While accumulating a succession of conference titles and four national championships, former St. John’s coach John Gagliardi frequently expressed his disdain for recruiting and his pleasure at being able to build a dynastic program with “local kids.” He once estimated the average distance a Johnnie starter traveled to attend the school was 60 miles during his 60-year tenure in Collegeville.
Gagliardi might have a difficult time recognizing the Johnnies these days. Or the MIAC in general.
The league is evolving from relying overwhelmingly on Minnesota high school graduates to a conference that each year is increasing its national footprint, especially in the West and Southwest.
An MIAC demographics study in 2006 found that almost 80 percent of its football players came from Minnesota. A total of 30 players came from the states of California, Arizona, Washington, Texas and Colorado
This season the percentage of Minnesotans in the league was 68.5, according to each team’s online roster. A total of 87 players came from the states of California, Arizona, Washington, Texas and Colorado.
“It’s not just a Minnesota or Upper Midwest league anymore,” said Hamline coach Chad Rogosheske. “Kids from all over are playing. It’s part of an evolution of change in the league.”
The MIAC’s two playoff teams, St. Thomas and St. John’s, have both benefited from an expanded recruiting base, especially the Johnnies. St. John’s has 14 players from California — one less than the entire league had in 2006 — plus five from Texas and four from Louisiana. The Johnnies use five defensive backs on a regular basis and of those, three are from California and one is from Louisiana.
St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said his philosophy is to “play with mainly Upper Midwest kids,” but that doesn’t mean Caruso doesn’t look beyond Minnesota. The Tommies have 40 players from Wisconsin and Illinois, and the starting lineup includes four players from Wisconsin and two from California. Tailback Jordan Roberts, who rushed for 1,439 yards and 24 TDs this season, is from Wyoming.
Caruso said that in over 20 years of coaching, he’s always recruited Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, and “built up some very strong ties.”
Several MIAC coaches say their expanded recruiting bases are a reflection of their school’s admissions policies.
“I think all [MIAC] schools, from a recruiting standpoint, admissions standpoint, have gone outside the state [of Minnesota],” St. John’s coach Gary Fasching said. “We’ve been hearing for years that we have to recruit national because the pool of families in Minnesota is dwindling. To fill your class, you’re probably going to have to go outside your state.”
Jon McGee, vice president for planning and public affairs at St. John’s, recently wrote a book, “Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education.” It details population and educational trends that he says have led many schools, including his, to dramatically expand their student recruiting.
McGee said 60 percent of the nation’s population in 1940 was concentrated in the Upper Midwest and Northeast. Now 60 percent of the population is in warmer weather states, including 25 percent in California and Texas alone.
Combine that with a steady decline in Minnesota high school students since 2008, and it’s easy to see, McGee said, why many schools “are looking for students further afield than they ever have before.” St. John’s has full-time academic recruiting representatives in California and Chicago, he said.
Many MIAC schools are trying to establish an out-of-state base. Hamline has 14 football players from Arizona and St. Olaf has 10 from Florida, building on a tradition that former coach Chris Meidt started in his tenure at the school from 2002-07. Eight of the nine MIAC schools playing football this season have at least two players from California. Eight schools have players from Florida and Colorado.
St. Thomas and St. John’s have the most out-of-state players, with 48 and 43, respectively. But while St. Thomas plucks most from Wisconsin and Illinois, St. John’s has at least three players from seven states outside Minnesota: California (14), Texas (5), Louisiana and Colorado (4 each), and Arizona, Florida and Illinois (three each).
“Never thought I’d see the day we’d have 14 kids from California,” Gagliardi said.
But the world of recruiting has changed mightily since Gagliardi was coaching the Johnnies to national prominence. Shifting population trends aside, MIAC coaches say it’s easier to recruit out-of-state players than a decade ago because of technology. Coaches are able to watch film online and text with high school coaches, parents and prospective recruits.
Bethel coach Steve Johnson said another factor is the increasingly mobile population.
“We have recruits from Colorado and other places whose parents or grandparents are from here,” Johnson said. “The whole world is spread out a little bit more, so your exposure becomes a little more national.”
It also has helped that California, Arizona, Colorado and Louisiana have very few Division III programs; Arizona and Colorado have no Division III football programs, while Louisiana has one.
St. John’s defensive back Jeremy Piper, who attended East St. John High in LaPlace, La., said he had hoped to play Division I. That didn’t pan out, but he said he found a number of Division III suitors, including three from the MIAC: Gustavus, Hamline and St. John’s.
Piper took several visits and came away most impressed with St. John’s.
“It was the most football-based school I looked at,” he said.
Several factors help MIAC schools attract out-of-state players. St. John’s and St. Thomas have a number of players from Catholic high schools, including the Tommies’ two California starters. Some of the Californians, such as the Tommies’ Jack Gilliland and St. John’s defensive back Trevor Warner, have family ties to Minnesota.
If out-of-state players have a good experience, it can start a domino experience and help establish a recruiting foothold. Warner, a senior starter for the Johnnies, will be a spring intern in the St. John’s football department.
“I’m sure they’ll want to utilize my connections out West, and help out with [recruiting],” Warner said.
Count on it.
“Times change, situations change and demographics change,” Fasching said. “Sometimes you’ve got to change your thinking a little bit.’’