The MIAC will celebrate its 100th anniversary during the 2019-20 school year, with the league saluting athletes and coaches who made lasting memories over a century.

For the conference’s premier sport, football, the festivities begin Thursday and Saturday, with the nine teams opening their season with the first of two weekends of nonconference games. Conference play begins Sept. 21, and that’s when things could get a bit awkward.

In May, the MIAC Presidents’ Council announced it was involuntarily removing St. Thomas primarily because of competitive parity reasons. So, for the first time since the controversial decision, St. Thomas will line up on the football field against teams from schools that demanded the Tommies find somewhere else to play. The Tommies, winners of six MIAC titles in coach Glenn Caruso’s 11 years at the school, have two more school years remaining in the conference, then they are out.

MIAC Commissioner Dan McKane is hopeful that time has allowed for healing.

“What happened four months ago has happened, and people have started to see what the new MIAC will look like in the future,” he said. “People are starting to understand it. If this move wasn’t made, the MIAC wouldn’t exist in the future.”

The presidents’ decision became fodder for water cooler talk and message boards, with strong opinions on both sides of the issue. For coaches and players involved, disappointment came first, followed by resignation.

“I don’t want to see any team leave our league — St. Thomas included,” said St. John’s coach Gary Fasching, whose Johnnies are defending MIAC champions. “… For us, they’ve been a great rivalry. It might be one of the best rivalries in college football.”

Bethel coach Steve Johnson emphasized the level of where the decision was made.

“It was the presidents’ decision. … No coaches, no ADs [athletic directors] wanted St. Thomas out,” he said. “That was above our pay grade.”

James Kilian is in his fourth year as St. Olaf’s coach. Before that, he was offensive coordinator under Caruso. His Oles absorbed a 98-0 drubbing at the hands of St. Thomas two years ago, a result that’s seen as a flash point for the presidents’ decision. Kilian, though, is looking ahead, not behind.

“Ultimately, the presidents decided this is what they think is the best,” he said. “… We just play who’s on our schedule. As coaches and players, we have no control over it.”

On the field, the MIAC enters the season with a clear top tier of St. John’s, St. Thomas and Bethel — a trio that has combined to win all but one conference title since 1998. The Johnnies are ranked No. 3 in the preseason Top 25, the Tommies No. 7 and the Royals No. 10.

The Johnnies and Tommies will meet Oct. 19 at St. Paul’s Allianz Field, home of the Minnesota United soccer team. That showcase has the attention of St. John’s senior quarterback Jackson Erdmann, the Gagliardi Trophy winner as Division III player of the year in 2018.

“I’m so pumped,” the former Rosemount standout said. “… We always know the date [of the St. Thomas game] and are excited, but right now we have bigger aspirations. Our motto is ‘Natty or Bust.’ We’re going for the national championship — that’s our mind-set right now.”

For others, such as Kilian, building a program is the priority. St. Olaf has progressed from 2-8 to 4-6 to 5-5 in his three seasons.

“Given more time,” he said, “we just continue to close that gap because that’s what we have to do.”

In two years, that gap in the MIAC won’t include St. Thomas.

“I’m still struggling with Nebraska being in the Big Ten,” said Kilian, a former Tulsa quarterback. “I’m from Oklahoma, and I remember Oklahoma and Nebraska on Thanksgiving Day. When that went away, I thought, ‘How can this be?’ And now it’s not. You adjust.”

For Johnson, the adjustment is simple. “I’m sick of talking about it,” he said. “… Let’s just have a blast and play.’’