If Glenn Caruso harbors anger, he didn’t show it.
“Sad, disappointed,” the St. Thomas football coach said Tuesday in his first public comments since the MIAC announced in May that it was kicking the Tommies out of the league. “I don’t think I was the only one who feels that way; I think a lot of people feel that way.”
If Caruso has an ax to grind with other MIAC programs, he wasn’t letting on during the Tommies’ football media day.
“I’m not a backward-looking guy,” said the coach who’s entering his 12th season at the NCAA Division III school and has six MIAC championships. “We do everything we can — players, coaches, culture around here — to look forward.”
And if Caruso has any regrets about ruffling opponents’ feathers on the way to success, he quickly shot down that notion during a half-hour session with Twin Cities media.
“I can certainly sympathize with the other side and empathize with it,” the 45-year-old said, “but I cannot apologize for who we are as a program.”
On May 22, the MIAC Presidents’ Council, citing athletic competitive parity, involuntarily removed St. Thomas from the conference it helped form in 1920. The move goes into effect after the 2020-21 school year and includes all sports programs, but Tommies football was among the biggest reasons for the decision.
St. Thomas has two more seasons of MIAC football before it embarks on a to-be-determined future. The 2019 campaign gets rolling Saturday when players report, with the season opener Sept. 7 against Trinity International. The Tommies’ first conference game is Sept. 21 at Hamline.
The MIAC’s decision on St. Thomas came as a surprise to players, but they’re taking it in stride.
“I don’t think we necessarily saw it and expected it to happen, but it doesn’t really change anything for us,” said Elijah Rice, a senior offensive lineman from St. Michael. “It doesn’t change how we approach any game or any opponent.”
Luke Swenson, a senior defensive lineman from Shoreview, concurred. “Hearing that we got involuntarily removed, it was kind of a shock,” he said. “But at the end of the day it’s just the same season coming in.”
Amid all the change and uncertainty, Caruso enters the season energized and with work to do. The Tommies went 8-2 last year, finished third in the MIAC with a 6-2 mark and missed the NCAA playoffs for only the second time in the past 10 years. They’re ranked No. 7 in the D3football.com preseason Top 25, with fellow MIAC members St. John’s at No. 3 and Bethel at No. 10.
“This is probably the most excited I’ve been heading into a season,” said Caruso, who led the Tommies to NCAA runner-up finishes in 2012 and ’15. “For a coach to be able to say that in his 24th season [of coaching] or 12th year at one school, that is a blessing.”
Caruso acknowledged that there could be some uncomfortable moments in MIAC play this season. The Tommies have nine conference victories by 50 or more points in the past two seasons, and their 97-0 romp at St. Olaf in 2017 — a game in which St. Thomas scored the final touchdown with 7 seconds left and went 5-for-5 on fourth-down opportunities — was a lightning rod for criticism.
“When you’re playing in our league, it’s tense and awkward no matter when it is,” Caruso said. “It’s not exactly like we’re walking off the bus and everyone’s clapping for us, they let us win the game and we get back on the bus and go. It’s stressful, man. … Will there be added outside factors? I’d be lying [if I said no].”
As for the Tommies’ post-MIAC future, athletic director Phil Esten said St. Thomas is exploring its options. The Tommies could stay at NCAA Division III and seek another conference or move up to Division II. Caruso is fine with whatever approach the school takes.
“Whether we’re playing in this league, another league or another division — as long as we’re able to do it the way we do it, with the right types of kids and the right way with success on and off the field — I’d tell you anything intrigues me,” he said.