St. Thomas football finding success less than 2 years into FCS play

After 13 years of chasing MIAC titles and making a few runs at Division III national championships, the University of St. Thomas made the bold decision to go Division I two years ago, being dismissed the league they helped found.

Almost two years later, that leap doesn’t seem as gigantic to Glenn Caruso and his program as it does to the outside world. The Tommies are in the Pioneer League of FCS, and went 7-3 in their first season in 2021. This year, St. Thomas takes a 5-1 record to Presbyterian on Saturday. After losing to Southern Utah to open the season, the Tommies have won five straight, and all by double digits.

They’ve also won 35 straight home games. Now in his 15th year and in Caruso’s own words, their standard has not changed.

"It’s the process and the standard and I know a lot of people don’t like to hear that. They want to hear about the stuff and the wins, but those are bi-products of those first two things," Caruso said Thursday before his team practiced. "The standard around here has definitely increased the last two years and we’ve learned as we’ve gone, but the foundation of all of it, as it’s always been, is the people and the culture."

Not even Caruso could predict how the transition to FCS would go for the Tommies. He compared it to a junior high dance, a little weird and awkward. He also hears the outside noise that people though St. Thomas was delusional to jump two levels after a historic run.

He’s not listening to the external, or at least doesn’t like to. Part of their motivation stems from 24 quotes around their locker room that provide inspirational messages before they take the field every day. The one he takes the most pride in comes from his father.

"Everybody said we were crazy, I don’t even think it took a Division I jump for a lot of people to say that. Everyone thought we were nuts, and that’s OK. I don’t draw my identity from the naysayers, if anyone hasn’t figured that out yet," Caruso said. "I do believe very firmly that if you have the right culture and the right people, you can do anything. The one that says it’s not where you go, it’s who you go with, that came right out of Franco Caruso’s mouth, and he’s right."

The Tommies are 5-1, and 15 of their 22 starting positions are Minnesota-born players. Two weeks ago, they beat Davidson 27-16, a team that’s won two straight Pioneer League titles and beat St. Thomas last year by 31 points.

"It was a huge data point to show our growth," Caruso said.

The Tommies are led offensively by the running back trio of Shawn Shipman, Hope Adebayo and Gabriel Abel. They all average at least 49 yards per game, and all have had 100-yard games this season. They’ve combined for nine touchdowns.

"I’ll say it routinely that I’m not interested in being the head coach of a football team that doesn’t have three starting tailbacks. Each one of them has had their own rotation. I love all of them," Caruso said.

Quarterback Cade Sexauer has over 1,000 yards passing in five games, 11 touchdowns and just four interceptions. The defense is allowing 18.33 points per game, and less than 120 yards per contest on the ground.

Caruso and the Tommies have 12 wins in FCS play in 17 chances, and have five league games to play with a chance to win a conference title. Moving up a level has not changed the standard, the approach is just done at a higher level.

"There might not be a fun way to quantify it, but if you want to get up every day and work for 15 years of your life with good people, then this is what you get. That’s how I quantify it."