Greenwich native, St. Thomas head coach Caruso getting better all the time

From the moment Greenwich native Glenn Caruso took over the University of St. Thomas football program, family was a high priority, whether it was his football family or coming home each day to his wife, Rachael, and their children. He talks about it all the time and values the precious time he spends with his loved ones.

This year, family helped Caruso and the Tommies reach heights yet to be seen at the school.

From his first day on the job at St. Thomas, Caruso dreamed of the day that he would lead his team out of the tunnel for competition in a championship game. While it seemed that it would take quite a while at first, Caruso was not to be denied.

That dream took another step to becoming a reality this season. With the team’s 28-14 victory over University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in the D-III semis, Caruso took the Tommies to the school’s first-ever NCAA Division III championship game and battled perennial powerhouse Mt. Union in Salem, Va.

Despite giving it their best shot, St. Thomas fell to the Purple Raiders in the 40th annual Stagg Bowl 28-10.

“Mt. Union has been the standard in Division III football for the past two decades,” Caruso said. “We had the opportunity to go to the title game, and there’s not another team we would have rather seen than them. That is a program other schools will measure their success against. It didn’t work out for us against them, but our kids have now seen the mountaintop and realize they belong there.”

With the loss, Caruso’s Tommies finished the season 14-1 overall. Since Caruso took over St. Thomas’s football program in 2008, they have exceeded last year’s goals. Advancing to the championship game was great for Caruso and his team to experience; however, he’s ready to improve for next season.

“The whole journey has been amazing,” Caruso said. “One of the things that I truly appreciate is that our kids appreciated the experience while in the midst of it, and that’s what made this year so special. Every year our kids have a ton of success and a few failures, but they haven’t ignored those failures. They’ve owned up to them, embraced them and learned from them. That’s why the team gets better. We have been getting better every year, and that means that next year we want to win it all.”

In addition to competing in the NCAA Division III championship game, the Tommies are once again in the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year spotlight. For the third consecutive year, Caruso is one of five Division III finalists who will be looking to take home the prestigious honor.

Two years ago, Caruso came up second in the voting and last year was top dog in D-III, taking home the hardware.

This year’s Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year awards will be announced Monday.

In addition to Caruso, Concordia University’s Lonnie Pries, Lake Forest College’s Jim Catanzaro, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s Pat Cerroni, and Coe College’s Steve Staker are the Division III finalists.

“I’m nominated for the third year in a row and it’s amazing,” Caruso said. “I’m not dumb and I understand that a lot of things go into winning an award like this. We get some amazing support from the community at St. Thomas and also my hometown community in Greenwich. The outreach from the folks we grew up with in Greenwich has been astounding and humbling. There are people that we haven’t spoken to in 20 years that I’ve reconnected with in the last two weeks, with our last two games on ESPN. A lot of people followed us.”

The winner from each NCAA division will get the Coach of the Year trophy, $50,000 to donate to a charity of choice, and a $20,000 grant to the school’s alumni association.

What Caruso has been able to accomplish with the Tommies is nothing short of incredible. After taking over a St. Thomas program in 2008 and inheriting a team that finished with only two wins the previous season, St. Thomas went 7-3 in 2008. A year later it finished 11-2. Starting in the 2010 season and continuing to this day, the Tommies lost only one game in a season. In 2012, Caruso’s Tommies went 12-1 and last year they advanced to the Division III semifinals, finishing 13-1 overall. This year they finished 14-1 and competed in the Stagg Bowl.

In fact, Caruso’s last regular-season loss was on Oct. 17, 2009, when his team fell to St. John’s in overtime 20-17. This year’s senior class finished with a 50-5 overall record and competed in five postseason games.

“We have 135 guys on the team, and I say most of the kids on the team were offered an athletic scholarship at some point, whether it was a Division I, Division I-AA or Division II school,” Caruso said. “They turned it down to come here, and that’s why I can build the program that we have. We have great athletes, but they come here to balance their education with athletics and be a part of something great. We are very big on consistently moving forward. I got here and inherited a 2-8 program, and from that point there was no looking back.”

This season was especially sweet for Caruso because of the team’s ability to rise to the occasion. After last year’s 20-0 semifinal loss to UW-Whitewater, St. Thomas graduated five All-Americans and the word around the team was that the 2012 season could possibly be a rebuilding year.

The Tommies replaced those five All-Americans with young athletes who were patiently waiting their turn to crack the starting lineup. To add to the youth, St. Thomas was plagued with injuries throughout the year. At one point, Caruso started seven freshmen and six sophomores; however, the head coach said it was the team’s attitude that kept the good times rolling at St. Thomas.

“When we started the season, I believed the only way we could get better is through a battle of selflessness,” Caruso said. “We gave our players wristbands that they’ve been wearing for the past 129 days and on it is the simple word, which is family.”

Although Caruso believes the term family is thrown around a little too much in football, his team’s version has a much more important meaning.

“Ours is an acronym that says, Forget About Me, I Love You,” Caruso said. “Our kids wear that and are reminded daily of the vow of selflessness that they took. They are truly willing to put themselves second for the greater good of the team, and I believe that is why they succeeded at such a high level.”

The biggest improvement for St. Thomas this season was that team members played well off each other. Although the Tommies were blowing teams out since the second week of the season, there were still some instances when the team was just off, whether it was on offense, defense or special teams.

“The heartbeat of the team got stronger, and that is because they bought into the idea that we are in this together and that each side of the ball could feed and fuel the other side,” Caruso said. “We would block a punt, the offense would score and the defense would come back with a three-and-out. That’s when we hit our groove.”

Caruso’s quest for being the best started when he playing football for Greenwich High School.

“It’s been something that I’ve been chasing for the better part of 20 years since I was sitting on the snow-covered field in West Haven when Greenwich was a state champion in 1991. At that point, when we won the second state championship, I felt strongly that I wanted my football experience to continue.”

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