The University of St. Thomas made clear Friday that it intends to turn Division I in athletics, less than five months after being involuntarily removed from the Division III MIAC.

St. Thomas announced that the school has been invited to join the D-I Summit League, pending NCAA approval of the school’s waiver claim to jump directly from Division III to D-I.

NCAA rules specify that a D-III school must first stop at Division II before climbing to D-I, a process that normally takes 12 years. St. Thomas said if its waiver is approved, it will join the Summit League in 2021, which is exactly when the Tommies must exit the MIAC.

Tommies athletic director Phil Esten said “it’s hard to say” whether the NCAA will approve the waiver.

“I do feel like our case is pretty compelling,” Esten said. “We’re dealing with extenuating circumstances that as far as I know this is the first time this specific situation has presented itself. I do think that St. Thomas is uniquely positioned to make the move. When you look at the state of Minnesota, we’re one of only five states in the country that has one Division I school.”

Schools in the Summit League for sports such as basketball, volleyball and soccer include North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota, South Dakota State, Denver and Omaha.

“Joining the Summit League would be a unique and exciting opportunity for St. Thomas, allowing us to significantly expand our impact and reach,” St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan said in a statement.

The Summit League does not have Division I football, but Esten told the Star Tribune that the school is exploring the Division I Pioneer League for football, along with the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Teams from both of those conferences compete at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level, one notch below the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level that includes the Big Ten.

The Pioneer League, which includes such schools as Drake, San Diego, Butler and Valparaiso, is a non-scholarship league for football. North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State compete in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, which allows scholarships.

“We’re just taking a look at where we think the best landing spot for us is right now,” Esten said. “I will say an important first step was receiving an invitation from an all-sports conference like the Summit League.”

For hockey, Esten said the Tommies have explored other options, including joining the seven schools that are scheduled to leave the WCHA men’s league after the 2020-21 season — Minnesota State Mankato, Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan.

Women’s WCHA Commissioner Jennifer Flowers said she has discussed the possibility of adding St. Thomas with Tommies officials.

“I’m anxious to see what the next steps are,” Flowers said. “To this point, everything has been what I would consider informal conversations. But I would anticipate that ramping up. There’s a lot of intrigue from our league about what they would look like as a member of the WCHA.”

The Tommies currently play home hockey games at 1,400-seat St. Thomas Arena, so a D-I hockey move might require a bigger venue.

“We’ve got to take a look at all our options, whether that’s playing in an existing facility, leasing some other facility, whether or not we can look to build a new facility,” Esten said. “Those are all the things we’re assessing right now.”

But the Summit League would be the home for most of the Tommies’ sports.

“The [Summit League] has grown in strength and success over the past several years,” Sullivan’s statement said. “If the NCAA ultimately grants the waiver request, St. Thomas will begin competing in the Summit League in fall 2021, after two full final years in the MIAC.”

In a statement, Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple said the conference’s President’s Council “unanimously and enthusiastically voted to support the membership application made to the League by the University of St. Thomas. ... While the League recognizes the extraordinary efforts ahead for UST to seek Division I membership, we believe this institution is the right fit for The Summit League and we will support the reclassification process.”

The NCAA passed rules in 2011 that made it impermissible to move from Division III to Division I without following the 12-year process that included a step to Division II.

“To our knowledge, even before that 2011 change, there were no schools that reclassified directly from Division III to Division I,” NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham said in an e-mail. “That said, NCAA members are currently evaluating whether or not there needs to be a process by which a Division III school could move to Division I directly.”

Sullivan noted that Esten led an advisory committee this summer that examined several conference options. “The top priority in this process is maintaining our student-centered focus,” Sullivan said.

And if the NCAA denies St. Thomas’ waiver?

“We’ll go back to assessing our options,” Esten said. “We’d take a look at what our options are at the Division II and Division III level.”


Staff writers Marcus Fuller and Randy Johnson contributed to this report.