Murray Warmath was a 41-year-old and had been the coach at Mississippi State for two years when he was hired by the Gophers for the 1954 season. He was the coach of my youth, when nothing on this state’s sports calendar mattered as did those nine Saturdays on which the Gophers played football.
On the Minnesota prairie, the Minneapolis newspapers would be delivered morning and afternoon, and even a kid would scour the sports pages for news on the Gophers. And then Friday would arrive with the Warmath quote that brought goose bumps:
“The hay is in the barn.”
That meant the Gophers had put in a plan, practiced it energeticallty, and now it was a question if our athletes could outplay the always-worthy opponents.
If suddenly we would have read that Warmath had said, “We’ve set sail and we’ve set our direction ... whether it’s to win a conference championship, or be the first person in your family to get a college education or to beat cancer,” we would have said, “What about the hay?”
And if Warmath had said his team was a family, with family meaning “Forget About Me, I Love You,” our response would have been, “Get the straitjacket, ol’ Murray has had a breakdown.”
As someone who saw his first Gophers game as a 9-year-old on Nov. 13, 1954 (Gophers 22, Iowa 20), I clearly need assistance to understand what in the name of Warmath is this new 36-year-old coach, Phillip John Fleck, babbling about … with family, and service, and culture.
I have no interest in boat-rowing or forget about me, I love you. Just tell me if the hay’s in the barn.
Yet Fleck, a wind storm of grand thoughts with no commas, has caused such a stir among Minnesotans that I decided to try to understand the rhetoric. The only coach I knew with a chance to explain was Glenn Caruso, 33 when hired and now looking toward his 10th season at St. Thomas.
Caruso’s success has come in building a national contender in Division III. You can diminish that if you choose, but in Caruso’s nine seasons at St. Thomas, there have been five schools to play in the championship Stagg Bowl and the Tommies have been there twice.
He has put the Tommies in an exclusive club, and has done so with a philosophy that sounds similar (although with fewer trivialities) to Fleck’s.
Family. Service. Culture. What’s that all about, coach?
“I’d say ‘family’ is the one that’s overused, but service to others and having a process that leads to a great culture, those are real,” Caruso said. “I think if you want to operate at your highest level, with a football team of 110 or 120, servitude to others is a requirement.
“We’re in this together. That’s a conscious, daily effort. At the core of it, I’m here to give my heart and mind to others, and if we all do that, we have a powerful force.”
The process of getting the individual to yield heart and mind for a team flies in the face of modern society, Caruso suggested.
“There’s way too much entitlement, way too much focus on ‘me’ in our world today,” Caruso said. “It’s an egocentric society. Yet, in our sport, inherently, if you want to be part of a great team, you have to sacrifice for others.”
The Tommies had prime examples of that in 2015. Jack Kaiser was set to be an effective starting running back as a senior, with Nick Waldvogel a scatback option at that position. And then arrived Jordan Roberts, a transfer from South Dakota, and a remarkable D-III talent.
“Nick immediately approached me and said, ‘If moving to receiver can be more help to the team, I’m in,’ “ Caruso said. “And Jack Kaiser became the best teacher we had for Jordan in learning the offense.
“They both did this for the greater good.”
In 2016, two transfer quarterbacks came in from Division I programs: Jacques Perra from the Gophers and Gabe Green from Southern Miss. In the end, Caruso decided that fifth-year senior Alex Fenske — previously a backup — had earned the job in August practice. Fenske became the MIAC player of the year.
How do you explain not starting to Division I transfers?
“You’re honest from the start,” Caruso said. “You never promise anyone playing time. You offer them the possibilities and the chance to compete.”
That might be different with a four-star recruit in the Big Ten, right?
“Baloney … and I would like to use a stronger word,” Caruso said. “I disagree emphatically. Pulling a football player into a successful culture, it’s all the same. We have a lot of four-letter words at St. Thomas and the biggest one is ‘easy.’ Nothing will be handed to anyone. Nothing will be easy.”
Asked for his early impression of Hurricane Fleck, Caruso said:
“His energy is great, that’s obvious. Time will tell you everything. This is Minnesota, a land where farmers put a seed in the ground in the spring and wait six months to see how it grows.
“People want to reach instant conclusions on the new coach. I’d say, ‘Relax, guys, see how it grows.’”