in the MIAC, St. Thomas dwarfs every other school, including St. John’s.
St. Thomas has won the last 12 all-sports MIAC competitions — a distinction given to the program that “accumulates the best all-sports record during the MIAC academic year” — on both the men’s and women’s sides.
The Tommies have won 56 conference titles since 2010 spanning nine different men’s and women’s sports — football, men’s and women’s track, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s hockey. That’s more than the rest of the schools in the conference combined to win in those nine sports in that span.
3) St. Thomas has certainly emphasized sports excellence, and part of the reason it can do that is simple: money.
The MIAC is full of private schools, but there are relative “haves” and “have-nots” financially (some of which makes this entire story of privileged folks fighting each other about what is fair so interesting).
As of 2017, Carleton had by far the largest endowment — the war chest accrued and maintained from donations — of any MIAC school at $837 million (per this report). Macalester, which competes in the MIAC in all sports except football, was second at $719 million.
St. Thomas and St. Olaf — two schools at the center of this story, ironically — have nearly identical endowments of just under $500 million. From there, it drops considerably to St. John’s ($180 million). Several others, including Hamline and Augsburg, are below $100 million.
It’s safe to safe to say that of the four schools with the largest endowments, St. Thomas has prioritized and achieved athletic success (in addition to success in other areas) more than the other three.
Whether that means St. Thomas should be booted from the conference is a bigger question. But there definitely is a big athletic difference between St. Thomas and any other school in the MIAC.