It didn’t take long for St. Thomas Football to prove skeptics wrong.
When the Tommies kicked off their Division I era in 2021, the Pioneer Football League (PFL) coaches’ poll placed them near the bottom of the heap, in eighth place. Some 16 months after those first preseason polls, the Tommies left no doubt about their place at the top.
In season two of D-I play, St. Thomas won the PFL title outright on Nov. 19, defeating Butler on the road 27-13. Nearly two dozen teams have joined Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) football since 2004, and St. Thomas is the first program to win a championship in its first or second season.
“It’s something that’s unprecedented,” said Matt Weimann, senior offensive lineman. “It’s been really fun to take on a new challenge. It’s the same process, it’s just different teams we’re playing against.”
The word “unprecedented” has been used a lot since St. Thomas made its historic jump from D-III to D-I in July 2020. And it turns out making history is a good way to attract national attention.
St. Thomas found itself ranked in the AFCA Top 25 poll for FCS teams not long after defeating last year’s PFL champion, Davidson. Slowly creeping up the rankings each week, the team ended the 2022 season in the 19th spot. As the Tommies steadily defeated one conference foe after another en route to a 10-game winning streak, people took notice.
Media outlets near and far covered the Tommies’ rise, including ESPN and The Washington Post. For local Fox 9/KMSP-TV sports anchor Dawn Mitchell, the Tommies’ success was far from a surprise.
“While outsiders may have been skeptical about the leap to D-I at the beginning – the Tommies were not,” Mitchell said. “I have watched the fan base – which was already impressively strong – become increasingly powerful and confident this season.”
As she’s covered St. Thomas for Fox, Mitchell has noticed more fans engage with her reporting, especially as the marquee wins kept rolling in.
“The statement win over defending champion Davidson was fun to watch,” Mitchell said. “I am impressed at what Glenn Caruso and coaching staff as well as the players have done in just this second season in D-I.”
Waving the flag for St. Thomas
When the preseason polls of 2021 were released, coach Caruso certainly took note of how outsiders felt about his team as they entered the D-I era, and he’s happy to see there’s been a change in the conversation.
“As we’ve said forever, we’re going to proudly wave the flag for the University of St. Thomas,” Caruso said. “It’s just now more people are paying attention to what we’re waving.”
Since 2019 the number of media stories covering St. Thomas Athletics from other markets has grown more than tenfold, according to coverage tracked by media agency Meltwater. With the St. Thomas name showing up in more places than ever before, the university is reaping rewards far beyond its shiny new PFL championship trophy. A growing national presence has allowed St. Thomas to expand its visibility in markets all over the country, including Southern California, upstate New York and Indianapolis.
“We’ve seen a great deal of engagement, extension of our brand and outreach of our brand,” Vice President and Director of Athletics Phil Esten said. “It allows us to recruit not just student-athletes, but students at large in a more strategic way. And as we extend this reach nationally from coast to coast and border to border, it allows us to engage with our alumni in these markets as well.”
As the St. Thomas brand reaches more people, players say they’ve largely ignored the extra media hype. Instead, their on-field success has depended largely on focusing on what they can control: themselves.
“It’s kind of hard for us to think about it big picture because we’re just always talking about being present and staying in the moment, just being where your feet are and taking it one day at a time,” Trent Meyer said, a senior linebacker. “We’re just along for the ride and happy to be here.”
Coach Caruso has been proud to see his players transition so smoothly into the D-I era and the visibility it brings, keeping level heads and focus throughout a season of historic moments.
“That was the most heartwarming part – to see that meteoric rise and to see our kids handle it in tremendous stride,” Caruso said. “Until the very last game … They were simply trying to go out and be the best versions of themselves that they possibly could.”