When Glenn Caruso took over the NCAA Division III football team at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, he wasn’t expecting instant success. However, when people ask him if he could have imagined being where he is today, his answer is a resounding yes.
Caruso has taken the Tommies to the playoffs in all but one season since 2009. He won the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award three times, the American Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year award twice, and was the American Football Magazine’s Coach of the Year once. He also guided his team to the DIII National Championship Game in 2012 and 2015.
Important Stops Along the Way
Born in 1974 in Greenwich, Connecticut, Caruso didn’t start life wanting to be a coach. He played football at Ithaca College in upstate New York. Caruso, who describes himself as a wildly average athlete on his best day, learned what it was like to be well coached and discovered his passion for coaching there, but it was his father who set him on the path to become a leader of men. He was preparing to go to law school when his dad helped him realize he loved developing people, communities, and the game of football. His advice was to get as far away from there as possible and find himself. That’s when Caruso got his first coaching job at North Dakota State, where he spent the first seven years of his coaching career.
After North Dakota State, Caruso had stops at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, South Dakota, and Macalester College (St.Paul) before settling into the St. Thomas job in 2008. The year prior to Caruso taking over, the Tommies were a 2-8 team in a school that was accustomed to winning. After he entered the equation, however, the program made a complete turn and finished its next season at 7-3. Caruso says the biggest contributor to their instant success was belief.
“We went from 206th in the nation to 2nd pretty quick, but that was not the intention. The intention was not for it to be a quick turn but a sustainable turn, built on a very strong foundation,” Caruso says.
Finding The Right Fit
Buying in is something Caruso thinks is very important to establish a successful culture. Recruiting athletes at the DIII level is always an interesting process, one he admits he failed at miserably early on in his career; that is, until he found his angle.
“Early in my career I thought recruiting was sales, and even though we might have gotten kids that were highly ranked, we didn’t find all the guys we needed to change the mentality of the culture the way that I wanted to. Now I realize that it’s about being ridiculously honest with who you are, who you’re not, and not trying to be something you’re not,” Caruso says.
“That’s something I think we do a really good job of. We may not be fancy, we may not be flashy, but we are absolutely authentic and the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be.”
Finding the right type of athlete to build a culture around is another piece of the puzzle.
“The first thing you’ll probably see if you walk into our locker room is a sign that says, ‘If you enter this locker room please hold yourself and your teammates to the highest of standards, and if you are unable to do that please allow me to hold you to your highest of standards,’” he says.
The Role Of Good Leaders
Most sports require assistant coaches. Football in particular requires many assistants in order to run the ship at its maximum level.
“When you think about your coaching staff, you’re trying to build a culture, and it all starts with those early adopters and that first ring of leadership,” Caruso says. “They have to buy in and believe at the highest level. That being said, even though the way we do things and the core principles will never change, how they convey the message will. I think that’s important because I may be one way as a person and I might have a coach on my staff whose persona is completely different. That doesn’t mean he can’t spread the same message I would, he’s just going to do it in his own manner.”
Caruso’s attention to detail, commitment to accountability, and the feeling of family he instills on his team have made the Tommies’ football program one to be reckoned with.