The foundation of small-college athletics in Minnesota experienced a seismic shift Wednesday when the MIAC announced that St. Thomas was being “involuntarily removed from membership’’ because of competitive parity concerns.
The news that the Tommies are basically being expelled for being too successful at sports has become fodder for water-cooler talk, message boards and even ESPN’s “SportsCenter.’’ Disappointment, outrage and “good riddance’’ were among the range of reactions from the public, while the school presidents involved in forcing out a school that helped form the conference in 1920 have remained silent on the issue.
In fact, a source told the Star Tribune that the MIAC Presidents Council informed athletic department employees throughout the league that any disparaging comments about another school or its employees could result in suspension or admonishment.
But three former MIAC athletes, a former coach and a future Tommie openly shared their opinions for this story. A sampling:
Sticking with his first choice
For Cole Wentzel, the setup was ideal. The senior at Albert Lea High School decided he wanted to play football at St. Thomas for coach Glenn Caruso.
Then came the rumblings that the Tommies might be forced out of the conference. The finality of Wednesday’s announcement wasn’t jarring to Wentzel, but it wasn’t pleasant, either.
“We knew for a long time that it was a possibility St. Thomas could be removed from the MIAC, so it wasn’t necessarily a surprise,’’ Wentzel said. “Obviously, it stinks. But it’s a reincarnation and we can make something new of it.’’
Wentzel is sticking with his decision to attend St. Thomas and is pegged to play safety for the Tommies. He said the 40 to 45 incoming Tommies freshmen who communicate in a message group aren’t wavering.
“Everyone’s staying positive, and it’s not fazing us,’’ he said. “… We’re going to be fine.’’
A voice of experience
For 51 years, Jim Smith coached men’s basketball at St. John’s, retiring in 2015 with 786 victories, the most in Minnesota college basketball history. He also served as the Johnnies’ athletic director for 16 years, so his MIAC knowledge runs deep. His reaction?
“I’m very, very disappointed because St. Thomas being one of the charter members of the conference, it seems like they’re being vilified because they’ve really done a great job with their athletic department.’’
While acknowledging St. Thomas’ advantages such as its Twin Cities location and large enrollment in comparison to other MIAC members, Smith, 84, credited the work athletic director Steve Fritz and the coaches have done to build their athletic programs.
Rather than kicking St. Thomas out of the league, Smith put the onus on other schools to improve.
“You don’t cry about it, you just try to get better,’’ he said. “… We have good academic standards and very good athletic standards. Why can’t you combine the two and raise everything up? There’s always a way to do it.
“They have had great excellence, and all of the sudden you’re saying, ‘You can’t stick around and we’re happy with mediocrity.’ That bothers me.’’
A view from an Ole
Though MIAC presidents never voted to remove St. Thomas, they had the needed nine votes lined up to expel the Tommies from the 13-team league.
That his alma mater, St. Olaf, supported the Tommies’ ouster doesn’t sit well with Ryan Olson, a 2001 graduate who was a three-year starter on the Oles men’s basketball team.
“If you look at it from a historical perspective of an MIAC athlete and what that means, it’s extremely unfortunate,” Olson said. “It’s a shortsighted decision being made by people who don’t understand the true value of sports as a whole.
“You see a lot of the MIAC schools’ mission is around community, is around diversity, is around bringing people together. I don’t know of anything that does that better than sports.’’
One of the factors that led to St. Thomas’ expulsion was the Tommies’ 97-0 football victory at St. Olaf in 2017. St. Thomas led 64-0 at halftime yet still played starters into the second half. The Tommies also went 5-for-5 on fourth-down conversions, two of those coming in the second half. Olson knows that angered the St. Olaf faithful.
“There was some tomfoolery going in play-calling, even late in the game,’’ he said. “What I would do — and this is a St. Thomas and St. John’s opinion — is remember who you are within the conference and be mindful of that.’’
Shooting from the hip
Tom Linnemann is not one to pull punches. The quarterback who led St. John’s to the 2000 NCAA Division III championship game is not at all pleased that St. Thomas, the Johnnies’ biggest rival, is being forced out of the league.
“Instead of becoming better, instead of investing in a program, it’s the cowardly way to capitulate and kick St. Thomas out of the league,’’ said Linnemann, 41. “It blows my mind that in this day and age you choose to eliminate an obstacle instead of bettering yourself. That should be the mission of all these presidents.
“… There’s blood on every one of the hands of the school presidents in the Judas Nine.’’
The MIAC presidents’ silence irks Linnemann, too.
“That is the most damning piece of evidence,’’ he said. “You don’t hide and scurry in the corner if you’re proud of what you’re doing. If you have convictions that this is the right thing to do, you stand up for your beliefs. When was the last time a clandestine meeting with secret votes was something righteous, honorable? Never.’’
Linnemann fears that the St. John’s-St. Thomas football rivalry will suffer irreparable harm.
“Look at the WCHA. Look at the Gophers-UND rivalry,’’ he said. “We look back on the halcyon days of that rivalry, and now it’s dead.’’
Better for the conference?
Bridget Pethke has a different take. She was part of the last team other than St. Thomas to win a MIAC women’s basketball title — in 2014. An all-conference guard as a sophomore for St. Mary’s that season, she still had two more years left to watch the Tommies dominate.
“It wasn’t just because their women’s basketball team was so good, but their whole program — volleyball, basketball, track, cross-country — was always so good that we always felt no other team has a chance to be as successful.”
St. Thomas has won 12 consecutive all-sports MIAC competitions. Like Olson at St. Olaf, Pethke said the Tommies pushed her teams to get better, but she thinks their removal could bolster the conference as a whole.
“It has to,” she said. “I mean, you’re taking the team that has been the best for the last 10-plus years — in every sport they play — out of a smaller, majority private school conference with relatively smaller schools. You’re giving those opportunities for those other teams to be successful. To give Gustavus, to give St. Mary’s, to give even Concordia those opportunities to be the No. 1 team, and hopefully get those recruits to come.
“Kids want to win. They don’t want to go to a team that’s always taking third or fourth in the conference.”
Staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this report.