The math never made sense. How can Minnesota have fewer Division I institutions than North Dakota and South Dakota, and two fewer than Idaho, with a population that far exceeds those three states combined?
Minnesota no longer will be included in the answer to a certain trivia question — Name the six states that have one or no D-I schools — now that the NCAA has allowed St. Thomas to crash the party.
The Tommies make their leap from Division III in the fall of 2021, as a new member of the Summit League in all sports except football and men’s and women’s hockey. Those three sports will compete at the D-I level in other conferences.
St. Thomas is well-positioned for the undertaking. The Tommies have a large and loyal alumni base in the Twin Cities, a $500 million endowment and an ambitious athletic director in Phil Esten, who served as deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer for Penn State’s athletic department in his previous stop.
Division I makes sense for St. Thomas for a variety of reasons.
So what impact will that move have on the school a few miles down Interstate 94?
Very little, initially.
Long term? Some areas might cut into the Gophers’ pie, but the two athletic departments still will operate from vastly different perspectives.
The Gophers carry a $122 million athletic budget. At full capacity in scholarships and other D-I upgrades, St. Thomas anticipates an annual budget of around $25 million.
“D-I is not a homogenous division, just like D-II and D-III is not,” St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan told the Associated Press. “When you say D-I, it doesn’t mean that we’re becoming Ohio State. So we are thrilled for this, because we believe this really broadens the platform by which we have impact. We broaden the geographic reach of our student recruiting, of our visibility through our competition.”
St. Thomas officials have nearby models that they should aspire to replicate in establishing their own Division I identity: Marquette, Butler, Creighton. These are small private schools operating in the shadow of a large state school with strong basketball programs that carve out a national presence.
Is that a gigantic dose of ambition? Yes, of course. This is a long view, not something that could happen overnight.
Those schools mentioned have tradition and the benefit of playing basketball in the Big East Conference, which offers many advantages over the Summit League. The template is the key point. Basketball as the centerpiece to the athletic department, especially if St. Thomas’ powerhouse football program stays in its new home, the Pioneer Football League, for an extended period.
Minnesota prep basketball has blossomed in the past 15 years. Tommies men’s coach Johnny Tauer won’t have to travel far to fill his roster with players who can elevate his program to be competitive in the Summit League.
This scenario won’t happen in Year 1, or likely even in Year 5, but consider the impact on revenue, national attention and brand enhancement the first time St. Thomas makes a men’s or women’s NCAA basketball tournament. Or imagine if March Madness becomes a frequent destination for the Tommies.
Basketball is one area that could siphon some of the media focus and corporate marketing dollars traditionally reserved for the main college entity in town.
The school’s move to Division I football will have zero impact on the Gophers. That’s an apples-to-oranges discussion. St. Thomas is joining the non-scholarship Pioneer League. No kid is going to turn down a full-ride football scholarship to play in the Big Ten in favor of paying tuition, books and housing and playing Marist.
The potential effect on recruiting in other sports seems minimal because of the talent gap between the Big Ten and Summit League. Don’t expect heated turf wars to suddenly flare up. Maybe occasionally coaches will compete for a local player, but not across the board.
It always seemed weird that Minnesota had only one Division I school. There is plenty of room for two. The Tommies have an aggressive strategic vision, but it’s not a copycat of their neighbor.