A Hidden Rivalry in the Realm of Division III Football
A tradition that dates back decades brings to rival private schools together once a year for the biggest Division III football game of the year. Tommie-Johnnie is more than a football game, especially this season.
A brisk Saturday morning brought fans from five minutes away, to an hour and a half away for the biggest game of the year on their schedules. The Johnnies from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, played host to the Tommies from St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This game dates back 88 years for two private Catholic Universities in the middle of Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
This year, the game would be more important to the Johnnies from St. John’s University. The week before their most important game of the year, legendary coach John Gagliardi passed away at the age of 91. He was the winningest coach in college football history, coaching for a record 64 seasons, with his final record after 2012 being 489-138-11, along with four national championships. John’s granddaughter Rachel Gagliardi is a senior at the College of St. Benedict’s, which is the women’s college that is connected with St. John’s. Gagliardi mourned the death of her grandfather but was proud to celebrate his history to St. John’s football on the 88th Tommie-Johnnie Game. “I’m so thankful that so many people have stories to tell about him, so I will always get more grandpa stories,” Rachel Gagliardi said. “To almost everyone, he was just John. But to me and my best friends he was just grandpa.”
The scene hours before kickoff is tailgates that line up and down the parking lots near Clemens Stadium on St. John’s campus. Students and alumni arrived the night before to secure their tailgate parking spot and most alumni had children that were current students at both schools. A senior at the College of St. Benedicts, Briana Ziemer called it, “The most hype game of the year.”
At around 10:00 AM, three hours before kickoff, the parking lot was completely full. You could walk up and down each parking spot and say hello to either a Johnnies family, or Tommies, and they would offer you food or a drink. “It’s cool when we host it, and all the Tommies come for the game, so our school really prides themselves in their Benedictine hospitality for the Tommies,” Ziemer said.
Right around noon, the students would make their way towards Clemens Stadium to grab a spot in the student section bleachers to cheer on their respective school. The stadium had a divided color scheme, with purple coating the north and east sides of the stadium, and red on the south and west sides. Nearly 17,000 fans were in attendance for a Division III football game, crowds that you would never expect in a small town in Minnesota.
The amount of school pride for both of these programs were obvious, two undefeated teams meeting in the middle of their schedules, which would determine how the rest of their season would go for the NCAA Division III Playoffs. Normally the winner of this game would finish the season undefeated and grab one of the top seeds in the playoffs, and this year, the home team would take the prize, their first win over the Tommies in three seasons.
The students would storm the field and greet their fellow classmates and congratulate them on a victory that meant way more than in years past. Some Johnnie players showed emotion as they won for their first time in the collegiate career over their rivals, honoring a former head coach and his legacy the weekend after his death. The town of St. Joseph, Minnesota would celebrate as the night went on, and bars would be crowded until 2:00 AM the following morning celebrating, what was dubbed by ESPN, the best rivalry in Division III sports. A senior wide receiver for the Johnnies, Tommy Auger, said, “This victory meant a lot for my final season. Being from a town less than 30 minutes away from here gives this game a whole new meaning for me, and to honor coach Gagliardi with this win before they lay him to rest brings a new meaning to Tommie-Johnnie.”