Family Feud: St. Thomas vs. St. John's

Both schools love the long-running, fierce and often funny St. Thomas-St. John's athletic rivalry

The memories make you smile. The game atmosphere makes your heart race. The victories make you feel proud. The losses make you miserable. The T-shirts make you blush. It’s the rivalry. The St. Thomas-St. John’s athletic rivalry.

Long before Minnesotans told jokes about Iowans, and seemingly as long as St. Paul and Minneapolis have traded verbal shots, the Tommies and Johnnies have battled for superiority on football and soccer fields, basketball and tennis courts, golf and cross-country courses, swimming pools, sheets of ice, wrestling mats, baseball diamonds and 400-meter tracks.

Whether you wore purple and chanted "Go Back to the Woods," or wore red and sat in the Rat section and chanted "Go Back to the City," you’ve come to love this rivalry. Occasionally, security guards have been forced to remove overly rowdy students from the venue. Legend has it that some students at St. John’s have been kicked out twice in the same game.

In Northfield, Carleton and St. Olaf colleges display amazing passion in pursuit of something called a Goat Trophy. To the north, crosstown rivals Moorhead State and Concordia-Moorhead spar intensely. But ask those who have played in, coached in or merely witnessed the Tommie-Johnnie competition and they’ll agree it’s on a plane of its own.

Call it the "So’s-Your-Mother" of all Minnesota college rivalries.

Blood, Guts, Pride

"It has to be one of the top small-college rivalries in the country," said Steve Fritz, the Tommies’ athletic director and basketball coach of 20 seasons. "It’s as good as it gets. When these schools come together, you know there will be great crowds, which is unusual for Division III. Many times the games are televised, which is also unusual, and followed closely by the media. We drew a legitimate 10,000 fans for the football game in the Metrodome (in 1997). More than 8,000 fans came to the St. Thomas campus for this year’s Sept. 25 football game." (St. Thomas lost, 34-18.)

"I think the St. Thomas-St. John’s rivalry is the epitome of what college athletics are supposed to be," said Joe Sweeney, a Tommie Hall of Famer as a distance runner and 20-year women’s cross country and track coach.

"There’s no big money, no athletic scholarships, just people doing it on blood and guts and pride. From my first season at St. Thomas as a freshman cross country runner, it seemed like St. John’s was the only opponent that mattered. To a certain degree 25 years later, it’s still the same."

They have John Gagliardi, we had Vince Lombardi Jr.. They have the NCAA football playoff banners, but we have the football alums in the NFL. They have the beauty of the country, but we have the buzz of the cities. They have convenient parking, we have women.

For most of the century, the Tommie-Johnnie games have turned mild-mannered young people — scholars and leaders by day — into crazed fans. Students paint their faces and paint the town, road tripping to and from Collegeville in a remarkable display of school spirit.

"Having that game on your campus just energizes your school," said Mal Scanlan, a UST development officer and head football coach from 1993 to 1997. His successor, coach Don Roney, says simply: "Every year it’s a classic."

"If people want to see one game that captures the best of small-college athletics, come to the Tommie-Johnnie game," said Anthony LaPanta, a Minnesota Twins radio broadcaster and 1990 St. John’s grad who has covered the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for more than a decade as a cable TV and radio broadcaster.

"I think it’s a very good, healthy rivalry," said St. John’s Jim Smith, athletic director and head basketball coach of 36 seasons. "The teams are always extremely competitive and play hard, no matter what the records. There’s always been a mutual respect between the two schools."

"For the most part, my players consider the St. John’s guys their best friends of anybody we play against," said St. Thomas’ men’s golf coach David Landry, a Ph.D. who also teaches in the Theology Department. "They’ve played together in high school and in the summers. We’ve even started holding a St. Thomas-St. John’s match play tournament that has a Ryder Cup-like atmosphere."

Part of what makes this rivalry flourish is the overall excellence of athletics at both institutions, plus the fact that the teams are so evenly matched. The Catholic universities showcase some of the best Division III has to offer in student-athletes and coaches. Adding to the tradition, most of the St. John’s and St. Thomas coaches are either alumni of their schools or have worked 20 or more years in their jobs. They’ve instilled a unique appreciation of what it means to beat the archrival.

"It’s just a great, competitive game for the players, which is what Division III is all about," Fritz said.

Conference Excellence

St. Thomas and St. John’s have consistently ranked first or second in the 23-year history of the MIAC all-sports competition. Either the Tommies (18 titles, five runner-up finishes) or the Johnnies (four titles, 16 runner-up finishes) have won the all-sport competition every season except 1978-79. In many sports, the road to a MIAC championship goes through either UST, SJU or both.


  • The schools have accounted for every conference indoor and outdoor track championship since 1983. The Tommies have won all 15 conference indoor track titles, and 16 of the last 18 outdoors. The Johnnies won the other two outdoors. In cross country, the Tommies (14) and Johnnies (11) have combined to win 25 of the last 31 MIAC titles.
  • The schools have won or shared the last 11 MIAC hockey championships (nine by UST, two by the Johnnies). Last season, the Tommies won the championship and reached the NCAA playoffs despite losing both games with the Johnnies. It marked the first time in history — covering 16 seasons, and 250 games — that UST was swept in a regular-season conference series.
  • The schools have won the MIAC post-season men’s basketball tournament seven times in the 15-year history of the playoffs. They’ve also won or shared the regular-season championship nine times in the last 14 years.
  • The schools have won five of the last six MIAC baseball championships. In Coach Dennis Denning’s five seasons as St. Thomas coach, the Tommies have swept 37 of 50 conference doubleheaders and were swept only once — you guessed it, by the Johnnies in 1998. The Tommies avenged that sweep a month later with a victory over St. John’s in the NCAA playoffs.
  • The schools have won or shared the MIAC football title 10 of the last 17 seasons (eight by the Johnnies, two by the Tommies).

Of course, it’s not the numbers and statistics that make the rivalry. It’s the people and the personalities.

Family Feud

When you get past the courtside trash talking and off-season ribbing, you realize that the institutions are more alike than different. Many students and alumni either strongly considered attending the other school, or have a family member who did.

Take the Edstrom family of Maple Grove. Scott Edstrom is a proud Johnnie who wears an NCAA championship football ring from 1976, his senior season, when he was a starting running back on Gagliardi’s most accomplished team. So it surprised some in 1998 when Scott’s son, Bryan, a standout left-handed pitcher at Totino-Grace, chose to enroll at St. Thomas.

"Both schools recruited Bryan pretty hard," Scott said. "He wanted to major in business, and St. Thomas is well respected for its business program and has a great alumni network. Dennis Denning just did a great job of selling him first on his education and then on baseball."

Bryan helped the Tommies make school and conference history last season. He had a 5-0 record with a 1.03 earned-run average as a starter to help the Tommies win the MIAC (19-1) and become the first conference team to reach the Division III College World Series. UST settled for second place in the national tournament.

"Bryan loves it and is very comfortable at St. Thomas," Scott Edstrom said. "It was a very exciting experience for us last season. We kid each other about the Tommies and Johnnies a lot. But now I consider myself a football season ticket holder of both the Johnnies and the Tommies. My football loyalty is with St. John’s, but my baseball loyalty is understandably with the Tommies."

Alumni Spirit

The Tommie-Johnnie battles have created some of the best career memories for players and coaches at both schools. Scanlan said every one of his Tommie-Johnnie pep talks included this reminder: "Savor the opportunity, because it’s special. Not everyone gets to play in or be a part of a game like this."

Scanlan also credits the schools’ alumni for keeping the rivalry fun. "Everyone knows or works with or is related to people from the other school," Scanlan said. "People like to jab each other when they can and boast about their school.

"The best thing is that it has as much intensity as any great rivalry, without the bitterness or animosity. Once the game’s over, it’s over. The alumni, the coaches and the players understand that life isn’t centered on how the football team or the basketball team does."

Todd Fultz, who played football for the Johnnies in the late 1980s, summed up the players’ feelings on both sides. "A Saturday afternoon, the Tommie-Johnnie game — for sports in the state of Minnesota, that’s about as good as it gets," Fultz said.

"For three hours, you have the mindset that you don’t like the Tommies, and they don’t like the Johnnies. For three hours, it’s OK for everyone to act a little crazy. But when the game’s over, you stand on the field together and shake hands and talk about what a great day it was and appreciate how special it is to play college football. Whether it’s a big win or a tough loss, even John (Gagliardi) gives his players about 30 minutes on the field to be with family, friends and the other team before he calls us together for a post-game talk."

Scanlan laughs now when he recalls his first trip to Collegeville as St. Thomas head coach in 1993, with both teams sitting 5-0 in the MIAC standings. "The Johnnies had an exceptional team (eventual NCAA playoff semifinalist), but we were sort of doing it with mirrors," Scanlan said. "Just before the start of the game, some of our fans start chanting: "Over-rated, over-rated." I heard that and I said, ‘This does not bode well for us.’ I later heard that Gags called his team together and said, ‘Boys, we’re about to show them who’s overrated.’ They beat us 69-13."

But Scanlan eventually got a measure of revenge. He decided that 1997 would be his last season as head coach, but never told his players his plan. The teams played in the final game in the Metrodome, and the Tommies drove 90 yards in the final three minutes to score the winning TD in a 31-27 victory. Thus Scanlan closed a 26-year head coaching career with a comeback win over the Johnnies and their legendary coach.

Close Finishes, Upsets in Football

The football rivalry has had its share of upsets and wild games. "Like every great rivalry, funny things seem to happen when these teams play," LaPanta said.

There was the 1913 football game, which according to St. Thomas records was won by St. Thomas by the score of — Holy Gagliardi! — 93-0. Take heart Johnnie fans — that Tommie team finished the season 9-0 and outscored opponents by a whopping 378-7.

There was 1949, the season after St. Thomas’ historic appearance in the Cigar Bowl on New Year’s Day 1949. The Tommies played the Johnnies in Collegeville in the final game with a 19-game conference win streak and the MIAC championship on the line. The Johnnies rallied to take a six- point-lead in the final quarter, but the Tommies drove down field and scored near the end to tie it. Don Simonsen made what proved to be the winning PAT kick in a 28-27 Tommie win.

Simonsen later said, "It was the biggest game between two Catholic schools, and a Lutheran made the winning kick."

The Johnnies came to St. Paul and stole a couple of memorable wins in 1985 (16-15 on a last-second field goal) and 1994 (35-34, with a couple of disputed plays aiding the Johnnie comeback).

But neither can match the 1992 game at O’Shaughnessy Stadium. The previous week, the Tommies had lost 37-7 to Augsburg, a team that had lost to the Johnnies 58-0 earlier in the season. But the Tommies weren’t intimidated. A fumble returned for a touchdown helped the underdogs stay within 12-7. When St. Thomas lined up for a field goal at the end of the first half, the Johnnies called a time out. UST then decided against a field-goal try and instead scored a TD and two-point conversion to take a 15-12 lead. The Johnnies fell short on numerous second-half drives and the game ended when a Tommie defender deflected a pass in the end zone to preserve the stunning three-point St. Thomas win.

Old Gyms Stoked Rivalries

Basketball certainly hasn’t taken a backseat in this rivalry.

St. Thomas alumni director Greg Hendricks remembers a wild finish of a game in his senior season in 1981 in Collegeville. "I tipped in a shot at the buzzer that won the game (52-51)," he said. "But the officials didn’t signal anything and ran off the court. The St. John’s official scorer didn’t put the points on the scoreboard. My teammates and I were celebrating, and the Johnnie fans initially thought they had won and they rushed the court. Fritz had to go down into the officials’ locker room and have them come back out to verify that the shot was good and we had won."

Even though the Tommies have won 10 of the last 12 men’s basketball meetings, few have been easy games. In the last meeting, in February 1999, it took three overtimes before the Tommies outlasted St. John’s 85-83 in Schoenecker Arena. It was nearly 10 years to the date of another three-overtime game won by the 1988-89 Tommies, 72-70 on the UST campus. Fritz’ teams are 8-0 against St. John’s in overtime games.

The 1992-93 Tommies had to play four games against the Johnnies, the latter two in the conference finals and the NCAA playoffs. St. Thomas won all four, although three of the four were decided by three or less points. The next season, the Johnnies handed MIAC champion St. Thomas its only two conference defeats, but UST won a rematch in the playoff finals and went on to become just the second conference men’s team to reach the NCAA Division III Final Four.

Denning played baseball for UST in the 1960s but he was several years removed from the intensity of the rivalry when he drove to a basketball game in Collegeville about 10 years ago. "I was athletic director at Cretin-Derham Hall and I know we didn’t tolerate much in the student sections," Denning said. "Then I go up there to St. John’s and I thought a riot was going to break out. I couldn’t believe what was going on. I see all these security guards taking people out of the gym. I find out later the security guys were just St. John’s students."

Even still, both sides agree that today’s games are relatively calm compared to the atmosphere before 1975, before the teams played in new, roomier arenas.

"When we played in the old gyms, the fans were right on top of the court," Smith recalls. "You talk about noise — you couldn’t hear yourself. You couldn’t get into the games if you didn’t have a ticket or show up by 4 p.m. I knew of two of our students who didn’t have tickets. They drove down the day of the game, went to the gym and played racquetball, then hid inside lockers so they could get into the building. Another time we got off the bus and saw some students climbing up a ladder and into a third-floor window."

"Our old gym held about 900 fans and all four sides had fans sitting virtually on the court," Fritz said. "As a player it was very exciting. But to play well, you had to try to avoid all the distractions."

People say it wasn’t unusual for home-court fans to grab an opposing player and hold him in the stands or try to pass him up the crowd. More than once, a player’s shorts were pulled down on an inbounds pass.

"There were some very intense games that occasionally produced some fights," Smith said. "I’m glad that doesn’t seem to happen anymore. It wasn’t the players and coaches who had problems — it was more the spectators who usually got out of control."

It wasn’t just the students who were caught up in the emotion of the games, however. UST’s Monsignor James Lavin laughs when he talks about beloved school nurse, Ann Scanlan. "Annie sat right behind the Tommie bench and she was famous for ringing a cowbell at the games," Lavin said. "I remember one night in that old gym at St. John’s. A fight broke out on the floor, and Annie was in the middle of it swinging her purse. I think Steve (Fritz) had to jump in and rescue her."

The one that got away

And if the Johnnies happen to get the best of St. Thomas, there is one way to silence an annoying Johnnie alum at your workplace. Just mention Ignatius Aloysius O’Shaughnessy. You know, the guy whose name is on so many buildings at St. Thomas. In his case, the Tommies lost the initial recruiting battle, but won the war.

O’Shaughnessy, the youngest of 13 children and the son of a shoemaker, left Stillwater at age 16 to attend St. John’s, where four of his older brothers had attended. He played on the 1901 Johnnie football team, which beat St. Thomas 16-0 in the first game between the two schools. Later that school year, O’Shaughnessy and several classmates skipped a vespers chapel service to go to a party. When the group was caught, the punishment was swift — all were expelled from school.

Not wanting to face his parents, O’Shaughnessy took a bus straight to the St. Thomas campus and threw himself at the mercy of the priest in charge of admissions. He admitted wrongdoing and was given another chance at college. He went on to star in football, serving as the Tommies’ team captain in 1905. He stayed on at the school after graduation and worked as the St. Thomas business manager.

O’Shaughnessy later moved to Oklahoma, founded Globe Oil Company and became one of the country’s most prominent businessmen. He developed a worldwide reputation for philanthropy to Catholic causes. He was a part owner of the Cleveland Indians from 1956 to 1962, and his friends included former president Herbert Hoover, church and university leaders.

His major gift in 1940 let St. Thomas build a state-of-the-art athletic building, and subsequent gifts provided for a football stadium. When he died in 1973 at age 88, O’Shaughnessy left much of his estate to three institutions — St. Thomas, St. Catherine and Notre Dame.

The moral of the story — St. Thomas was lucky to have a friend like I.A. O’Shaughnessy. And when it comes to athletics, the Tommies are lucky to have an "enemy" like St. John’s.

Cliff Knippel warms up to the Johnnies

Cliff Knippel remembers that during his football playing days at St. Thomas in the mid-1960s, he didn’t like St. John’s. "I have a brother named John who is 15 years younger than me," Cliff said. "I remember coming home and telling my parents how much I hated the Johnnies. My little brother was confused. He asked my Mom why I hated him."

When Cliff’s son, Kip, graduated from Cretin-Derham Hall a few years ago, he decided he wanted to move away from the familiar surroundings of St. Paul and expand his horizons for college. Sorry, Dad, he didn’t want to be a Tommie. Worse yet, he was going to St. John’s.

"I always joke with Kip that he went to St. John’s because he couldn’t get admitted academically into St. Thomas," Cliff said. "Actually, Kip grew up in the neighborhood and played at Cretin-Derham Hall for Mal Scanlan and Dennis Denning, who now are at St. Thomas. I would have liked to have seen him at St. Thomas. He also was looking at Drake, but I told him if he wanted to eventually work in Minnesota he should go to college here. And if he wanted to play football, there’s no better football school than St. John’s."

Cliff’s two Minneapolis law partners also lobbied for their old schools —- Roger Aronson for St. John’s and Reed Ruschmiller for Gustavus. St. John’s won out, and Cliff eventually became comfortable with rooting for the red guys.

"I hated the Johnnies back when I was a student, but after sharing in Kip’s experience, I love them," Cliff explained. "St. John’s now is just like St. Thomas was when I went here in the 1960s — all male, a fun atmosphere. The settings of both schools are a little different, but both are a lot of fun."

Kip, who’s now attending William Mitchell College of Law, scored three touchdowns against the Tommies, one each in 1995, 1996 and 1997. But as Cliff explains, "I had to remind Kip those weren’t the first points scored by a family member in this rivalry. We beat St. John’s when I was a senior in 1967 by a score of 13-2 — and I was tackled for a safety to give the Johnnies their only points."

Tom Grudnowski warms up to St. Thomas

St. John’s basketball alum Tom Grudnowski has two profound memories of playing St. Thomas in basketball. In 1969, as a freshman point guard, Grudnowski made the winning shot to give the Johnnies their first win in St. Paul under Coach Jim Smith. More important, the victory led to St. John’s first MIAC basketball championship.

Two years later, Grudnowski made another buzzer-beating basket in St. Paul — or so he thought. The officials eventually ruled it came after the buzzer sounded, and the Tommies won the game. "The Johnnie fans were carrying me around the gym, but the officials didn’t know if it beat the clock," he explained. "They came over to ask the official scorer, who was a Tommie, and he said it came after the buzzer. We went down to the locker room and watched it on the videotape, and it was good. But they never reversed the call, and we lost."

Grudnowski had a deal in mind when he brought his daughter Sarah, a standout student-athlete from Blake, to UST for a campus visit in the spring of 1997. He could swallow his alumni pride and allow Sarah to be a Tommie and play basketball and softball on one condition. "We had a great campus visit, and Steve Fritz, who played against me in both of those memorable games, did a great job of selling St. Thomas.

"So I said, ‘We’ll send Sarah to school here —- if you finally admit the basket I made should have counted.’ Of course, Steve never would admit it."

Grudnowski said Sarah’s decision to be a Tommie has turned out well. Not only is she a key member of the Tommies’ nationally ranked women’s basketball team, she also stars in softball. She led the conference in batting average last season (.493 with 34 hits in 22 MIAC games) as a leadoff hitter, and helped the Tommies reach the NCAA playoffs.

Gene McGivern is in his sixth year as sports information director at St. Thomas. He’s a graduate of Iowa State University. His wife (the former Barbara Lammers ’90), and three of his brothers are St. Thomas alums, although his cousin works at St. John’s.