Since the revelation that St. Thomas might be expelled from the MIAC, the league and its member schools have remained publicly silent on the subject. The void of information has generated plenty of questions and speculation about what road the Tommies might take should they exit the league they helped found 99 years ago.
St. Thomas would have a wide spectrum of options. It could do something relatively simple, such as remaining in Division III and exploring an affiliation across the Wisconsin border.
Perhaps it would consider a bolder step, like a leap to Division II. Some choices would require significant amounts of money, time and patience, and all will require St. Thomas to contemplate its identity and its future.
While the MIAC debates the Tommies’ fate, the Star Tribune contacted officials of area leagues, schools and the NCAA, spoke to an expert on Division III sports and combed through league websites and the NCAA and Equity in Athletics websites to explore potential next steps if St. Thomas leaves its longtime conference home.
If St. Thomas wants to remain in Division III, could it find another conference?
Pat Coleman, executive editor of D3sports.com, said the Tommies would fit best in a league familiar to them: the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC). The WIAC has won more D-III national championships than any other conference — including 46 in the past 10 years — and members’ undergraduate enrollments range from 5,678 to 12,412, much larger than most MIAC schools.
Though the eight full members of the WIAC are all Wisconsin state schools, the conference bylaws do not prohibit out-of-state institutions, and two MIAC schools — Gustavus and Hamline — are affiliate members for women’s gymnastics.
WIAC Commissioner Gary Karner said, “The WIAC has been in the past and remains open now to adding full or affiliate members.” The league has “clearly established a receptiveness” to considering schools in other states for full membership, he said, and it has previously talked with schools outside the University of Wisconsin system about joining.
Coleman said the WIAC could benefit from adding a school. It has only five men’s hockey teams and seven baseball teams, and another member would help fill its football schedule. As for St. Thomas becoming a D-III independent, Coleman said that is “almost impossible” because there are so few open dates in conference schedules.
Can St. Thomas move directly to Division I?
No. NCAA spokesperson Meghan Durham confirmed that Division III schools must first reclassify to Division II, then to Division I.
“Generally speaking, the process to reclassify from Division III to Division I would be a 12-year window from start to finish,” Durham said.
It takes three years for schools to fully transition from D-III to D-II. The NCAA requires that schools remain a full member of D-II for at least five years before making the next move up the ladder. Reclassification from D-II to D-I entails a four-year transition period, plus an offer of membership from a conference, before attaining full D-I status.
If St. Thomas chooses to move to Division II, how would that happen?
The Tommies would notify the NCAA by Feb. 1, and their application would be reviewed at the D-II Membership Committee’s summer meeting. If it is approved, the first year as a provisional member would begin on or about Sept. 1.
During the first year, St. Thomas would begin complying with most D-II rules. In the second year, St. Thomas must fully comply with all D-II legislation. If it has satisfied all conditions at the end of the three-year period — and if it has been accepted into a D-II conference — St. Thomas would move into full D-II membership.
What conference could the Tommies join at the Division II level?
The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference would be a logical geographic fit — and it expects to have an opening. Augustana announced in December that it will transition to Division I, which would leave the NSIC with 15 teams. Augustana is a member of the South Division, which includes Minnesota State Mankato, Concordia-St. Paul, Southwest Minnesota State and Winona State.
Before Augustana can start the transition, it must receive an invitation to join a Division I conference. The NSIC announced in December that Augustana hopes to join a new conference by the 2021-22 season.
While most NSIC members are state schools, five are private, as is St. Thomas. According to the league, NSIC undergraduate enrollments range from 755 (Upper Iowa) to 15,110 (MSU Mankato).
What would it cost to move up to Division II, and perhaps to Division I later?
St. Thomas, which currently sponsors 20 varsity sports, reported total athletic expenses of $4.86 million in its 2017-18 Equity in Athletics Data Analysis (EADA) report. For Minnesota’s eight Division II schools, the EADA website lists total athletic expenses ranging from $4.59 million (Southwest Minnesota State) to $11.75 million (MSU Mankato).
If the Tommies move up to Division II, they will have to give athletic scholarships, which are not allowed in Division III. According to the EADA report, Minnesota’s D-II schools spent an average of $1.7 million on scholarships in 2017-18. Athletic scholarships would carry a high value at St. Thomas, where total cost of attendance is $56,664 during the current school year.
A move to Division I would require additional scholarships and create higher all-around costs. And without upgrading their 5,000-seat football stadium and 1,800-seat basketball arena, the Tommies would have limited ability to generate revenue. Both facilities would be among the smallest in Division I.
Division I (FCS) schools in the region include North Dakota State, which reported total expenses of $28 million in 2017-18, and North Dakota, which reported $23.5 million.
Should St. Thomas eventually move to Division I (FCS), there is a non-scholarship football conference that might suit it — the Pioneer League, which includes schools such as Drake, San Diego, Valparaiso and Dayton. But its 10 teams are scattered from New York to Florida to California, which would mean significant travel time and expense.
What about the Tommie-Johnnie football rivalry?
If the Tommies stay in Division III, the rivalry could remain intact. MIAC football teams play two nonconference games each season. If they move to Division II, however, the series — which has brought the MIAC national media attention and showcases D-III football at its best — would be much less likely to continue.
If St. Thomas were to join the NSIC, it would not play any nonconference games; league members play all 11 regular-season games against each other. Even if it did have a slot for a nonconference opponent, playing a team in a lower division would devalue its strength of schedule.
The loss of a rivalry that has spanned 88 games since it began in 1901 would leave an emotional and financial void for both schools. The St. John’s-St. Thomas game drew a Division III-record 37,355 fans to Target Field in 2017, and the 2019 edition will be played at the 19,400-seat Allianz Field in St. Paul.