Minnesota league is for losers

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

My alma mater, the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, has been booted out of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for winning too much.

Really.

All but three of the dozen member institutions voted to give the Tommies the bum’s rush from the NCAA Division III (non-scholarship) conference that St. Thomas founded a century ago. We don’t know who the three dissenters were because the whole process was conducted in secret. These cowards take public funds to give scholarships, build facilities and offer hot dogs at football games, but they don’t trust the public with revealing their stewardship of those funds.

St. Thomas used its resources to build a powerhouse of a university in the middle of the Twin Cities. Enrollment has grown from my time in the late 1970s of 1,800 men to today with 10,000 co-ed students. Meanwhile, other private colleges are foundering. St. Thomas founded a law school, Hamline’s folded. It has the largest MBA program in Minnesota. What does Concordia offer — a pipe organ major? The conference allowed in Carleton, which couldn’t beat Grinnell on a good day.

Even with all that enrollment and and financial success, St. Thomas remained lousy at football. I returned with brother John and our sons to watch a game against rival St. John’s a decade ago, and the Purple Tide was down 50-0 at halftime to the Johnnies. This despite being twice the enrollment of the visiting team from St. Cloud. We left since St. Thomas had no band to play at halftime, because it never had a fight song that I ever heard.

Nobody complained then.

Not until Glenn Caruso showed up from just down Grand Avenue at Macalester, traditionally the doormat of the conference and the Harvard of St. Paul. Macalester let him get away after just a couple years. Previously he coached at North Dakota and South Dakota and wanted to get out of scholarship athletics and back to the basics. Macalester fumbled.

Caruso used charisma to turn around the St. Thomas program. It dominated the Minnesota league, and even put the spanking on St. John’s. They went too far in beating St. Olaf 97-0. All the 300-pound Lutheran Oles volunteered as first tenors for choir that day and forgot to suit up for the game. Plus, the Tommies were winning in men’s and women’s basketball, Joe Mauer’s brothers and cousins were playing baseball and beating the Cuban national team, and so on. Gustavus Adolphus maintained its prominence in tennis all the while, but fearing for that and Lutheran fraternity no doubt joined St. Olaf in humiliating themselves through athletic exorcism.

Private colleges are having a tremendously tough time. It is difficult to recruit a non-scholarship pre-med football player when your team lay hobbled and bleeding on the field, left scattered by the superior opponents. Just shut out the competition, and you solve the problem. That is how President Trump deals with China.

Yet the problem persists. The league members admit they don’t have the wherewithal to compete with an institution that is determined to win — whether in football, engineering, baseball or law.

I could care less about St. Thomas sports. I went to one or two football games in five years of academic abeyance. I am not crazy about its growth spurt and how it left sister school St. Catherine’s at the altar 40-some years ago by going co-ed — I have a long memory. It’s just that the eviction done in secret teaches an abject lesson that if you cannot compete, you just can turn inward and rejoice that you held those brutes at the walls.

And they invite you to pay $5 to watch their losing football team.

The answer for private colleges is to excel, to offer something better than Minnesota State, to provide an exceeding value for that fat tuition check. Bethel and Augsburg can boast that they are sheltering the young lambs from the buffets of a north wind and the wolves out there in the woods. But when confronted beyond the ivy arches they run away from a smart competitor.

St. Thomas will have to go to Wisconsin to play, where the DIII schools like Whitewater and Eau Claire can stand the assault. Or, it could choose to go into Division I, which would take a decade. The alumni don’t want that. They never went to the games in the first place. They want St. Thomas to win without athletic scholarships. And beat St. John’s at least every other year.

That is what the rest of Minnesota can’t stand. They don’t know how to adapt — Macalester, hire back Caruso or go find the next one. They can’t muster the effort. It is a sorry indictment.

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