Not many would call this the “right time” to make an unprecedented leap from Division III to D-I, especially during a global pandemic that is wreaking financial havoc across college sports.
Except St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan.
The D-III powerhouse private Catholic university received NCAA clearance Wednesday to start the never-been-done-before process of climbing up two athletic divisions throughout the next five years.
“COVID-19 is something that we … are likely to deal with over the next 12 months, but it’s not a 10- or 20-year situation,” Sullivan said on a video news conference Thursday. “And this decision is really about the long-term future of St. Thomas.”
St. Thomas will spend one more year competing in the MIAC on the D-III level before formally joining the Summit League in the fall of 2021 for most sports. The school will also join the Pioneer League for football and the WCHA for women’s hockey, with a conference partner for men’s hockey still in the works.
By the 2026-27 season, the program will be fully D-I in terms of meeting scholarship, compliance, financial and other such requirements. That measured evolution is what has Sullivan confident this move is “the right thing” despite current economic uncertainty, including potentially substantial lost revenue from canceled fall sports.
Sullivan said it’s important to pace the transition and investment so they don’t compromise other priorities, especially academic programs.
But, she added: “This opportunity [to go D-I] might not be here for St. Thomas in another year, two or three years. The opportunity is here for us now.”
Sullivan said she had long discussions with athletic director Phil Esten and the Board of Trustees about the financial feasibility of the move, identifying how to pay for it through donations, ticket sales and board-restricted funds designated for this purpose.
Esten said the benefit of spending one more year at the D-III level is the Tommies can observe the D-I landscape and see how it settles as the pandemic potentially abates. Other schools, such as Stanford, have cut some sports during the pandemic, but Esten said he plans to bring all 22 of St. Thomas’ teams to the D-I level.
“We’re in a little bit different situation than having to make that move immediately,” Esten said. “We’ve got the next 12 months to prepare.”
And actually even longer, with another four years competing at the D-I level to work up to all the NCAA obligations. For example, St. Thomas joined the Pioneer League for football, its most successful and high-profile program.
The Pioneer League is non-scholarship, meaning St. Thomas won’t have to find a way to financially support the Division I-maximum 85 football scholarships by next year.
Esten previously expressed interest in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, where the Summit League’s five schools with football programs currently play. The Missouri Valley requires scholarships but could be an eventual St. Thomas landing spot. Patty Viverito is the commissioner of both the Pioneer League and the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Per St. Thomas’ most recent athletics department budget — spanning July 2018 through June 2019 — the department operates on about $5.4 million, notably without scholarships as a D-III institution. Fellow Summit League budgets, which Esten is using as a guidepost, average about $20 million.
“We’re modeling what we feel is the right size for St. Thomas, and we haven’t landed on anything specifically yet,” Esten said. “Of course, that model changes over time, based on COVID-19, based on other industry and marketplace conditions.”
The budget might evolve, but St. Thomas has time on its side. Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple remembers starting this process 15 months ago, long before the pandemic, and it will continue beyond it.
Douple has helped four other programs transition successfully to a higher NCAA division: North Dakota State, South Dakota State, South Dakota and Nebraska Omaha, which all ascended from D-II to D-I. He knows this process happens slowly, not all at once.
One key, he said, is not having to initially give out the maximum number of scholarships. That allows the department to build out its staff serving academics, compliance, coaches and administrators.
“You can phase all those in over time,” Douple said. “And I think that’s the beauty of the transition that they have. … They can pace themselves depending upon the moneys that are available.”
Douple has seen it work, even if those other examples didn’t come during a pandemic.
“Is it going to get any tougher? No, it’s not,” Douple said. “So, I mean, why not?”