When the Summit League extended an invitation to St. Thomas, it offered the Tommies more than a new conference home. The league became a full-fledged partner in the university's quest to make the leap from Division III to Division I athletics.
Tom Douple, commissioner of the nine-member Summit League, said Wednesday that he and its member schools are committed to bringing St. Thomas into the conference. To that end, the league will act as an advocate, adviser and lobbyist for the Tommies as they travel through uncharted waters. St. Thomas is seeking permission from the NCAA to reclassify directly from D-III to D-I, which is not allowed under current rules.
While Douple was in the Twin Cities to attend the Final Four in April, he heard the Tommies were in danger of being thrown out of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Amid the controversy and anger, he saw the potential for an alliance that would give St. Thomas a good landing place and allow his conference to enter a coveted market. The Tommies were voted out of the MIAC in May and announced last month that they had been invited to join the Summit League.
"Who gets kicked out for winning?" Douple said, recalling his initial reaction at the Tommies' ouster. "For us, that's what we want. We want someplace with a culture of winning.
"We believe St. Thomas can be a viable Division I program, and we want them in our league. We're committed to working with them and working with the NCAA to try to solve this. We knew this was going to be a hard process, but we think it's a good battle to fight."
The NCAA requires Division III schools to reclassify first to Division II as part of a 12-year process to become a full member of Division I. The Summit League is supporting St. Thomas's request for a waiver to bypass Division II. According to NCAA spokesperson Meghan Durham, there is no procedure in place to consider such a waiver, but the organization "supports in concept'' the idea of creating a direct path from Division III to Division I.
Durham confirmed that no school ever has gone straight from D-III to D-I, even before the rule was instituted in 2011. St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten said Wednesday he is "hopeful and optimistic" that his will be the first.
"[The NCAA] is working right now through a couple of different models of how to address this," Esten said. "The good news is, nobody has yet said no. And they're trying to find a way to create a [direct] pathway.
"Whether that's through new legislation, amended legislation, some kind of an appeal process, I don't know. Those are all the things that hopefully we'll learn after further deliberations in January, at the [NCAA] convention."
Douple hopes a proposal for a D-III to D-I transition will be presented during the convention, and he expects to "know one way or another" by April. For now, the Tommies are in limbo, with no idea where they will land when their MIAC membership ends July 1, 2021.
Though little else is certain, Douple promised the Summit League will keep working to get St. Thomas into D-I, no matter how long it takes.
"Our presidents and chancellors are all-in. They just reconfirmed that on Monday," he said. "Whether it's in 2021, '22 or '23, we're committed to having [St. Thomas] be a partner with us."
Douple has been commissioner of the Summit League since 2005. A veteran of multiple NCAA committees, he has assisted four conference members—North Dakota State, South Dakota State, South Dakota and Nebraska Omaha—in their transitions from Division II to Division I. The league does not offer football, though some members play the sport in other conferences.
Douple said his league "has systems in place" to help schools successfully reclassify. That appealed to Esten, who knew a helping hand would be invaluable.
"When you look at some of those schools and what they've been able to do at the D-I level, they're thriving," he said. "I really think that's because of the support of the Summit League. Having Commissioner Douple and the Summit League support this, I think it's been helpful for the NCAA to know, and for us, too. He's been through this before."
During the Final Four, Douple visited the St. Thomas campus, solidifying his opinion that the school fit the D-I profile. After some initial discussions with St. Thomas officials, he contacted the NCAA to begin exploring the possibility of a direct move to D-I. Douple and other league officials traveled to St. Paul several times in recent months to talk with Esten and St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan.
Armed with information about the Tommies' situation, Douple assembled a "white paper" in support of the school, which was presented to the NCAA's Strategic Vision and Planning Committee. He said that group is looking at the larger picture. Instead of simply considering a waiver for St. Thomas, it began discussing in October whether the NCAA should create a direct path from D-III to D-I for any qualified school.
"I don't think that's something that will occur yearly, or even every five years," Douple said. "But there needed to be a system in place, and that was the first thing the committee needed to address. That's where we are now."
Douple said several members of the committee agreed with his argument that there is a viable avenue for schools to move from D-III to D-I. He hopes that by January, the NCAA will reveal more details about how to put that into practice, giving St. Thomas some clarity on whether it will be allowed to forge ahead.
Durham, the NCAA spokesperson, said the Strategic Vision and Planning Committee "will continue to develop potential models for consideration by Division I at a later date."
Though the timeline is uncertain, Esten said he has not gotten any indication that the process will drag on. Douple noted that any proposals will "have to go through the NCAA cycle" and be ratified by membership.
As St. Thomas awaits its fate, Douple said he feels sympathy for its athletes, coaches and staff. He also wants them to know they aren't alone.
"We're in there battling," he said. "We're doing as much as we can."