Phil Esten has plenty on his plate these days. At the same time he’s dealing with the effects of the pandemic on college sports, the St. Thomas athletic director continues to prepare for a potential move from Division III to Division I.

That might sound exhausting, but Esten doesn’t see it that way. He said this week the pandemic hasn’t changed St. Thomas’s commitment to the switch, or its excitement about taking a giant leap up the college-sports ladder. The biggest challenge has been dealing with a two-month delay for a school eager to know its fate.

The NCAA’s Division I Council was supposed to announce in April whether it would allow St. Thomas and other qualified D-III schools to reclassify directly to Division I, eliminating the required stopover in Division II. Instead, it delayed the decision to its June meeting, and Esten does not anticipate another postponement.

“We feel this is the right move for our university for the next 10, 20, 30 years and longer”
Phil Esten, St. Thomas athletic director

Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple, whose conference has invited the Tommies to join if they make it to D-I, also said he expects an answer next month.

St. Thomas is forging ahead with planning for the move, which would begin in 2021-22 if the NCAA approves. That’s given Esten and his department something positive to focus on during this unpredictable time.

“We’re all excited and anxious to know exactly where things stand,” Esten said. “A lot of people are.

“There are a lot of things in motion at St. Thomas, but that’s one of the things that gives me energy. And I think it gives our coaches and our staff energy. Even if there’s some uncertainty, it feels like there’s momentum in moving forward.”

According to Esten, the coronavirus has not yet created any barriers to the school’s ambitions. He said St. Thomas “is not without our challenges from a financial standpoint,” noting the shutdown of sports and the stalled economy have affected budgets for all college athletic programs.

He called the move to D-I a long-term strategy that remains the best path for St. Thomas. While the school is studying how to fund new or renovated facilities and how to structure its athletic fundraising, Esten said none of those efforts need to start now.

He also noted that if the move is approved, it will be more than a year before the Tommies actually join D-I, and the financial landscape could be much different then.

“It’s very difficult — if not impossible — to predict what the fall is going to look like, let alone what a year from now will look like,” Esten said.

“… It’s far too early for us to say ticket sales or fundraising support or whatever will be impacted one way or the other, when we still have 15 months until we make that transition. We still have a Division III budget for another year.”

Esten and his colleagues are discussing issues such as nonconference scheduling and what coaching and support staffs might look like.

The NCAA delay has given them time to “pressure-test” their plans, ensuring they will fit a college sports landscape that could be altered by the pandemic.

One thing that won’t change, Esten said, is St. Thomas’s commitment to joining Division I.

“We feel this is the right move for our university for the next 10, 20, 30 years and longer,” he said. “We feel it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”