When St. Thomas football coach Glenn Caruso heard Wednesday that his program would officially start the five-year process of transitioning from Division III to Division I, he experienced a quick range of emotions.

“Tremendous excitement,” Caruso said Friday. “Followed quickly by, ‘What do we need to do to get to work?’ ”

Caruso has been coaching St. Thomas for 12 years, leading the program to a 126-21 record with two NCAA championship appearances the past eight seasons. The university’s athletic prowess helped spur the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s vote to boot the school out a little more than a year ago, necessitating this unprecedented leap up two divisions.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the go-ahead several months, but Caruso said to him it all felt swift. His team will play one more season in D-III before joining the Pioneer League, a non-scholarship D-I conference that competes on the FCS level.

What St. Thomas has accomplished the past 15 months has been “impressive,” Caruso said. But he also knows there’s even more on the slate, from preparing for this last D-III season amid pandemic uncertainty to readying his team to play in D-I next year to anticipating being fully compliant and eligible for NCAA championships by 2026.

“Not only the finish line, but it’s also the starting line,” Caruso said. “ … When we arrived here 12 years ago, there was a lot of work to be done. The pieces were here, but there was a long road ahead of us. And, you know, that seemed to work out pretty good, as long as we focus on what we need to do today.

“And that’s not going to change.”

Congratulations from Coyle

The Gophers had Minnesota’s only athletic program that competed entirely in Division I before the NCAA approved St. Thomas’ plans to make the jump.

“I want to extend my congratulations to [athletic director] Phil Esten and the University of St. Thomas on being granted Division I membership,” Gophers AD Mark Coyle said in a statement. “It’s an exciting day for the university and Tommie student-athletes and coaches, and I look forward to following their progress.”