St. Thomas' move from Division III to FCS was born out of necessity and not a desire for the gridiron glory. The Tommies were simply too good, so the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference kicked them out. Hence, the Pioneer Football League, FCS football's *other* non-scholarship conference, welcomed St. Thomas with open arms. The Pioneer Football League is a far cry from the relevance and exposure of big-time FCS football.
This year, the Tommies will get a "cup of coffee in the big time" when Northern Iowa visits the Twin Cities to open the season. Northern Iowa is one of the Missouri Valley Football Conference's most tradition-rich schools. The Panthers have 22 FCS playoff appearances since moving to the subdivision in 1981 and appeared in the national championship game in 2005.
The Panthers are easily the most prestigious opponent to travel to O'Shaughnessy Stadium, and their campus is about a three-hour drive from St. Paul. As a result, St. Thomas should move this game to Allianz Stadium, home of Minnesota United FC. The Tommies hardly have any games on the Pioneer Football League slate their fans can look forward to. For instance, their home game against Marist this past season filled only 2917 out of O'Shaughnessy Stadium's 5025 seats. This figure contrasts the overflow crowds that witnessed the Tommies' yearly clash with St. John's.
Northern Iowa-St. Thomas at Allianz Field would bring back some semblance of the big game feel of the Tommie-Johnnie rivalry. Northern Iowa would travel well to Minneapolis, and St. Thomas has not played at Allianz Field since that 2019 game. The Tommie-Johnnie rivalry was a keystone event for both schools and the entire state of Minnesota.
In 2017, the rivalry was the first football game ever played at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. A massive attendance of 37,355 fans flocked to "The House That Joe Mauer Built," setting the record for the highest attendance for a Division III game. Two years later, in 2019, the two rivals sold out 19,400-seat Allianz Field in St. Paul.
Realistically, O'Shaughnessy Stadium's 5,025 seats may not be enough to accommodate fans of both schools. The difference in travel costs for St. Thomas is minimal. St. Thomas' campus is only two miles away from Allianz Field. Tommie fans will flock to Allianz Stadium for a home game against a name-brand school in FCS football's preeminent conference. A draw of around 10,000 fans would be a success for St. Thomas and offset the operating costs of a neutral site venue.
Northern Iowa should also be open to playing at Allianz Field. North Dakota State has brought the "showcase game" to the Missouri Valley Football Conference. A 2023 game at the Minnesota Vikings' U.S. Bank Stadium followed a 2019 game at Target Field. Although not a neutral site game, the Bison will open in 2025 at the Tennessee Titans' Nissan Stadium against Tennessee State.
No other school in the Missouri Valley Football Conference has the opportunities the Bison have to play at pro stadiums. Northern Iowa playing this game at Allianz Field could help the Panthers gain some recruiting ground on the Bison with midwestern recruits.
Finally, this game will be the most-anticipated of the season for St. Thomas. The Tommies cannot play in the FCS Playoffs until 2026, so this will be St. Thomas' bowl game. Hosting Northern Iowa in one of the Twin Cities' most state-of-the-art venues is an event that will mark the Tommies' arrival at the FCS level. Hardly anyone in the FCS world celebrated St. Thomas' 10-1 record in their inaugural season. The Tommies' encore was impressive with an 8-3 record, but a chance to mark their arrival against Harvard failed spectacularly in a 45-13 loss to the Crimson. Beating Northern Iowa at an MLS stadium could garner national headlines for St. Thomas.
St. Thomas has a rare opportunity when they open the season against Northern Iowa. The Tommies have proven before they can pack the Twin Cities' most glamorous venues. With a nearby marquee opponent coming to town, St. Thomas can maximize their exposure and create an engaging environment for their fans by moving the Northern Iowa game to Allianz Field.