Glenn Caruso Has Tommies Performing in Perfect Harmony
He may not have the voice of the esteemed Enrico Caruso. In fact, it is quite likely that he will tell you through his gruff voice, the product of years of yelling out plays and encouragement to players, that it is anything but poetic. However, St. Thomas Head Football Coach Glenn Caruso is truly a maestro in his own right. In 12-seasons as its conductor, he has turned the Tommies football program into a true masterpiece, as beautiful in its choreography as any symphony you will ever watch and as formidable in their play as any team that will ever take to the gridiron.
Words of Wisdom Become the Foundation for Success
To say that Glenn Caruso has turned the St. Thomas football program into a success is akin to saying that the Sun radiates a fair amount of heat. It took him just one season to turn a program struggling to find its identity into one of the four or five best Division-III programs in the country, creating a mystique that few coaches can match.
However, the life of Coach Caruso could have gone south early on. Tragically, the Coach lost his mother on Christmas Day when he was just eight years old. To help care for his family, his father, Frank “Bucky” Caruso, moved his law practice home. This allowed him to spend more time with his family, and it also enabled him to coach Pop Warner football.
Because of the influence of his father it looked like Coach Caruso’s career path was not destined for the gridiron. In fact, it looked for a time that he was more likely to be called Glenn Caruso, Esquire than Coach. “I just wanted to do whatever my dad was doing,” Coach Caruso explains. “I got done with college and I was going to go to law school and do what my dad did. He was pretty dynamic and I wanted to be just like him.”
That is when his father gave him quite possibly the best piece of advice he has ever received. “He kind of grabbed me by the proverbial ear and said, ‘Man, what are you doing? I am passionate about the law. Six o’clock, the alarm goes off. I jump out of bed because I found my passion.’
“He said, ‘Your passion is growing people, building cultures, improving human lessons in life. Football is obviously the way for you.’”
To help his son find himself, his dad told him it was time for him to get away and learn who it was he wanted to be. “We were not in any way an athletic family, but he was like ‘You’re in love with football,’ and he said, ‘Get in your little Volkswagen and get as far away from here as you possibly can and figure out who you are.’ It was kind of a sort of a romantic ‘Go West young man’ meaning ‘don’t trade on my name,’ and I did what he said. So, if you put all the little towns in the United States on a continuum, the opposite of Greenwich, Connecticut is Fargo, North Dakota, and that’s exactly where my Volkswagen ended up.”
Go West Young Man
Heeding his father’s advice, Glenn Caruso did pack up his Volkswagen after completing his degree at Ithaca College. He headed for North Dakota State where he earned a Master’s Degree in Education. He also spent six years on the Bison’s coaching staff, serving as running backs and tight ends coach, as well as becoming the team’s offensive coordinator.
In 2003, the Coach served as the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin-Eau Claire before becoming the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks’ coach at South Dakota State. He would be there for two seasons before finally earning his chance as a head coach, taking over the Macalester College job in 2006.
The Scots job was truly a challenge. This was considered one of the worst, if not the worst football program in the country. Macalester was coming off an 0-9 season, but he began to turn that around right away, leading the team to a 2-7 record in his first year. That may not seem like a great deal of progress but, considering that Macalester was 2-25 in their previous three seasons combined, it was a Herculean improvement.
Building a Winner for the ‘Common Good’
The next season, the Scots went 4-5 under Glenn Caruso and it looked like they were clearly on the rise. That caught the attention of St. Thomas University, who was also looking for a turnaround in their own program.
The Tommies were struggling in the very tough Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). With powerhouse programs like St. John’s and Concordia and Bethel becoming a beast in their own right, St. Thomas was often relegated to also rans. The Tommies were coming off a 2-7 campaign in 2007 and had won 97 games in the previous 17 seasons, an average of just over five wins per year.
St. Thomas was putting their hopes that Coach Caruso was the answer, and it was not surprising that he was selected as the team’s coach prior to the 2008 season. There was already a lot of talk that he was the ideal fit for the Tommies, something that the Coach believes is true today. “I think the job fits me well and I think I fit our university.”
However, Coach Caruso does not believe this was his prophetic destiny. He did a lot of homework before deciding that St. Thomas was where his career path was headed. “I think like anything else you do your due diligence to try and vet the situation and figure it out. It doesn’t matter whether it’s recruiting, whether it’s finding the person you’re going to marry, or you’re finding a job, it’s all really the same in my eyes. It’s doing your due diligence to find out the information that you need to know to make a good, solid decision, and then every day thereafter waking up getting ready to go to work with the intent of making that decision correct.”
Maybe it isn’t destiny that Glenn Caruso came to St. Thomas, but it did not take him long before he had was a kind of savior, resurrecting the Tommies into a beast in the MIAC and a regular contender for the National Championship.
In 2008, the Tommies went 7-3, finishing second in the conference with a 5-3 record. The seven victories nearly matched the team’s combined total from the pervious two seasons (8-12), and served notice to the coaches in Arden Hills, Collegeville, and Moorhead that their days of dominating the conference were about to come to an end.
In 2009, the team went 11-2, reaching the Division-III quarterfinals. The next three seasons, the Tommies went undefeated during the regular season, going a combined 39-3, reaching the quarterfinals again in 2010, the semifinals in 2011, and the championship game in 2012, where they fell to Mount Union.
The Tommies have made four more trips to the playoffs in the last six years, including reaching the championship game in 2015. During his 12 years conducting this team, St. Thomas is 126-21, including 85-11 in conference play. They have won the MIAC title seven times and the Maestro has three times been named the Liberty Mutual Division III National Coach of the Year.
It’s Show Time!
If you have never been to the symphony before, it is quite an elaborate event. The average orchestra has as many as 100 performers. While you may not recognize how well the fifth violinist played, you would sure notice if he or she was a second late or if they hit the wrong note. One minor mistake could ruin the entire performance.
The same is true in football. One play can be a difference maker. One mistake can be so magnified because it literally cost the team the game.
This is not lost on Glenn Caruso at all. He wants to make sure that not a single play is wasted. While some coaches look at their team punting as a loss since they are giving up the ball, the Maestro is looking at every play as a difference maker. This is why he has made special teams such a priority, recognizing that these are often the plays that have the biggest impact on the game.
“I love all of my three babies (offense, defense, and special teams) but you can probably argue that it’s (special teams) close to 15% of total reps, but the return on the investment of those reps are very large because the amount of yards to be gained or lost is so much higher on those plays than most others.”
It is this recognition that ensures that when his special teams units are on the field that he is laser focused. “A lot of other coaches see special teams as the time where you get water or the coach gets to sit on the bench and talk to your offense. Not here and I think that has helped us to raise up our program.”
The fifth cello player in his section may not grab the headlines, but that person plays just as much of a role in the success of the performance as the first chair. The conductor must give that person a great deal of responsibility and opportunity even when they are the fourth chair in the French horn section because he or she never knows when that person may have to take on a more prominent role.
The Tommies Maestro understands that as well. He wants to ensure that his players are given the opportunity to shine when called upon, and has developed a strategy to keep their performance harmonious.
“Maybe a kid comes in and he’s a really good running back. He shows up and, after three weeks of fall camp, all of a sudden, they have to play a football game. Maybe he doesn’t understand the entire offense or all the protections or all the checks or all the alignments, but he has a singleness of purpose to be able to return a kickoff or punt or whatever. So, I think we do a pretty decent job of identifying those skills necessary to play that position and then placing those guys in a in a pretty good spot. That’s something I love about special teams.”
Teaching Life Lessons
It is ironic that his father saw Glenn Caruso as one who would help grow people and improve life lessons. The name Caruso means “young apprentice” and the Coach has seen his role as being far more than a guy calling plays or teaching Xs and Os.
The young men under his charge are looking for someone to help them reach their personal goals in life, and their parents are wanting to know that the man they entrusted their sons to is someone who will help them become impressive young men. These are awesome responsibilities and ones that the Coach does not take lightly.
“This is a family here. You may not be able to spend the same amount of time with each of your kids all the time, but they still need to know that you love them. You have intentionally try to make sure that they know you care about them. I think that starts by being ridiculously forthright. It’s not necessarily about telling someone why they’re so amazing, but putting them in situations where they have the chance to succeed so that they can be more successful in other parts of their life.”
Coach Caruso realizes that this is a team effort to have the kind of success the Tommies have had and to develop that kind of culture he desires. It requires a coaching staff he can depend upon to make this team a success. This is why the assistants he has chosen are the highest quality men.
“I have coaches on the staff, we may have known each other for 20 years before we hired them here. That’s because I believe that time is the great equalizer. You can’t pretend over time who you are and so what we look for are great men. Number one, I want great men who I am able to say this guy’s a ‘lights out football coach,’ but you know what? He’s even a better husband and father and teacher of life. He has to be a great teacher. So, that’s what we look for.”
While the coaching staff has to set the standard, it is the players that have to implement that standard. This is why it takes a special type of player to put on a Tommies’ uniform. Coach Caruso wants men that are the right fit for what he is trying to do, and has always keep a piece of advice from another mentor in the back of his mind whenever he is talking to a potential recruit.
“Coach Butterfield once told me , ‘Number one, it’s all about the people and culture that you have,’ and he said, number two, ‘It’s not the guys that you lose to competing schools that will hurt you. It’s the one that you get or take that you know, darn well should not be in that locker room. That will kill you.’ I thought that was a really unique way of looking at it. He was basically saying, you’re going to win, you’re going to lose, but you can’t change who you are. You can’t. You can’t mitigate or sacrifice your core beliefs.”
A Fly in the Ointment
While Glenn Caruso is conducting his team with incredible precision, recent events are making it a more challenging time for the Coach. The Covid-19 virus has schools across the country shutdown, sending his players back home when they should be participating in spring practice. Plus, recruiting has had to change dramatically as well, but the Maestro simply adlibbed.
“This is why building relationships is so important. Even in times like this you still build relationships, it just means that it might have to happen over the phone instead of in person or through some visit. I’m sure that there’ll be creative ways to utilize Skype or FaceTime or Zoom as well so we can build those relationships.”
If that isn’t enough of a challenge, this will be the last year that St. Thomas is in the MIAC. The Tommies have had so much success that they were nudged out of the conference, and now the Coach not only has to prepare his team for a 2020 season in the midst of a pandemic, but has to look to the future for what awaits his team and his school.
“I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter where we go, because I don’t think that’s true, but I’m a big believer that it’s not where you go, it’s who you go with. As long as we’re willing to go as St. Thomas, I’m going to be pretty proud to be the head football coach of that team,” the Coach explained in an interview with Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press.
With a Tip of the Baton
Pandemics, changing conferences, students sent home, travel restrictions. There are a lot of reasons to believe this will be a challenging year at St. Thomas, but don’t say that out loud to Glenn Caruso. These are just opportunities. Opportunities for his players to grow through adversary as well as for him to teach.
Teaching life lessons is what has been the focus for Coach Caruso since his father steered him toward coaching. This is why being a football coach has been such a perfect career path. For him and his coaching staff, it gives them the opportunity to teach life lessons to help the players grow into men that will change this world.
“What we’re doing is trying to teach life lessons through the medium of football. That’s what we do. Yes, we do the football piece as well and, yes, we’re fortunate enough to win more than our fair share of games, but that’s not who we are. So, as a coaching staff we want our players to understand that the passion that we have is not in scoring a touchdown or sacking a quarterback, but our passion lies in utilizing this great sport to be able to teach the lessons that we all have been taught. If I can give back half of what the sport has given to me, I would consider myself very fortunate.”
At 44, Glenn Caruso has already become one of the most successful coaches in all of college football. He has built the Tommies into a well-conducted team of young men playing in perfect harmony with one another. More importantly, he has provided life lessons that will help his players to be winners in life once they have moved on to the next chapter of their lives. That is the greatest accomplishment of all.
So, take a bow Maestro. You’ve earned it.
By Robert Pannier
All Images of Coach Caruso Courtesy of St. Thomas/Tommies Sports