Glenn Caruso doesn’t have the gray hair usually associated with a guy who might be viewed as an old-school coach. Make no mistake about it, though. The man who has spent the last decade building St. Thomas into a perennial national title contender would have been right at home on the sideline during any era.
“There’s very few institutions that have built a power, and by that I mean a program,” the 43-year-old Caruso said this week by phone from St. Paul, Minn. “People who can have a good football team are a dime a dozen, and every once in a while they’ll rear their head up. But a good program is built consistently over time through hard work.”
The Tommies’ hard work has them in the NCAA Division III national quarterfinals for the seventh time in the last nine seasons, and No. 4 St. Thomas (11-1) visits No. 1 Mary Hardin-Baylor (12-0) on Saturday afternoon in search of its fourth semifinal appearance.
A program that went 2-8 the year before he took the reins now owns a 110-16 record over the 10 seasons since the arrival of Caruso, who guided the Tommies to the Stagg Bowl in 2012 and 2015. The one piece still missing is a national championship, and their coach understands how challenging it is to get a hand on that walnut and bronze trophy.
“We went from 2-8 and having the 206th best team in the country to having the fourth best team in the country in four years,” said Caruso, a former standout player at Ithaca who has a career coaching record of 116-28 that includes two seasons at Macalester. “I told the folks around here then, ‘We might have gone from 206 to 4 in four years, but I swear to you that the jump from 4 to 1 is steeper than the jump from 206 to 4.’
“People thought I was sandbagging, but I wasn’t. There’s no rest for the weary because it’s a dogfight, and hopefully we have a chance to be in that fight.”
St. Thomas averages 50.2 points per game — second most in the country — with an attack that looks nothing like the spread-formation scheme that’s so prevalent these days.
The Tommies operate about half the time with quarterback Jacques Perra under center and two running backs behind him, with a line that features 6-foot-8, 335-pound Chandler Lamke, 6-5, 333-pound Michael Greene and 6-6, 304-pound Damon Longstreet paving the way.
“Let’s be honest. The good teams have size. There’s eight teams left now, and they all have good size,” Caruso said. “I think it’s kind of trite, but a lot of people are going to point to the Midwest team and say, ‘They’re big and homegrown and probably not as quick as others.’ I think we’re actually in good shape athletically.
“We’re really not fancy. Probably the one thing we are is balanced. We try to stay as balanced as we can. But at the end of the day, we are a two-back, under-center team. Maybe part of the game has passed me by, but it seems like we’re innovative now just because we’re under center.”
Despite all the headlines its offense has created — St. Thomas beat Hamline 84-0 in mid-October and St. Olaf 97-0 three weeks later — the defensive side of the ball is where the Tommies hang their hat.
St. Thomas ranks first in the country against the run (25.1 yards per game), sixth against the pass (133.8), No. 1 in total defense (158.8) and No. 6 in points allowed (10.1).
“We are a defensive team. I say that having spent the majority of my life coaching offense,” Caruso said. “We are a team that is built to play this time of year, and the only way you get a chance to play football in December is if you’re playing good defense. The defense is what we prioritize.”
The Tommies’ lone defeat was a 25-22 loss to Wisconsin-Stout in their second game of the season. Two weeks later, they fought off highly ranked St. John’s for a 20-17 win in front of 37,355 fans at the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field.
Over its last seven games, St. Thomas has yielded a total of only 41 points — including playoff wins of 47-8 over Eureka and 29-13 against Berry.
“That game (against UW-Stout) made us realize that we weren’t that good and that we had to get better,” Caruso said. “The growth that we made between Week 2 when we lost to Stout and Week 4 when we beat St. John’s was big for us.
“If there’s one thing we have this year that’s maybe better than any of our other teams, it’s that our kids are really intuitive. When the ball is in the air or a play needs to be made, we have that type of guy to do it.”