The University of Minnesota has occupied a huge and rare amount of territory on the college sports landscape in this state for a very long time. Just look to our south: Iowa has FOUR Division I schools.
But as the lone school in Minnesota playing at the Division I level in all sports, the Gophers' programs in many cases have had their pick of in-state recruits who wanted to stay home and have dominated both attention and coverage.
That will change in a matter of just months, though. As I discussed on today's Daily Delivery podcast with the Star Tribune's Rachel Blount, the University of St. Thomas will flip the switch from Division III to Division I in July and begin competing at that level this fall.
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There are many interesting layers to that story, but perhaps the one that will play out most visibly is the level at which St. Thomas will eventually be able to compete. Though the Tommies are used to competing and winning a lot — that's a big reason they outstayed their welcome in the Division III MIAC — that will come to at least a temporary halt in many sports as they move up two levels.
But the school almost certainly understands that and will take a patient approach as it builds up. And the hope on the St. Thomas end is that even as there are early growing pains, there are major gains in visibility and exposure that come from competing in Division I.
One subplot within that idea: Will St. Thomas eventually be able to build a rivalry with the Gophers in at least some key sports?
To be sure, they still will be competing in different worlds in a way — with the University of Minnesota occupying space in the Power 5 Big Ten conference and St. Thomas playing primarily in the Summit League.
They probably won't vie for the exact same recruits in most sports — particularly football — but as St. Thomas grows into Division I the school will at least nudge into the Gophers' territory.
It seems quite possible that in sports like men's and women's basketball or volleyball — programs where St. Thomas has had success at the Division III level and sports with roster sizes small enough to catch up competitively a little sooner than later — a friendly (or even perhaps bitter?) rivalry could develop between the smaller private school in St. Paul and the large public school in Minneapolis.
Perhaps an instructive best-case scenario in terms of basketball can be found with our neighbors to the east. In Wisconsin, Marquette — a private school in Milwaukee that is similar in enrollment to St. Thomas — has a strong (albeit perhaps a little one-sided) rivalry with the much larger and public UW-Madison.
These things of course take time and you can't just manufacture a rivalry with geography. The Star Tribune's Scott Gillespie, a known Badgers fan, points me to some history between the men's basketball programs at Marquette and Wisconsin that goes back nearly a half-century and could explain even some of the modern-day animosity.
St. Thomas' biggest rival for a long time in the MIAC has been St. John's, a good hour-plus away from St. Paul, and the presumed ending of that rivalry is a deep disappointment to fans of both teams.
But in a half-dozen years, could I imagine something pretty cool taking root between the Tommies and Gophers? Maybe they play each other a couple times in basketball and there's a controversial play or ending?
Yeah, I could see that — and I could imagine it being pretty fun, not to mention something we haven't really experienced in this state outside of Minnesota Division I hockey rivalries.