St. Thomas should get some long-awaited clarity about its future Wednesday night, when the NCAA is expected to announce whether the school can move directly from Division III to Division I.
The unprecedented leap must be approved by the NCAA’s Division I Council, which wraps up three days of meetings Wednesday. Should the Tommies get the go-ahead, they would officially join the Summit League and begin Division I play in 2021-22.
In May of 2019, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference announced it was kicking St. Thomas out of the league it helped found a century ago. Presidents of the MIAC’s member schools voted to boot the Tommies after the 2020-21 season, citing “athletic competitive parity.”
St. Thomas officials revealed in October the school intends to move to Division I and join the Summit League. Because the NCAA does not allow schools to reclassify directly from DIII to DI, St. Thomas must get NCAA permission before it can make the move. The Division I Council was expected to rule on the matter in April, but it postponed the decision until its June meetings.
What will be decided?
The NCAA will not grant St. Thomas a one-time waiver. It is considering whether to change its bylaws to allow any qualified school to move directly from DIII to DI.
With only one season remaining in the MIAC, the Tommies would have to be ready to make their Division I debut a little more than a year from now. Given that tight time frame, athletic director Phil Esten and his staff already are laying the groundwork.
They have discussed how to structure their fundraising, which will have to bankroll a much larger athletic budget, and how to pay for facilities that must be upgraded or replaced to meet DI expectations. Other topics have included nonconference scheduling and how to assemble coaching and support staffs. Coaches have begun adjusting their recruiting as well.
What happens next?
Should the Tommies get permission, they will become a member of the Summit League in all sports except football and hockey. They are expected to pursue membership in the football-only Pioneer League, a non-scholarship conference at the Football Championship Subdivision level.
Men’s and women’s hockey, winter sports which St. Thomas says it intends to continue, also will need to find new leagues. It’s possible both could join the WCHA.
If the NCAA does not authorize the Tommies to make the move, the school will have to find another DIII conference or reclassify to Division II.