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UST-St. John’s in Novelty Game Saturday

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September 21, 2017

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Don’t expect Saturday’s near sellout crowd at Target Field to create Division I or II football ambitions for academic and athletics leaders at the University of St. Thomas.

Attendance for the Division III Tommies-Saint John’s game could total over 37,000 in the Twins’ home that accommodates a few thousand more fans than that for baseball. Target Field opened in 2010 but this will be the first football game ever played there and whatever the final attendance count the total will set a national record for Division III.

Tommies athletic director Steve Fritz told Sports Headliners his school is “very happy” in the MIAC and playing in Division III, with no intent to become a bigger player in college football despite the record interest in Saturday’s game that has even drawn national media interest. And don’t expect the Tommies to be back in a large Twin Cities stadium in the near future, including two years from now when St. Thomas again hosts Saint John’s in its famous rivalry game that is always a hot ticket in Collegeville or St. Paul.

Fritz is open to considering other options for 2019 but he is thinking his school will play the Saint John’s game at O’Shaughnessy Stadium on the St. Thomas campus. “Right now that’s what our thought is,” he said.

The Twins made the initial contact regarding the 2017 Tommies-Johnnies game at Target Field. The Twins organization is interested in hosting a few annual attractions that can be held during the baseball season when the club is out of town. The Twins are the promoter for Saturday’s game, taking the risk and gaining the reward regarding finances. Fritz said St. Thomas receives a financial guarantee similar to revenues for hosting past games with the Johnnies at O’Shaughnessy Stadium, and could be given extra compensation as part of the school’s deal with the Twins.

Fritz declined to reveal specific figures. As in any MIAC football game, the visiting team receives no share of the gate receipts or other game revenues.

Fritz predicts the crowd will be about evenly divided among St. Thomas and Saint John’s fans. Tickets are for reserved seating and are scaled at different prices up to $35. Student tickets are $10 and buses will run for more than two hours Saturday morning from the St. Thomas campus to Target Field prior to the game’s 1 p.m. kickoff. Contrast ticket prices with a 1989 game that the Tommies hosted against Saint John’s when adult tickets were $3, student tickets $2.

The Tommies and Johnnies always draw attention when they meet in a football rivalry that dates back to 1901, with attendance even totaling 17,327 for the 2015 game in Collegeville. But Saturday’s get together is an opportunity to accommodate many more fans in one of America’s acclaimed baseball parks.  A spirited rivalry, plus the novelty of Target Field, has made for an attraction bigger than anyone, including the Twins, expected.

“This is really something,” Fritz said. “The Saint John’s game is always big and always fun and all that…but this kind of thing is hard to imagine.”

Reportedly the all-time single game attendance record for a Division III football game was set last fall when UW-Whitewater hosted UW-Oshkosh. Announced attendance was 17,535.

A St. Thomas spokesman wrote via email that the Target Field game is “on pace to surpass the attendance at 20 of the 40 FBS bowl games held last holiday season, including games that involved South Carolina, South Florida, Indiana, Utah, Baylor, Boise State, North Carolina State, Vanderbilt, Maryland, Boston College, Mississippi State and Colorado State.”

The 3-0 Johnnies, averaging 67.7 points per game, are ranked No. 6 nationally in the AFCA coaches poll. The 2-1 Tommies, who have won six of the last eight games in the rivalry, are ranked No. 11 in that poll. Johnnies fans prefer to remember a stretch between 1993 and 2009 when their team won 16 of 17 games against the Tommies.

Glenn Caruso (photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas)

The Tommies probably can’t lose Saturday’s game and retain much chance to qualify later for the Division III playoffs. Despite that pressure to avoid a second loss this season, and playing before a record crowd, Fritz said his coach, Glenn Caruso, isn’t taking an unusual approach to the game. “He’s as well prepared as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Fritz said.

Emotions will be intense for coaches, players and fans at Saturday’s historic game. Fritz acknowledged a win would mean even a little more than a typical victory over the Johnnies. “…Obviously this one is pretty special,” he said.

After 14 consecutive Tommies-Johnnies games played on artificial turf, the 2017 version will take place on a grass field running parallel to the baseball third base line. Part of the field will be the Twins’ dirt infield. Things could get sloppy if rain forecasts prove correct. AccuWeather.com predicts a 55 percent chance of thunderstorms around 1 p.m.

Precipitation won’t enhance the fan atmosphere on a special small college football afternoon. “I don’t think it ruins everything, but the better the day the better the atmosphere,” Fritz said.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers.

Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section.

A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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