When Pioneer Football League Commissioner Patty Viverito first heard about St. Thomas, which was essentially kicked out of its conference for being too good, she thought, “Oh, come on. This is crazy.”
Fast forward several months, after the St. Paul university decided to make the big jump from Division III to Division I. Viverito discovered that some within her league had the same trepidations about adding St. Thomas as the MIAC did when giving it the boot.
“I thought people would be 100 percent enthusiastic,” Viverito said. “And I got my first phone call from a skeptical person in our league who said, ‘Now, wait a minute, I have a hard enough time competing in the current Pioneer Football League lineup. How am I going to compete against St. Thomas? They’re too good.’ ”
Viverito’s response was pretty simple.
“Whenever you can find a member who will make your league better, you act,” she said. St. Thomas, with its 126-21 record under longtime coach Glenn Caruso — including two NCAA championship appearances the past eight seasons — just seemed to fit.
St. Thomas, which received clearance from the NCAA last week to start the five-year process, will begin playing at the D-I level in 2021-22.
When the football team joins the Pioneer Football League, it will be one of 11 teams in the non-scholarship, football-only conference, spread from California to New York and Minnesota to Florida. The conference champion automatically qualifies for the FCS playoffs.
St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten said that border-to-border reach was a big draw, a way to extend the school’s brand beyond Minnesota and surrounding states.
But to others, joining a little-known league that seems fairly random in its membership was a head-scratcher.
“The way that someone who’s in the football world might look at it is maybe different than somebody who’s not in the football world,” Caruso said. “… We’ve known about the strength of Drake and San Diego and Butler and Davidson for years. And now to be able to start to see it up closely is pretty cool.”
Viverito said minus the challenging geography, St. Thomas was a perfect fit in the league. Much more so than with the Missouri Valley Football Conference, which she also heads and a league that Esten previously mentioned interest in. That would have seemed natural, given the five other football teams within the Summit League — St. Thomas’ primary conference for its 19 other sports besides football and hockey — belong to the exclusively Midwestern conference that spans from the Dakotas to Ohio.
Unlike the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Pioneer League membership is mostly private schools, several religiously backed, with enrollments no larger than 12,000. That basically describes St. Thomas.
“They’re schools that are laser-focused on their football programs,” Viverito said of the Missouri Valley teams. “St. Thomas has a wide variety of sports that they focus on, and football’s one of them. But I know ice hockey is big in Minnesota, and I know that’s part of the mission and vision for the school. They just don’t look like any of the other football schools that are in the Valley. They look a lot like, almost exactly like, the profile schools we have in the Pioneer Football League.”
The Missouri Valley Football Conference also has athletic scholarships, the Division I maximum being 63 for football. With St. Thomas already looking to quadruple its $5 million budget in five years, swerving a big hit for football scholarships in Year 2 was attractive.
“It’s going to be a very extensive transition, as far as staffing, as far as getting your scholarships and budgeting, your support staff and compliance and academics. There’s just a lot of cost involved in,” said Tom Douple, Summit League commissioner. “… When you add on top of that your 85 scholarships for FCS, well, that’s a huge amount of money being spent. And the beauty [of] the Pioneer … you’re not spending as much money, but you still get to compete in the FCS playoffs.’’
Douple said St. Thomas’ going to the Pioneer Football League “makes total sense.” Especially since he has no plans at this point to add football to the Summit League. While St. Thomas would give it the minimum six members needed to sponsor the sport, Douple isn’t sure it’s worthwhile to play a schedule with only five conference games.
There still might be some crossover, though. Esten said he wouldn’t rule out playing some of the regional Summit League teams with football, including North Dakota State and South Dakota State, in the nonconference season.
“We’ve got to hustle to put together a 2021 schedule. There are not a lot of openings in 2021,” Esten said. “… But certainly, I think at some point we’ll be open to playing some of those Missouri Valley Football Conference schools. … I do look forward to filling our schedule with a few of those really nice regional competition opportunities.”
The football rivalry with MIAC foe St. John’s, though, has its last and 90th meeting set for this fall at U.S. Bank Stadium, and Esten wasn’t sure about its potential future once St. Thomas is in D-I. But in saying goodbye to some familiar adversaries, the Tommies will have a chance to meet a whole spattering of new ones.
“Those new opponents are so diverse in terms of the types of kids they have, the types of systems they run, the types of ways that they’re coached,” Caruso said. “… And so there’s just a myriad of thoughts and styles and approaches to it. It’s exciting.’’