Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tommies beat Johnnies. How God? Why God? Is there a God?

So here are 10,000 - or so - words on St. John's football. My apologies in advance. Read it in shifts, if need be. Print it out, take it on a cross-country plane trip. Laminate it, give it as a Christmas gift.

A pair of college football games in Minnesota on Saturday were decided by a point. In one, Northwestern beat Minnesota 29-28 in Big Ten action.

Then there was the game people cared about. In Collegeville, St. Thomas defeated St. John's 27-26 in overtime in front of 16,421 people, which set a Division III attendance record. The previous record came in 2003, when 13,107 freezing souls watched the Johnnies edge Bethel for the MIAC title, a victory that gave John Gagliardi a record-setting 409 victories.

It's the first time since 1997 the Tommies beat the Johnnies - and only the second time since 1992 - and when you read that result, nothing makes sense in the world, even if many people expected a St. Thomas victory. St. Thomas defeated St. John's in football. Typing it twice still doesn't make it seem real. I wrote last year about the rivalry between the schools. It's a bitter rivalry, or at least as bitter as a rivalry can get when it's between a pair of schools that have more similarities than differences, schools that are separated by an hour, are both Catholic institutions, attract students from the same small towns and big cities, and send graduates into the same work force to labor for the same companies.

For much of the game the Johnnies appeared to again be the better team, even though St. Thomas came in ranked higher for the first time in a few decades. Unfortunately for the thousands of people dressed in red, SJU failed to take advantage of several St. Thomas turnovers in the first half. With a little more than 3 minutes left in the game, St. Thomas tied it at 20-20, only to miss the extra point. The Johnnies marched down in the closing minutes before a late interception ruined a chance at victory in regulation. After the Tommies started OT with a touchdown and PAT to take a 27-20 lead, the Johnnies scored on a fourth down play. But just as people prepared for a second overtime, the game ended as St. John's missed the extra point and a few thousand people dressed in purple rudely stormed the field to celebrate.

Those are the basic facts. All that's missing are the hundred plays and dozens of what-ifs that swirl around any game that comes down to one play. Johnnie fans feel the Tommies got a bit lucky, and Tommie fans say, even if that's so, it only makes up for the fact the Johnnies needed a bit of luck and a controversial call to win the past two seasons.

Tommie fans rightfully celebrated their victory because it gives them the edge in the race for the conference title and it came against the hated Johnnies and, perhaps best of all, it came on St John's home field, the mecca of Division III football. Beyond that, though, there's been a feeling hanging over the game that perhaps there's a power shift in the MIAC taking place. Maybe the Tommies, who dominate in several sports, have finally - under their outstanding third-year head coach Glenn Caruso - found the formula that will end the Johnnies' control of the league. Many people thought the Tommies would handily defeat the Johnnies today. That didn't happen. Doesn't make it any easier for the St. John's players, coaches or fans - the last time St. John's had a moral victory, Johnny "Blood" McNally stood on the sidelines as coach - but it does show the teams are all-but even this season.

And no matter what Tommie graduates tell themselves during the late-night shift at McDonald's or St. Thomas students tell themselves during drunken parties where they read Vince Flynn passages to each other (cheap jokes are all the losing side's fans have after games like this. Sad, I know.), one game - one season - does not indicate a seismic shift. In 10 years, if the Tommies have won seven conference titles in that span and routinely defeat the Johnnies and also make it to the national semifinals a few times, perhaps people can look back at October 2, 2010 and say, there, that was the day everything changed in the MIAC.

But one day doesn't trump 58 years.

That's how long Gagliardi's coached at St. Johns, after spending four seasons at Carroll. Fifty-eight seasons. During that time with the Johnnies, he's gone 450-122-10. He's basically lost about two games a season. In other words, if history's any indicator, the Johnnies are done losing this year. Yet even if that is the case, some SJU fans will consider the season to be something of a disappointment. That's what happens when you build something up over seven decades of action.

One-hundred-twenty-two losses. Today felt unique because it came against the Tommies, but under Gagliardi, most defeats are heartbreaking, gut-wrenching affairs that leave fans lamenting one missed kick or one fumble. So to ease the pain of Saturday's loss, here's a look at those 122 defeats. Perhaps looking at the past will provide a guide to the future, while presenting comfort for the present.

* Gagliardi's had five unbeaten seasons at St. John's. Thirteen times he's only lost once.

* The last time Gagliardi had a losing record? 1967.

* This was the first time St. Thomas won in Collegeville since 1986, when the Tommies won 56-21. They followed that up with victories over the Johnnies in 1987, 1990 and 1992. That, too, signaled a changing of the guard in the MIAC. The Tommies were taking over the league. The Johnnies - and Gagliardi's - reign over the league had come to an end. And then the Johnnies went on to win 16 of 17 in the series. So a one-point defeat somehow doesn't sound like a mythical, magical impossible-to-define-but-we'll-know-it-when-we-see-it-and-there's-no-stopping-the-Tommies-and-their-millions-and-large-enrollment-and-charismatic-coach changing of the guard. Or put it this way: Imagine St. Thomas now winning every game against St. John's until 2023. Finally, that year the Johnnies break through and win by a point. In overtime, on a missed extra point. Would that mean there was a changing of the guard?

* To save space (too late), let's take a look at the losses since 1989, which sort of signaled the start of the modern Johnnie dynasty. Counting Saturday's game, since 1989 St. John's is 216-39-3. Of those 39 defeats, 15 were by more than 10 points. Two of those double-digit defeats were against Mount Union, two more against Whitewater, the overwhelming Division III forces of the past two decades.

So here are the toughest defeats the Johnnies and Gagliardi have suffered since '89, when the Johnnies went 11-1 and lost to Dayton 28-0 in the national semifinals. Many have been in what-the-hell-happened fashion, the kind of games that probably leave Gagliardi wondering what he did to make God angry, while Johnnie opponents wait impatiently for the football gods to finally even the score. The Johnnies rarely get blown out. They've won countless times in seemingly miracle fashion, but the memorable losses stand out because they are so rare.

- 19-7 loss to Dayton in 1991 semifinals. The Johnnies dominated that entire year, putting together one of their more overwhelming seasons. Their closest game was a 35-25 victory over Hamline. No one else came within 10 points. They beat Carleton 56-7, Macalester 56-0, St. Olaf 67-19 and in the playoffs decimated Coe so badly that everyone in Iowa, including Hayden Fry, felt it, winning 75-2. But then came the semifinals. The Johnnies committed an astounding 1o turnovers - 10! - but still only lost by 12 points. If they commit five turnovers, they probably win by two scores. In addition, star running back Jay Conzemius played injured.

- A superior Johnnies team lost to St. Thomas 15-12 in 1992, a game that ultimately kept the Johnnies out of the playoffs. Carleton improbably earned the playoff berth that year as they shared the conference title with SJU, despite the fact the Johnnies beat them 70-7.

- St. John's went 11-2 in 1994. One loss came on Homecoming against Hamline, as the Pipers won 27-26 (there's that score again), as a failed two-point conversion attempt in the closing seconds cost the Johnnies. That game started the sterling career of quarterback Kurt Ramler, who was just a sophomore that season. In the semifinals, St. John's lost 19-16 at home against Albion, a game famous for a horrific noncall. Albion's winning TD came when a receiver caught a pass that clearly bounced off the ground before the receiver scooped it up. Albion went on to defeat Washington & Jefferson 38-15 to win the national title. It's impossible and dangerous to compare scores. But what the hell. If the Johnnies had won that game and faced Washington & Jefferson in the Stagg Bowl....they'd have won the national championship. Johnnie fans are still very bitter over that defeat.

- The Johnnies won their first 11 games in 1996. In the second round of the playoffs, they led Wisconsin-Lacrosse 23-8 at halftime, but squandered the lead, losing 37-30.

- In 1998, the Johnnies again went unbeaten in the regular season, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion 10-7 to Eau Claire, in another game marked by controversial calls and a goal-line fumble by SJU late in the game, when they were on the verge of winning.

- Pacific-Lutheran beat the Johnnies in the quarterfinals in 1999, 19-9. One of those games the Johnnies have lost by 10 points since 1989. But that one deserves an asterisk. In the fourth quarter, St. John's led 9-6 and was driving for a potential clinching score. Instead, Pacific Lutheran forced a fumble, and scored a pair of touchdowns to end the Johnnies' season, a year immortalized in Austin Murphy's The Sweet Season. Pacific Lutheran won the national title that year.

- Mount Union edged the Johnnies 10-7 in the 2000 title game, as the Johnnies' defense stopped the powerful Raiders offense until the final minutes. Unfortunately, the offense only got one drive going and a field goal in the final five seconds won it.

- 2002. National Semifinals. Texas. St. John's falls behind Trinity 34-13 at halftime. The Johnnies stage a remarkable rally and tie it at 34-34, only to lose it late in the fourth quarter, 41-34. Many members of that team were on the roster the next season, when St. John's went unbeaten and won the national title.

That's a sampling. There are others: In 2004, for instance, in somewhat of a rebuilding season, St. John's lost three games by a total of five points. And now throw Saturday's game onto that list of most heartbreaking defeats. It's a game people will talk about for years, even if St. John's fans, players and coaches would like nothing more than to forget it within the week.

Saturday belonged to the Tommies. But the Johnnies have suffered devastating defeats before. They've lost to key rivals, even if it's rarely been to their biggest one. But one loss does not a changing of the guard make. Not when there are 57 years of history that say, in the end, the Johnnies and Gagliardi will always recover and quickly find themselves back atop the MIAC standings.

Now pass the Johnnie Bread and some wine, please.


Jerry said...

Wait a minute...Hamline beat St. John's?? Is there a possibilty that an Eric Johnson may have been on that team?? But I say again...Hamline beat St. John's???

Shawn Fury said...

Yeah he was probably there, although it was a different running back from Hamline with southwestern Minnesota roots who I think had a good game that day. Gretchen actually delivered a taunting phone call to me in Worthington after the game.

I was actually emailing with Eric the other day about Hamline. In the early to mid90s they were winning 7 to 8 games every year. Over a seven-year span, they were 3-4 against SJU. But since that '94 game, they haven't beaten St. John's and the most they've scored since 1997 was 13 points.