Phil Esten celebrated his four-year anniversary as St. Thomas athletic director earlier this week.
He received a $75 million present.
Now in its second year in Division I, the Tommies athletic program officially joined the big leagues Tuesday thanks to a $75 million gift from Lee and Penny Anderson for the construction of a multipurpose arena that signals the school is not tiptoeing into D-I competition.
The donation is a game-changer for St. Thomas athletics. The magnitude cannot be overstated of what a first-rate facility will mean to recruiting, creating competitive advantages, stoking campus energy, energizing the alumni base and expanding its brand beyond the Midwest.
"A one-time gift of $75 million is transformational," said Craig Thompson, the former Mountain West Conference commissioner who is one of the most respected leaders in all of college sports.
The announcement shows the Tommies are serious about winning and a recognition they're willing to leap into the arms race that governs Division I sports.
"One of the things that makes me proud to be an alum and optimistic about our future is that when we lean into something, we do it the right way," Esten said.
Not only is the Andersons' $75 million gift the largest single donation to any university in Minnesota, that type of news would draw big headlines if it happened at Notre Dame, Alabama or Texas.
Division I athletics requires vision and commitment. St. Thomas will always live in the shadow of the larger university a few miles away, but the Tommies are squarely in the D-I ballgame now. A $75 million splash sends an unmistakable message.
Facility upgrades were a must. Playing Division I competition in Division III venues creates the vibe and perception that something is missing.
The school's leadership understood that if they were going to move to Division I, they had to go all-in in every facet. And facilities are the top of that list.
"Nobody should be bashful about saying facilities matter," Esten said. "Residence halls matter. And student unions matter. And classrooms and laboratories matter. They better matter. And so do athletic facilities matter."
Thompson retired from the Mountain West last month after more than four decades in athletic administration roles. He knows better than anyone the impact the facilities gold rush has made on intercollegiate athletics.
"In the old days, a recruit would say, 'Where am I going to play and where am I going to stay?' " Thompson said. "We're just building and building and competing with each other. But it's going to be hugely phenomenal."
With a projected $175 million price tag, the Lee & Penny Anderson Arena will be home to the hockey and basketball programs and include practice facilities and other amenities for athletes. The 2025 opening will coincide with the Tommies being eligible for NCAA postseason tournaments.
Esten said his coaches are "salivating to sell it" to recruits.
"I go back to, if we're going to do Division I," Esten said, "we need the resources that are commensurate with the expectations of us at Division I. We've got the coaches. We've got the institution. We need the facilities."
Esten's message to his coaches has been consistent since the school decided to bypass Division II and jump directly to D-I: Don't cut corners. Focus on building a culture and foundation that is sustainable. Esten vowed to measure success initially by progress, not wins and losses.
The Tommies are proving they can compete despite being in a provisional period. The football team won the Pioneer League championship and finished nationally ranked in FCS. The men's basketball team entered the weekend in fourth place in the Summit League. The men's hockey team defeated No. 13 Michigan Tech last week.
Esten knew there was tension between the MIAC and St. Thomas when he took over as athletic director four years ago. That feels like a lifetime ago given all that has transpired since.
"There's no way anyone could have anticipated this," he said. "But it's been quite a ride."
He chuckled as he reflected on it from his corner office, a few days removed from the announcement of a $75 million donation that will fundamentally change St. Thomas athletics.