The University of St. Thomas is officially going Division I, making an unprecedented leap all the way from Division III after getting the NCAA’s formal approval Wednesday.
It’s the first time in the NCAA’s modern era that a school has received permission to reclassify from Division III to D-I.
“When you’re climbing what feels like an insurmountable mountain, it’s difficult to stop and kind of enjoy how far you’ve come,” St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten said.
Tommies fans get one more school year to savor their century-old Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) rivalries, including the fabled one with St. John’s.
Then, starting with the 2021-22 school year, St. Thomas will join the Division I Summit League with North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota, South Dakota State and others — for every sport except football and hockey.
“When you look at the Summit League, they’ve experienced a lot of success,” Esten said. “I think their trajectory, a lot like St. Thomas’ trajectory, is on the upswing.”
For football, Glenn Caruso’s Tommies will join the Pioneer League, which stretches from coast to coast, with the University of San Diego and Stetson University in Florida, among others. Pioneer League teams compete in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), one rung below the Gophers.
“There are only two Division I football conferences in the country that are non-scholarship — that’s the Ivy League and the Pioneer Football League,” Esten said. “So I like the company we’re keeping there.
“And the geographic footprint is one that I think is really advantageous to St. Thomas, as we’re thinking about extending our brand and extending our reach more nationally.”
For women’s hockey, St. Thomas is joining the Gophers in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). And for men’s hockey, St. Thomas continues to mull its Division I conference options.
“I think we’ll land in a good place,” Esten said.
St. Thomas will join the University of Minnesota as the only two colleges in the state to compete at the D-I level for every sport. That will reshape the recruiting landscape for both schools.
Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino, for example, will soon go head-to-head with the Tommies’ Johnny Tauer for the state’s top basketball talent. And those two teams could eventually meet on the court.
St. Thomas, a St. Paul-based private school with more than 10,000 students, has won 15 NCAA team championships since 1982. The Tommies dominated the MIAC for years, with 21 different sports teams achieving a top-five national finish.
“What this transition does not mean is a change in our St. Thomas values or our mission,” St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan said in a statement. “Our commitment to academic excellence and personalized education will remain unchanged.
“… As athletics helps us draw from a more geographically diverse student population, our mission to graduate students who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully will only expand.”
The Tommies’ move to D-I began in May 2019, when they were “involuntarily removed” from the MIAC, a conference they helped found 100 years ago. The MIAC’s presidents and chancellors voted St. Thomas out, citing “athletic competitive parity.”
If the 14-month journey from that moment to Wednesday seemed long for St. Thomas, it wasn’t as long as the NCAA’s original mandate that schools wait 12 years to transition from Division III to D-I, including a five-year stop at D-II.
The Tommies gained a key ally along the way in Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple. When St. Thomas received the Summit’s invitation to join, that was an important step toward gaining NCAA approval.
“St. Thomas brings the full package — an excellent academic reputation, experienced leadership, a massive alumni network and a winning culture,” Douple said in a statement.
St. Thomas looked poised to join the Division I ranks in June, but the NCAA essentially tabled the decision. The NCAA scheduled an April 2021 vote on legislation that would allow any qualified school — not just St. Thomas — to reclassify directly from Division III to D-I.
At the time, the NCAA’s Division I Council also said it would “be receptive to a formal waiver request” from St. Thomas to begin the process sooner. The council approved that waiver Wednesday.
Technically, the Tommies are still in their first year of a five-year process to become a full-fledged D-I member. They can start D-I competition in the fall of 2021 but won’t be eligible for championships until fall 2025. During the process, the NCAA evaluates how the school does going from no scholarships to hundreds of them, for example.
“This isn’t a one- or a five-year decision. This is a 100-year decision for this institution,” Esten said. “So that’s a big responsibility, as we think about how we build a foundation for success in the future.”