The Tommie-Johnnie game: the history of a rivalry

| September 13, 2017 | 0 Comments

The 1904 College of St. Thomas football team. Holding the football is I.A. O’Shaughnessy, the Johnnie-turned-Tommie whose story fuels the teams’ longstanding rivalry. The Tommie-Johnnie game — the annual football game between the University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University — will be held for the first time at Target Field in Minneapolis Sept. 23. Courtesy the University of St. Thomas archives

Tommie-Johnnie lore begins with an expelled student turned oil tycoon, but the teams’ annual match up — this year at Target Field — is an ever unfolding drama

A student skipping vespers may never have cost a Catholic university more.

In 1901, St. John’s University star running back Ignatius O’Shaughnessy skipped vespers for a party and was expelled from the Collegeville school. The Benedictine-run Catholic college missed out on donations in the millions as O’Shaughnessy became an oil tycoon and donated $8.5 million to his alma mater, now the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

That’s how the football rivalry between the two Catholic institutions really heated up. The Tommies and Johnnies will meet for the 87th time when they kick off at Target Field in Minneapolis 1 p.m. Sept. 23 for the Holy Grail trophy.

“There’s great rivalries at every level of college football. We just happen to be blessed to be part of one of the best in the nation at any level,” said St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso.

This year’s Tommie-Johnnie game could fill the 39,500-seating capacity at Target Field for the biggest crowd in NCAA Division III football history, a record the rivals owned until last year. More than 17,000 crowded the stands in 2015 when the Tommies beat the Johnnies in Collegeville, 35-14.

St. Thomas and St. John’s drew national attention with ESPN’s Sports Center on the Road broadcasting before the 2015 game, only the second time ESPN has brought a show to a Division III program. Attendance in Collegeville topped three Division I Football Bowl Subdivision games that day, including the Army-Eastern Michigan game.

Setting attendance marks has been the norm in the Tommie-Johnnie rivalry, with six of the 14 largest crowds reported for a Division III football game. That included 16,000 last year in Collegeville when the Tommies beat the Johnnies 33-21.

“The game itself is [such] a great institution of our state that I think it’s only appropriate that we give them the opportunity to share [that] with as many people as we possibly can on game day,” Caruso said.

Budding rivals

Tens of thousands didn’t attend the Johnnies’ inaugural 16-0 win on Thanksgiving Day 1901 at Lexington Park in St. Paul, but it commenced a rivalry that has only grown since.

O’Shaughnessy played a key role with 76 yards rushing. He never played in another Tommie-Johnnie game, however, since the teams didn’t meet again until 1907.

O’Shaughnessy’s expulsion — and what it wrought — is the stuff of oft-repeated college legends at both universities. “We all would say that was the biggest mistake we ever made,” said Benedictine Father Wilfred Theisen, who has been around the Johnnies football program for 75 years.

After his expulsion, O’Shaughnessy headed by train to his hometown, Stillwater, but stopped at St. Thomas on the way. He ran into Father John Dolphin, the school’s president, and told him what had happened.

Father Dolphin gave O’Shaughnessy a second chance, and the young man enrolled at St. Thomas. That included playing football for the Tommies, with O’Shaughnessy serving as team captain in 1905.

St. Thomas later benefited from his oil industry success with funding for several buildings on campus, including the library, as well as an auditorium and gym recently replaced by the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex. His name is also on the stadium. A part owner of the Cleveland Indians in the 1950s and 1960s, O’Shaughnessy’s philanthropic endeavors also included funds for the then-College of St. Catherine, the University of Notre Dame and an ecumenical institute in Jerusalem.

Since the football series between St. Thomas and St. John’s resumed in 1907, the Johnnies have found their gold on the football field. The Johnnies own a 51-34-1 lead in the series in addition to the program’s overall success.

St. John’s has a 622-246-24 all-time record and a .711 win percentage, the best in Division III history. The school has won four national titles, made 27 playoff appearances since 1963 and earned 32 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles since 1932.

St. Thomas has earned its own successes. The Tommies have made two national championship game appearances in the past six years and have been in the top 10 rankings consistently.

“That’s probably helped the most as far as getting more people interested in [the rivalry]. Now, you have two schools that are yearly nationally ranked,” Johnnies head coach Gary Fasching said.

In 1907, St. Thomas beat the Johnnies in a 21-0 victory. St. John’s bounced back to win 9-6 in 1908 but fell in their second meeting that year, 4-0. St. Thomas won the next meeting 23-6 in 1909 before the rivalry hibernated from 1910 to 1921.

The Tommies made the 13-year wait worth it for their fans by shutting out St. John’s 27-0 in 1922, the only time they met that decade. Former Notre Dame star quarterback Joe Brandy coached that Tommies squad, which included lineman and future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Walt Kiesling.

The schools didn’t meet again until 1933 when the Johnnies won 7-6. The Tommies bounced back in 1934 with a 12-0 win, but the Johnnies returned the favor — sort of.

They tied 0-0 in 1935, the only tie in the series. According to The Aquin, St. Thomas’ student newspaper, the teams played in conditions “more suitable for hockey than football by a snowstorm that rapidly turned to slush and ice.”

Contests remained close through 1941 with neither team winning by more than two scores. St. Thomas won the final meeting 18-0 in 1942 before World War II wiped out the 1943 season.

Tommies’ dominance

When the series resumed in 1945, the Tommies dominated with a 30-0 win and an 18-0 victory the following year.

They didn’t meet again until 1949 when the Tommies edged the Johnnies 28-27 in a game with five lead changes. That game included future NFL players from St. Thomas — running back Jim Brandt and kicker Don Simonsen, who hit the winning extra point in the final minute. It also marked the final game for Johnnies coach Joe Benda, who had been battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Father Theisen called that 1949 game a classic. He said that between 40-50 monks used to attend the games, which has now dwindled to a dozen.

Father Theisen and company soon saw the Johnnies end a 14-year winless drought against the Tommies, 13-7 in 1952. Then in came John Gagliardi as the Johnnies’ coach. He amassed the most wins in NCAA history — 465 — during his career. He didn’t have a losing season from 1967 on.

His first game against the Tommies produced a 14-6 victory, but the Tommies then took four-straight wins from 1954 to 1957. That included St. Thomas’ last unbeaten regular season in 1956 before the Caruso era. Then-Tommies coach Frank Deig also won his final matchup 14-7 with the Johnnies in 1957 despite a 2-5-1 season.

Johnnies take over

Father Theisen said Gagliardi’s Johnnies “got their number,” which fed a 38-12 record against the Tommies for the legendary coach. It took off after 1957 with two straight shutouts and another two wins by 20 or more points.

St. Thomas fell shy of the Johnnies 28-23 in 1962 and couldn’t keep up with the 1963 national champion Johnnies team in a 32-6 loss. Notably, that St. Thomas squad included Vince Lombardi Jr., the son of Hall of Fame Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

After enduring three-straight shutouts by the Johnnies, the Tommies won 13-2 in 1967 to end a nine-game slide in the series. Players from that Tommies squad celebrate the victory annually, including its 50th anniversary this year.

Momentum swung back to Collegeville with five consecutive wins over the Tommies through 1972 followed by another four-straight after St. Thomas’ 14-10 win in 1973.

Johnnies stars in that era included Mike Grant, son of legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant. The younger Grant has coached Eden Prairie High School to 10 state football titles in 25 years.

“Maybe those times we were just a little bit ahead of them [St. Thomas]” in recruiting, said Fasching, who played alongside Grant. “Usually, it evens out over time.”

The Tommies ended their Johnnies skid with a 21-3 win in 1978 followed by a 30-0 rout in 1979, which included a big performance by St. Thomas freshman and future Vikings receiver Jim Gustafson.

St. John’s owned the series in the 1980s, but St. Thomas won big twice, in 1983 at 41-14 and in 1986 at 56-21. They traded wins in the early 1990s, including a 15-12 St. Thomas win in 1992, considered the biggest upset in the series. St. John’s got payback in 1993 with a 69-13 win, their biggest margin of victory of the series.

It went the Johnnies’ way against the Tommies for the next 12 years, beginning in 1998 with a 31-13 win.

St. Thomas came close a few times, including a 15-12 loss in 2003 after a Johnnies field goal in the final seconds.

“I remember 2003. We won the national championship that year, and one of the closest games we had was at St. Thomas,” said Fasching, who served as an assistant coach then.

Offenses shined in 2007, when the rivals had their highest-scoring game of the series, a 51-34 win by the Johnnies.

Caruso-Fasching era

It took overtime in 2010 for St. Thomas to snap the losing streak with a 27-26 victory. That win commenced the Tommies’ recent edge in the series.

St. Thomas rolled 63-7 in 2011, but St. John’s ended a three-year skid in 2013 to win 20-18 on a missed Tommies field goal, Fasching’s first win over St. Thomas after taking the helm. The Johnnies won again in 2014, but the Tommies have won three straight since, including the 2015 playoffs.

“Being able to win both of those games in ‘15 is probably a memory I don’t think people are going to forget anytime soon,” Caruso said.

This year’s Tommie-Johnnie contest at Target Field, first announced Oct. 17, 2016, will mark the first-ever football game at the Twins’ new grounds. The rivalry is “a tangible reminder of the importance of football on college campuses and not just what it can do for pride,” Caruso said, “but also for what it can do for building community, camaraderie and togetherness.”

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