Though St. Thomas did not get final approval Wednesday for its proposed move to Division I, the NCAA pushed it one step closer to that goal.
The NCAA’s Strategic Vision and Planning Committee has recommended a proposal to the Division I Council that would allow qualified schools to reclassify directly from Division III to Division I. The Council put the plan into the NCAA’s legislative pipeline Wednesday, with a vote scheduled for April 2021. In the meantime, the Council said it would “be receptive to a formal waiver request” from St. Thomas to begin the process sooner.
St. Thomas has been waiting for months to get NCAA approval to move directly from D-III to D-I, which is not allowed under current rules. A statement from the school called Wednesday’s action “encouraging news,” adding that athletic director Phil Esten immediately will begin working on the waiver application.
The Tommies were voted out of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference last May and will leave the league in July 2021. The Summit League, which has invited the Tommies to join, will help the school submit the waiver request.
“While I know all of us are anxiously awaiting definitive word on where we will be competing starting with the 2021-22 season, we must remain patient for just a little while longer,” Esten said in the statement. “As always, I remain optimistic about the future of Tommie athletics, and we look forward to continuing to work with the NCAA on the reclassification process.”
During the next 10 months, Division I members will review the proposal and give feedback to the NCAA before the April vote. Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple said Wednesday’s decision was “a positive step forward” for the Tommies and the league.
“We will be working with the NCAA and UST to make the formal waiver request, and advance the process as expeditiously as possible,” Douple said in a statement.
The D-III to D-I transition currently takes 12 years, including a mandatory five-year stop at the D-II level. The plan introduced Wednesday shortens the timeline to at least five years, with no D-II stop.
Under the proposal, D-III schools wishing to move directly to D-I must spend at least a year in a pre-application process. During that time, schools would submit a strategic plan; get a conference invitation; establish policies reflecting D-I principles in areas such as diversity and academic integrity; and conduct feasibility studies on how they will meet D-I requirements, including compliance and athletic scholarships.
St. Thomas already has done some of that work. It has an invitation from the Summit League, which includes all sports except football and hockey, and Esten has been laying the groundwork in other areas.
After meeting the requirements in the pre-application period, the school would submit its application and start the four-year reclassification process already in place for D-II schools moving to D-I. The NCAA will review the school’s progress each year to decide whether it can continue moving forward, or whether it must repeat a year of the process.
Rick George, the athletic director at Colorado and chair of the Strategic Vision and Planning Committee, said the group spent months examining the components critical to a successful D-I transition. The pre-application year is meant to give extra time for D-III schools to begin working toward D-I standards in those areas.
“The existing process for Division II schools transitioning to Division I has been successful in preparing those schools for meaningful membership in Division I,” George said in a statement. “We believe that with additional time meeting certain benchmarks, Division III schools could be equally well-positioned to make that transition.”