There have been complaints from selected MIAC rivals for nearly a decade over the enrollment gap and the athletic success that considerably favors St. Thomas. Now those complaints have turned into a full-fledged effort to have St. Thomas expelled from the league.
There will be a meeting of the 13 school presidents on April 18 to decide whether to move forward with this action, according to sources close to the situation. The school presidents would then take a final vote in late May, with nine votes required to expel St. Thomas. If it passes, the Tommies could be forced out after the 2020-21 school year.
First, however, the MIAC schools must vote to change the league bylaws. Currently, the lone reason for expelling a school is unethical or illegal conduct, and there are no such claims against St. Thomas. The anticipated strategy for the anti-St. Thomas votes would be to add a clause — perhaps a limit on enrollment — and then declare St. Thomas as not fitting the league’s profile, two sources said.
St. Thomas has 6,200 undergraduates, double the number of St. Olaf, the next-largest of the nine football-playing schools.
Phil Esten, who replaced long-serving Steve Fritz as the St. Thomas athletic director in January, said Thursday: “St. Thomas is a very committed member of the MIAC, an original member, and very committed to being a Division III program. We are very interested in doing what we can do to stabilize the membership.”
There were mostly shrugs for years over the Tommies’ frequent league titles through the fall, winter and spring sports calendar until Glenn Caruso arrived in 2008 as the football coach and quickly built a powerhouse. The Tommies posted lopsided victories over the MIAC’s second-division teams; in a three-week period in 2017, they defeated Hamline 84-0 and St. Olaf 97-0.
“That St. Olaf game seemed to get people upset,” said Steve Johnson, Bethel’s football coach. “We started hearing more about it.”
Several attempts to reach David Anderson, the St. Olaf president, on Thursday to get his opinion on the move to expel St. Thomas were unsuccessful. A statement from his office read: “We’re not in position to speak on behalf of the MIAC. I would ask you contact the MIAC [office].”
League football coaches met March 28, and an MIAC assistant coach described it as “loud and emotional.” An attempt to pass a resolution favoring St. Thomas’ continued presence in the MIAC failed.
“I’m not an expert on this whole thing,” Johnson said. “All I know is we take it as a challenge to play the Tommies, and when we have a chance to beat them as we did last season, it’s great for our program.
“I guess I see both sides. St. Thomas brings a lot of prestige nationally in many athletics to our conference. It also doesn’t really fit the rest of the conference, the way it has exploded as an institution, but for me … I want to have the Tommies in the league.”
St. John’s leaders also are in favor of keeping St. Thomas as its archrival, sources said. The Johnnies draw 18,000 people to Collegeville for football games against St. Thomas, and the teams sold 37,355 Target Field tickets in 2017 for their 87th meeting.
Three MIAC sources said there is pressure being applied to Bethel, Concordia, Gustavus — the other competitive football programs — to support removing St. Thomas via threats that Augsburg, Hamline, St. Olaf and Carleton could drop out of MIAC football (as Macalester did years ago). This would leave five football schools in the MIAC without a full schedule to play.
The expectation is that, should St. Thomas be expelled, Macalester would return to play MIAC football (from the Midwest Conference) on a similar timetable as the Tommies leaving.
In addition to the nine MIAC football schools, coed Macalester and St. Mary’s and women’s colleges St. Catherine’s and St. Benedict also have votes.
The MIAC was founded in 1920 and has five continuous members: St. Thomas, St. John’s, Hamline, Macalester and Gustavus Adolphus.
The league will be celebrating its centennial season in 2020-21, and also bidding adieu to the Tommies if enough of the school presidents vote that way in the next several weeks.