Johnnies vs. Tommies in Div. III's top game

Inside the life of a Division III athlete (3:05)

Marty Smith spends a day with Saint John's linebacker Drake Matuska and learns about what it is like to be a student athlete. (3:05)

It's the first question for St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso every season. The one he's been asked since he accepted the gig in 2008.

'What are you gonna do to beat Saint John's?'

The Saint John's-St. Thomas rivalry is Division III football's Alabama-Auburn streamed through a private-school, Minnesota Nice filter.

On Saturday, the two squads will play for the 84th time in Collegeville, Minnesota, where SportsCenter on the Road will broadcast from the Saint John's campus that morning at 7 a.m. ET.

"This is the grandest showcase in Division III athletics," said Tom Stock, Saint John's athletic director.

They'll play for the Holy Grail, which was created to honor the rivalry's 100th anniversary in 2001. But they no longer compete for the original trophy.

"The original trophy disappeared in the late 2000s, so they bought a new one," said Ryan Klinkner, Saint John's sports information director. "It's probably in someone's man cave somewhere."

This annual battle pits high school friends against one another as families mixed with Tommies and Johnnies. Saint John's owns a 51-31-1 edge in the game that will have Interstate 94 choked with traffic. Fans, who have long since chosen sides, will shake hands with old pals on the field after the game and grab postgame drinks together at Sal's in the nearby town of St. Joseph's.

"You would probably know the vast majority of the guys that are on your sideline or against you," Caruso said.

The schools are 84 miles apart but they recruit the same standouts from Minneapolis and St. Paul. Saint John's is surrounded by greenery, trees and lakes, and St. Thomas is tucked into a cozy St. Paul neighborhood. They're both Catholic schools (Saint John's is all-male) with tuition, room and board above $45,000 per year and a combined enrollment of over 8,000.

"People will refer to us as rednecks and we'll kind of toss back to them that they're mama's boys," said Henry Dorgan, a Saint John's student with a brother who played baseball at St. Thomas and a father who won a national championship in 1976 as a member of Saint John's football team. "... I was thinking of making a sign that says 'St. Thomas is my safety school' because it was."

Saint John's (3-0) and St. Thomas (2-0), ninth and 15th respectively in the Division III AFCA Coaches poll, will play at Clemens Stadium, which officially seats 7,482 but will get clogged with nearly 15,000 after a few adjustments will allow more fans to find slivers of dirt, concrete and grass inside and around the stadium.

"We've got plans to remove 20 sections of fence," Stock said. "We're doing things Division III schools don't do to have to prepare for these types of crowds. So this really is a very different week. Park all these people, flow the traffic off the interstate to making sure we can feed them."

Added St. Thomas athletic director Steve Fritz: "They've got 15,000 tickets but there aren't 15,000 seats."

The Saint John's-St. Thomas football rivalry began with beer.

I.A. O'Shaughnessy, who starred for Saint John's in the first game between the two squads in 1901, ditched evening prayer services one night with a buddy the following year and sneaked into the woods to tap a keg. They got caught and were immediately expelled. Accounts of his life say O'Shaughnessy hopped a train to St. Paul, to avoid his parents who lived in nearby Stillwater, and enrolled at St. Thomas after the school's president admired his honesty about his violations at his previous school.

O'Shaughnessy made a fortune in various business ventures after graduating from St. Thomas and committed more than $100 million in today's dollars to various facilities, including the construction of O'Shaughnessy Stadium in 1947.

"I think [the stadium] gave people a reason to rally around the program, and perhaps it gave people more of a reason to want to play football," said Doug Hennes, a St. Thomas historian and administrator.

The arrival of John Gagliardi in 1953 changed Saint John's football and the rivalry. Prior to Gagliardi, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame after a record 489 wins and four national titles, St. Thomas held a 12-6-1 advantage. The Johnnies won 45 of the next 64 meetings. Caruso, a three-time national coach of the year who led St. Thomas to the Division III title game in 2012, helped balance the rivalry, although Saint John's won last year's meeting 24-14.

Many matchups have been defined by wild finishes. Saint John's stopped St. Thomas on the 1-inch line twice in the final seconds of a win in 2008. St. Thomas lost again after overcoming a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter the following year. St. Thomas missed a game-winning field goal in the last seconds in 2013.

History favors the Johnnies. And Pope Francis' visit won't help the Tommies.

They're 2-7 against Saint John's in years when a pope has visited America.

Neither side, however, considers the stats and odds as this matchup approaches.

Saint John's vs. St. Thomas always justifies the hype, especially once the game ends.

"People will go into St. Joseph's and start partying their lives away," said Henry Dorgan. "Johnnies and Tommies."