The self-destruction in which St. Thomas engaged to be eliminated in the NCAA Division III playoffs on Saturday sent me back to a scene in an alcove at an old, cold stadium in Dayton, Ohio.
The Tommies had an overall home winning streak of 19 games and a playoff winning streak of 13 entering this quarterfinal game against Wisconsin-Oshkosh. The Titans had taken out St. John’s a week earlier, so coach Glenn Caruso and his players knew this was the true start of the playoff challenge – after crushing victories over Northwestern (Roseville) and Coe in the first two rounds.
Senior Alex Fenske, after serving time as the backup to John Gould, had earned the starting quarterback job for 2016 by holding off two Division I transfers: Jacques Perra (Minnesota) and Gabe Green (Southern Miss).
Fenske did more than hold the job. He was the MIAC’s MVP, as the Tommies again went unbeaten in the league (8-0) and in the regular season (10-0).
Caruso is now 99-15 since he arrived at St. Thomas in 2008 and seven of those losses have come in the playoffs. The Tommies were 2-8 in 2007, the last season before Caruso, and they now have lost the same number of regular-season games – eight – in his nine seasons as the coach.
This 34-31 loss has to be high on the tough-to-take list. The Tommies had eight turnovers – with six being charged to Fenske (five interceptions, one fumble). The fourth interception wasn’t on him, a ball was batted and an Oshkosh player made a diving interception at the line of scrimmage.
The next one, though ... it was an overthrow that sailed to the Titans and ended a St. Thomas’ possession that could have wiped out Oshkosh’s 34-31 lead, either with a tying field goal or a winning touchdown.
Oshkosh is good, but eight turnovers to none for the opponent and you only lose by three … that’s a game ceded to the other team.
The deal is, I’ve seen worse from an unbeaten MIAC champion in the playoffs. John Gagliardi’s 1991 team at St. John's had a talent level to be a worthy national champion.
The defense was fantastic, led by a front that included Steve O’Toole and Jim Wagner, two all-time tough guys for the Johnnies. They had Pat Mayew to throw the football, many receivers and Jay Conzemius to run it.
There was a 16-team bracket for Division III football (it’s now 32) in 1991. The Johnnies had thrashed Coe 75-2 in the first round and defeated Wisconsin-LaCrosse 29-10 in the second round.
A year later, LaCrosse would win the Division III title, so that had to be an impressive victory for the Johnnies.
The Dayton Flyers were the Ohio powerhouse of Division III football at the time. There had been much complaining about the financial advantages of a school with Division I basketball to be playing in non-scholarship Division III football.
Earlier in 1991, the NCAA had passed legislation forcing Dayton and other D-I basketball schools to move up. The change would take place for the 1993 football season.
Dayton and four other schools formed the Pioneer League, the only non-scholarship Division I football conference. It has been going on for 24 years and the champion gets a spot in the FCS playoff break.
San Diego was the team this year. It pulled a first-round upset of Cal Poly and then was clobbered by North Dakota State in Fargo on Saturday.
The ’91 Johnnies still had to deal with Dayton at its full D-III force in the semifinals. It shouldn’t have mattered. The Johnnies should have beaten the Flyers on that dank Dec. 7 in Dayton’s stadium.
Except … 10 turnovers. Not eight, like the Tommies this weekend, but 10.
Mayew had thrown four interceptions in 317 passes during the Johnnies' 11 victories. He threw four in 21 passes vs. Dayton. The Johnnies had lost six fumbles in the 11 victories. They lost six fumbles against the Flyers.
Dayton had won 24 in a row at home and had one loss in its prior 35 games. The Flyers were the D-III champs in 1989, had lost a playoff game in 1990, and was the favorite again in 1991.
Yet, with 10 turnovers, the margin was only 19-7 for Dayton. O’Toole, Wagner and the rest of the Johnnies’ defense were brilliant.
What I’ve always remembered was the post-game scene in the alcove outside the bare, brick-walled visitors locker room.
More than anything, what might have made Gagliardi the winningest coach in college football history is the misery that he went through after a loss. And here was John, sitting on a folding chair in that alcove, with his head in his hands as I tried to get a couple of quotes for my Star Tribune account of the turnover carnage.
Poor John could barely mutter. And then players like O’Toole, a great senior, were coming out of the locker room after showering, walking over to Gag, patting him on the back, telling him things were going to be OK.
The men of St. John’s, after an excruciating loss and end of many magnificent playing careers, comforting their legendary coach ….
Twenty-five years later, that remains one of the wonderful scenes of my sports writing life.