comScore

Excommunicated: St. Thomas proved too good at sports — and building a college

Bruce Kluckhohn

Bruce Kluckhohn

Midway through the first quarter at O’Shaughnessy Stadium, the University of St. Thomas football team leads 21-0 over tiny Trinity International University, an evangelical school from suburban Chicago. In last year’s opener, St. Thomas walloped these same Trojans 76-7. This year, only seven Trinity fans bothered to make the six-hour drive to watch the flagellation.

The student section—full of purple Tommie T-shirts and several seminarians—had begun the afternoon enthusiastically, taking turns tossing one another into the air. But as the game becomes more lopsided, their cheers soften. A gray-haired priest in the second row, likely positioned to keep students in line with the school’s Catholic standards, seems more apt to administer the Trojans’ last rites.

By halftime, the score’s 49-0. The majority of students file out, not to return.

When the game officially ends, almost 130 players in purple jerseys gather around the large brass Victory Bell to sing the rouser about Tommie pride. The video screen flashes highlights, an endless reel of sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries, rushing touchdowns, passing touchdowns, even a blocked punt returned for a touchdown.

The scoreboard also shows the final score, 69-3, digits that still manage to understate the depth of the blowout. While the losers slouch toward their bus, the victors revel in the spoils.

This is why you hate the Tommies. Or why you love them.

Bruce Kluckhohn

Bruce Kluckhohn

You hate them for delighting in a win equivalent to dunking on an eight-year-old. Or you love them for how they rack up Ws like Twins home runs.

This is also why the Presidents Council evicted St. Thomas from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC): lack of “athletic competitive parity.”

At least that’s the official version. But, like the scoreboard, it doesn’t tell the full story.

Granted, the Tommies have an excellent football team. But they’ve risen to widespread dominance across the conference’s 22 varsity sports. Other schools have staked out a piece of success—Gustavus owns men’s and women’s tennis, St. Olaf excels in men’s cross country, St. John’s and Bethel regularly finish in the top three in football. Still, St. Thomas has won the conference All-Sports Competition, based on the best overall record, for both men and women for 12 years running.

Yet make no mistake: The MIAC’s action was not simply about athletics.

Over the past several decades, St. Thomas has converted itself from a small liberal arts college into a comprehensive urban university. The school has adapted to shifting consumer demands, diversified its academic offerings, and insulated itself from threats of declining enrollment and rising costs imperiling smaller schools.

In short, the university anchored at the corner of Cretin and Summit in St. Paul has become a model of higher education success—and, in the process, pissed off the competitors it left behind.

 

St. Thomas is the only Minnesota school to have won national championships in eight different sports, ranging from women’s cross country (four titles) to men’s basketball (two). Its teams have had 21 top-five NCAA finishes in the last half-dozen years.

How did the Tommies get so good?

Last spring, as the presidents from the 13 schools that compose the MIAC weighed UST’s fate, many pointed to its larger enrollment as the reason for its manhandling—and womanhandling—of opponents. St. Thomas has 10,035 students, way more than any other MIAC school. Nearly 40 percent of those are graduate students who are ineligible for varsity competition. Still, its 6,212 undergrads nearly triple the conference enrollment average of 2,100.

The discrepancy would be significant if schools filled rosters from the general student population the way a high school does, where a larger pool seems to naturally yield more talent. But that’s not how it works. MIAC schools recruit just like their larger brethren, convincing players to enroll rather than plucking them from the lunchroom. Of St. Thomas’ 704 varsity athletes last year, only about two dozen were drawn from their larger student base.

“I do not feel enrollment has an impact on our success at all,” says athletic director Phil Esten. “None of us recruit athletes from our student body.”

The emergence of UST athletics involves a confluence of factors, beginning with institutional commitment. “It’s more a question of priorities than of resources,” says Michael Hemesath, whose seven-year tenure as president of St. John’s University ended this past summer. “St. Thomas made a conscious choice that athletics are something they want to excel in. St. John’s has made a similar choice.”

For St. Thomas, it can be traced to the early 2000s with Steve Fritz, the longtime athletic director who also spent 31 seasons as men’s basketball coach. He believed the Tommies could build an athletic program within Division III’s top 10 percent. The school began spending enough to pay top dollar to head coaches, hire ample assistants, and recruit competitively.

itemprop

“That was an affirmation of our direction,” Fritz says. “We’d been building toward that.”

Lee Anderson, who built the billion-dollar conglomerate APi, gave UST $60 million to construct an 180,000-square-foot athletic and recreation complex, fitted with an eight-lane pool, a 2,000-seat gym for volleyball and basketball, and a 200-meter track, plus courts for tennis and basketball, office space, locker rooms, and a fitness center with weights and cardio machines. When it opened in 2010, the school’s athletic facilities catapulted from some of the worst in the conference to the best.

St. Thomas went on to improve its softball and soccer field, outdoor track, baseball field, football field, and hockey dressing rooms at the off-campus arena. “The facilities are a big piece of it,” says sports information director Gene McGivern. “But a building itself doesn’t mean you’re going to win.”

Six blocks up Summit, Macalester opened the Leonard Center in 2008 with nearly identical amenities to UST’s Anderson complex, but it has won a mere three conference championships in all sports since then. St. Thomas has won 121.

“Contributing to facilities is part of it, but the differentiator is people,” says Esten, who took over for Fritz as athletic director earlier this year. “Steve built the athletic department with a coaching staff of high integrity that cares about the student experience and about excellence.”

Exhibit A is Glenn Caruso, the head coach Fritz hired in 2008 to salvage the football program. Caruso, an earnest and charismatic Connecticut native now in his 12th season, transformed Tommie football into a juggernaut.

In his first 11 years, they won 118 of 137 games. They have twice been runners-up in the national championship game. They’ve won six of the last nine MIAC titles, and had a MIAC record 31 consecutive victories over conference opponents from 2014 into 2018. Caruso was selected as Division III national coach of the year three consecutive seasons.

While football is the flagship program, Caruso is just one of many hires Fritz made in his reach for excellence. After winning a national championship in 2011, Fritz appointed assistant Johnny Tauer his successor as head coach of the men’s basketball team. Tauer has since won eight consecutive MIAC titles, a national championship of his own in 2016, and twice been named D-III national coach of the year.

Coach Glenn Caruso has a history of racking up wins—and lopsided scores.

Coach Glenn Caruso has a history of racking up wins—and lopsided scores.

Scott Blanchard, whom Fritz hired in 2011 to coach the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, has won five conference titles with the men and four with the women.

Men’s golf had not won a MIAC championship in 30 years, but coach Scott Proshek has won three since Fritz hired him in 2010. Jeff Boeser, hired the same year to coach men’s hockey, won six of the next seven MIAC titles. The women’s basketball team, coached by Ruth Opatz Sinn since 2005, has won 90 percent of its games over the past eight years—better than any other MIAC team in any sport—and made three appearances in the NCAA Final Four.

While larger enrollment doesn’t seem to be a significant factor, institutional size translates into greater resources for athletics. UST has the highest athletic budget of any school in the MIAC, though only 10 percent greater than its nearest competitors.

A larger school can also pay its coaches more. While Caruso’s salary is not public, it is believed to be the highest in the conference. St. Thomas employs more assistants, and spends more on recruiting for male athletes except for St. Olaf and Hamline.

A team’s talent ultimately comes down to the coach’s ability to convince prospects to choose his or her program. In that regard, UST has clear advantages. It starts with location. Matriculating undergrads of late prefer urban settings, which have more access to internships and interviews with potential employers over rural colleges.

Being nestled in a safe, upscale neighborhood doesn’t hurt either. But St. Thomas stands alone with the size of its alumni base—80,000 strong in the Twin Cities—for networking opportunities. Not surprisingly, it boasts the top job placement rate of any college in Minnesota.

That’s a strong selling point, especially as students become more practical about their educations, wanting a guarantee that they’ll be able to find a job to pay off their loans. The trend has popularized majors perceived as more employable than the traditional humanities fare. UST has plenty of those, including the only engineering majors (mechanical, electrical, software, civil) of any MIAC school.

Former athletic director Steve Fritz envisioned building a national power.

Former athletic director Steve Fritz envisioned building a national power.

With a menu of more than 150 majors and minors, St. Thomas has something to appeal to just about any sort of recruit.

The school also accepted 83 percent of its applicants last year, presenting lower admission standards than some of its competitors—particularly Macalester and Carleton—which allows UST coaches to mine a wider field of talent.

Deeper pockets also broaden its recruiting range. While D-III schools can’t offer athletic scholarships, St. Thomas can award more financial aid than some of its conference rivals. There are anecdotal stories of athletes receiving more generous financial aid packages than equally qualified students who don’t play sports, but these stories are spun about many schools. The NCAA, which does occasional random audits, has found no evidence of wrongdoing at UST or any MIAC school.

Then comes the campus itself. Some of Lee and Peggy Anderson’s $60 million gift also built the Anderson Student Center, a gleaming limestone structure that houses a bowling alley, several eateries, a spirit wear shop, lounges, and a gaming room. St. Thomas has also begun construction on two new dorms with underground parking, and the renovation of two dining halls to keep pace with the amenities arms race.

Yet the most important advantage is that success begets success. Everybody wants to play on a winning team. “The success feels like it’s been institutionalized,” Esten says.

 

Credit UST’s presidents as much as its coaches.

Monsignor Terrance Murphy had the vision to establish the MBA program in 1974. He also began to admit female students to what had been an all-male institution for 91 years. Within a decade, St. Thomas added master’s degree programs in software development and manufacturing engineering and offered business classes in downtown Minneapolis.

Murphy’s successor, Reverend Dennis Dease, established a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and another in electrical engineering, cut the ribbon on new buildings for the School of Education in Minneapolis and the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, opened the law school, and raised $769 million.

Julie Sullivan, who became president in 2013, launched the Dougherty Family College, which offers associate degrees, and the College of Health, which will include an undergraduate nursing program. She also expanded offerings in data analytics, geographical information systems, and civil engineering, among other subjects.

Today, the school Archbishop John Ireland started as a seminary in a farmer’s field in 1885 has purple shuttles running between the main St. Paul campus and the downtown Minneapolis campus every 20 minutes. There is also a satellite campus in Rome.

Murphy, Dease, and Sullivan have boldly shaped a thriving academic institution. “It seems they’ve successfully insulated themselves” from the market pressures facing colleges, observes Michael Horn, an author and expert in the future of higher education. “The name of the game is how to diversify your business model so you are not dependent on smaller, specific programs. To be able to evolve as the market changes—that’s important to be able to survive.”

 

The small liberal arts college is an endangered species. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen predicted in 2011 that half of the country’s 4,000 or so colleges and universities would “be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.”

While it hasn’t gotten quite that bad yet, 35 small private colleges have closed since 2016. Eighteen others have merged. Moody’s Investors Services estimates that a quarter of private colleges are operating at a loss.

In large part, escalating costs are to blame. Faculty salaries, food services, libraries, and building maintenance steadily mount. Initiatives to recruit first-generation students—a way to expand the consumer base of a shrinking population of traditional college-age students—create supplemental costs in emotional, academic, and financial support services. The effort to look better than the competition has sparked construction of dormitories, student centers, and athletic facilities.

Meanwhile, revenues are in short supply. Declining enrollment, which is supposed to continue precipitously, means fewer paying customers. For a small school, a drop by as few as 20 students can be the difference between running in the black or red.

The typical liberal arts college is tempted to raise tuition, but most have already maxed out this option and now supplement inflated tuition with financial aid. On average, students at private colleges are paying only 51 percent of the sticker price. So they add auxiliary fees for activities, parking, and science labs. The desperate ones resort to dipping into the principle on their endowments, a slow form of fiscal suicide.

While the majority of small private college closings have been those with enrollments under 1,000, some MIAC schools could also be at risk. “They have to be looking at the situation and asking, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’” says Dan McKane, executive director of the MIAC.

St. Thomas, by contrast, seems to have struck upon a sustainable model. It has an endowment of about $500 million. It’s currently soliciting donations for additional scholarships, construction of a faith center, and resources for the Dougherty Family College. Graduate programs, where students often pay full price (especially MBAs financed by employers), help underwrite undergraduate programs.

“The University of St. Thomas has done a good job adapting to today’s marketplace,” McKane says. “All of their steps have really paid off.”

 

Two years ago, the Tommies emasculated the St. Olaf football team 97-0. Caruso started his first string in the second half with the score already 64-0. They had scored every time they got the ball.

He ran trick plays and staged an onside kick. He refused to punt and made five of five fourth-down attempts. In the final insult, he handed the ball to an offensive lineman to rush for a touchdown with seven seconds remaining.

Fritz, then the athletic director, talked to Caruso afterward and tried to rein him in. Caruso, though, remains unrepentant, even after all that’s followed. “I’m not going to apologize,” he says. “I’m proud of our young men and the work they put in.”

Fritz shrugs. “It’s not in his nature to let up,” he says. That sums up Caruso’s strength and weakness, two sides of the same coin.

During this year’s season opener, with the Tommies up 49-0 and threatening to score again late in the first half, Caruso let the clock run out.

“He’s not going to call timeout?” someone asked in the press box.

“He would’ve last year,” came the response. “This is the new Glenn Caruso.”

Afterward, the handful of Trinity fans felt he had been respectful, though one did comment, “I don’t know why they picked us as an opponent.”

The St. Olaf humiliation was not an isolated incident. Three weeks earlier, Caruso’s team crushed Hamline 84-0. That same fall, three UST men’s soccer players cursed the referee during their sectional final and drew a reprimand from the NCAA. Earlier that spring, underage players on the women’s hockey team had been caught drinking during their playoffs.

Resentment toward UST spiked among several MIAC presidents.

Within a year, the drive to oust UST gained momentum, led by a handful of battered and embittered competitors, including St. Catherine University, which reportedly felt betrayed and threatened when St. Thomas launched a rival nursing program in its backyard.

You could hear the faculty griping across the conference: They’re not like us any longer. They’ve betrayed the liberal arts by diversifying into vocational majors and new revenue streams. They’ve perverted the ideal of a pristine academic environment.

McGivern counters: “Some people are saying we’ve outgrown them and are no longer a small liberal arts college. I say we’ve evolved. The world changes, so you have to, too.”

UST tried to win enough support to stay in the conference. St. John’s, St. Ben’s, and Bethel stood by it. Gustavus and Concordia teetered on the fence. But seeing that the conference would collapse if the other seven schools followed through on their threat to walk out, they opted to spare the conference at the expense of UST.

Ultimately, this was one competition St. Thomas could not win. The Presidents Council announced on May 22 that it would be “involuntarily removed” after the 2020-21 season.

Throughout, the presidents have been auspiciously silent. Rebecca Bergman, Gustavus president and chair of the Presidents Council, issued a statement saying they acted to “preserve the MIAC.”

Most school presidents refused to comment for this article. Same with the athletic directors. One feared he’d be penalized. The day after several dissenters were quoted in the media, the Presidents Council issued a directive warning of “repercussions” against those who spoke out against UST’s ouster.

The omerta invites suspicion and speculation. One official at a competing school said, “The untold story is about the other stuff [beyond athletics]. How so much animosity got built up over time.”

When asked about this, Sullivan is cautious and calculated. “I wouldn’t characterize it as animosity.”

At least two others seemingly in the know attributed the eviction to jealousy over St. Thomas’ athletic and institutional success. “Jealousy is not a term I’d use,” Sullivan says. “Every college president believed he or she was acting in the best interest of their institution.”

Then what’s rendered them mum? What do the presidents have to hide? Are they too ashamed of the way they dispensed with their rival to talk about it?

Even if there is nothing untoward about their behavior, it is unquestionably cowardly for leaders of institutions that champion critical thinking to hide behind a press release.

 

Meanwhile, the Tommies have been relegated to limbo. The school is studying its options: Move up to D-II? Join another D-III conference?

The smart money says they will land in another D-III conference like the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. While their future remains uncertain, it is almost impossible for coaches to recruit, a fate some foes no doubt relish.

Sullivan and other officials have remained diplomatic. Perhaps their strongest retort comes in the 2019 media guide, where Esten asserts: “I’m proud of what we have accomplished academically and athletically and expect to continue this level of excellence into the next generation of Tommie athletics.”

And so the bell tolls, sounding victory across the St. Paul campus, today and likely for many tomorrows, where St. Thomas has become an island—at least temporarily—entirely of itself.