Dan Dobson decided to transfer from the University of Minnesota Duluth in the spring of 2010. Several months earlier, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference loosened its rules, allowing NCAA Division I and II transfers who had used a redshirt year to retain that year of eligibility.
Dobson, who had redshirted his first season at UMD and played sparingly in 2009, opted for St. Olaf in part because the Oles could offer him three full years of eligibility. Under the previous rule, MIAC teams could have offered only two years, and Dobson might not have helped lead a resurgence of St. Olaf football.
"[Two years of eligibility] might have changed my thoughts," said Dobson, who is closing in on several school passing records. "I definitely would have explored my options a little deeper, and seen what other possibilities I had."
He would have found plenty of options more attractive than the MIAC from an eligibility standpoint. Commissioner Dan McKane said the MIAC historically has had the most restrictive transfer policy among the nation's Division III schools, and in 2008 was the only Division III conference not honoring the redshirt years of transfers.
McKane said the number of students transferring has been on the upswing since the mid-2000s, and conference administrators didn't want prospective enrollees going elsewhere because of the restrictive transfer policy.
"We were trying not to prevent potential transfers from looking at MIAC schools, and having that rule steer them away from our conference," McKane said. "We want to get the most talented kids possible, both in the classroom and on the field."
The bottom line: If the MIAC wanted to continue to compete at a national level, not only in football but all sports, the league had to operate by the same rules as schools such as Mount Union (Ohio) and Wisconsin-Whitewater.
The big winner: St. Thomas
The league is now starting to see the effect of players entering the league since the rule was enacted in September of 2009, and it has been dramatic. Most schools have benefitted, often at key positions.
Dobson will leave St. Olaf as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in MIAC history. Augsburg had its first winning season a year ago since 1999 thanks largely to quarterback Marcus Brumm, a fifth-year senior who transferred from Minnesota State Mankato. Bethel's starting tailback, Brandon Marquardt, is a transfer from MSU Mankato, and defensive end Kyle Asmus transferred from Bemidji State.
But no school has benefitted more than St. Thomas, and it's no exaggeration to say that the rule is a major reason the Tommies have won 27 consecutive regular-season games, and are shooting for their third undefeated league title in a row.
The Tommies' streak of 10-0 regular seasons began in 2010, when five senior starters -- Division III All-Americas Brady Ervin (Iowa State) and Josh Ostrue (St. Cloud State) plus all-MIAC players Tommy Becker (Gophers), Bryan Villar (Augustana) and Zach Sturm (St. Cloud State) were playing an extra year after the rule change.
Three other transfers from the Gophers -- center Curtis James, linebacker Harry Pitera and fullback Willie Schneider -- were key contributors on the 2010 team and part of the nucleus of this year's team, ranked No. 3 nationally in Division III.
"It's been critical," St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said. "No doubt about it, it's allowed us to accelerate our progress."
Pitera was a freshman on the 2010 team, and said the chance to break in playing with former Division I players such as Ervin, Becker and James helped set the tone for the team's younger players, and the success that followed.
"That played a big part in my development," Pitera said. "Most teams in the MIAC have benefitted from the rule change, but it's benefitted us the most."
No one knows that better than St. John's coach John Gagliardi, whose perennial power Johnnies have fallen behind the Tommies in recent years.
"Yes, it makes it more of an even field [for MIAC teams] in the playoffs," Gagliardi said. "But it sure has made it tough for the rest of the league to keep up with St. Thomas. They've got enough ammunition without getting any more help."
Location, location, location
Caruso said transfers tend to look at four factors: a balance between academics and athletics, a winning program, location and a school that will maximize their remaining eligibility. Gagliardi thinks one factor above all else has helped the Tommies.
"I think, from my far-off observation, they're getting guys who went to Twin Cities high schools and want to come back to the Twin Cities when they transfer," he said. "It's kind of a natural."
Indeed, McKane said that in looking at transfers in all sports, St. Thomas and Augsburg tend to get the most athletes, lending credence that location is an influential consideration. Augsburg's powerful wrestling program, for example, frequently gets transfers from the Gophers, similar to St. Thomas in football.
The highest-rated academic schools, such as Carleton and Macalester, tend to get the fewest athletic transfers, McKane said.
Augsburg football coach Frank Haege said he likes transfers because they have a much clearer vision of what they want in a college -- and athletics -- than high school seniors.
"Those kids aren't looking at campus tours, or getting schmoozed," Haege said. "They just want to play. ... For us, in general, transfers are a vital part for us to be competitive."
Of course, Haege, like Gagliardi, doesn't have to look far to see a downside with transfers.
"Our staff was going over stuff during the offseason, and when we got to St. Olaf, I said, 'Dobson is back again?'" Haege said. "He's been around so long, it's almost like having a pro out there."