Anna Marie Caruso, a senior-to-be at Cretin-Derham Hall, was at the wheel of the family's well-used truck. Father Glenn was on the passenger's side. Cade, a year younger than his sister, was in the enclosed rumble seat and looking at his phone.
"Hey, Dad, the first FCS ratings just came out, and we're 128th,'' Cade said. "How many teams are there?''
Anna Marie gave the answer: "There are 128.''
There was a gentle laugh from the front and then Cade, in Caruso family tradition, said: "What a great place to start.''
Days before Christmas in 2017, I spent a couple of hours in the Caruso home with Glenn, Rachael, Anna Marie, Cade and kid brother Truman.
A month earlier, Rachael had started radiation treatments and chemotherapy to take on Stage 3 colorectal cancer. And it was on that afternoon that I heard the family creed:
"It's life and it's all good; not always easy, not always fun, but it's all good.''
Rachael is still going, Anna Marie can now drive herself and her siblings to their games, and Glenn is about to reach a goal stated to his wife early in their marriage (2001).
"Rach asked me, 'What do you want to accomplish as a football coach; where do you want it to lead?' Caruso said. "And I said, 'I want to do something, be involved in something, that no one's ever done before.'
"When all this came down, Rach said, 'Remember when you said that about wanting to do something that hasn't been done before? Well, now you got it. Good luck.' ''
Caruso has been the University of St. Thomas football coach since the 2008 season, and the unique challenge being referred to by Rachael was not finding the ultimate in results. He had the Tommies at the precipice of that twice (losses to mighty Mount Union in the Division III national title games of 2012 and 2015), but now comes this leap into the unknown:
Taking a Division III team into Division I, even if it is the Pioneer Football League, an FCS conference without football scholarships.
The last schools to make the jump were Buffalo and Dayton in 1993, and only due to the fact the rest of their athletic programs were D-I and they were legislated by the NCAA to do this.
St. Thomas required extensive lobbying with the NCAA to be granted the right to skip the D-II step and send its athletic program to Division I: Football to the PFL, men's hockey to the CCHA, women's hockey to WCHA, and all other teams to the Summit League.
The challenges in the other highest-profile sports, hockey and basketball, might be larger, but there's no greater mystery in this quick Tommies changeover than how Caruso's roster will match up as athletes vs. this upgraded challenge.
The panel of experts putting out that first FCS rating had decided: "Division III to D-I? Let's put 'em last.''
Caruso was sitting in his sizable corner office on a floor in an old building that St. Thomas hurriedly remodeled for football and basketball offices.
There had been a two-hour Friday morning practice with 110 players: 28 freshmen (no transfers) from the first Division I class that signed starting last December; numerous second-year players that didn't get on the field when the 2020 season was lost to COVID; as well as "15 or 16'' starters'' from the last D-III team in 2019.
Caruso was downright ebullient after practice. One reason was Anna Marie was in attendance. She had done fine work reading a motivational passage to the players from a book off Glenn's office shelves.
What book? "This one … 'Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall in Love With the Process,'" Caruso said. "Most of your readers will know about it.''
You bet, Coach, and now to the matter at hand: You're going to be watching video of Pioneer teams and there will be nothing in your experience to judge them.
You could judge Concordia by its score against Hamline. Won't be able to do that with Marist vs. Stetson.
"New league, new scenarios, and I fully welcome it,'' Caruso said. "One thing we're always going to know is who we are. We aren't going to forget the core principles of this program.''
Process. Core principles. We were getting dangerously close to P.J. Fleck territory.
Then, the conversation was rescued. Caruso mentioned the excitement he's already detecting on campus, even with most students a couple of weeks from arriving.
"There were two priests walking across campus and they shouted, 'Coach, we can't wait for the first game; this is tremendous,'" Caruso said.
Then again, Caruso has been spoiling Tommies for a dozen seasons. What happens when they go to Northern Iowa for the third game, where reality is likely to set in?
"I'm not really much for reality,'' Caruso said. "I'm not big on lowering expectations. No matter the wins or losses, you will never hear me call this Year Zero.''
He nodded and, knowing his audience, said: "You can use that.''