By Dave Wright

The University of St. Thomas will have to wait until next year to learn whether it can move its athletic programs from Division III to Division I. UST officials were hoping to get an immediate clearance for the move on June 17. The NCAA Division I Council received a proposal that day to allow the move, but decided to schedule the vote for next April. Meanwhile, it indicated it would be “receptive” to a request from St. Thomas to push the time up a bit.

In 2011, the NCAA outlawed a provision that would allow schools to make the two-level jump that St. Thomas is seeking. A Division III school typically needs to spend at least five years in Division II, where partial scholarships are allowed, before even being considered to move up to the top rung. The current format makes Division III schools wait a dozen years for the entire process to be completed.

“We’ll immediately begin work with (Summit League) commissioner Tom Douple and the NCAA to formally submit our waiver request,”

While several colleges have memberships in sports conferences at all three levels of competition, St. Thomas would be the first school in NCAA history ever granted the ability to make the complete jump at once.

“We’ll immediately begin work with (Summit League) commissioner Tom Douple and the NCAA to formally submit our waiver request,” said Phil Esten, St. Thomas vice president and director of athletics. “While I know all of us are anxiously awaiting definitive word on where we’ll be competing starting with the 2021-22 season, we must remain patient for just a little while longer.”

The upcoming 2020-21 athletic season is St. Thomas’ last in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. In May 2019, the conference voted the Tommies out, citing the lack of competitive parity as its main concern. In other words, St. Thomas’ sports programs were perceived as too strong relative to the rest of the teams in the conference.

 

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Should the NCAA sign off on the leap, St. Thomas has a deal in place to join the Division I Summit League for athletics. The Summit, which recently rejected Augustana’s bid to join its ranks, currently has nine members, including North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State. However, the Summit League does not have football or hockey programs.

“While I know all of us are anxiously awaiting definitive word on where we’ll be competing starting with the 2021-22 season, we must remain patient for just a little while longer.”

As a result, St. Thomas would need to spread its wings. For football, it is looking at the non-scholarship Pioneer League. That league currently has nine members spread out all over the country, ranging from Kentucky to California. Jacksonville pulled the plug on its football program last December, which created an opening in the league.

St. Thomas also would need a conference for hockey. The Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) will be undergoing a major reshuffling in 2020-21. Seven of its 10 men’s programs are leaving after the upcoming season to join the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), which recently hired former Gopher hockey coach Don Lucia as its commissioner. Lucia has said that the CCHA currently has seven members to start play in 2021-22 and that St. Thomas would be a “nice candidate” for the new league.

The women’s WCHA is one of the best hockey leagues in the country and has seven members, including five based in Minnesota. Adding St. Thomas would be an easy fit.

However, one drawback to Division I hockey for St. Thomas is that its current home ice, St. Thomas Arena in Mendota Heights, has a seating capacity of only 1,100. There aren’t many other options available for UST among the arenas around town.

Hockey is not the only sport in which St. Thomas would likely have to make moves regarding a place to play if it jumps to Division I. Its volleyball and basketball teams play at the Anderson Athletic Complex, which has about 2,000 seats and some standing room. O’Shaughnessy Stadium, the Tommies’ football home for the last 75 years, has 5,000 seats but considerable space for spectators who are willing to stand.

The South Field, located on the corner of Cretin and Grand avenues, is where St. Thomas plays soccer and softball. It has a capacity for about 500 spectators, but there’s standing room for more. Baseball has been played on the North Field for as long as anybody can remember. A small bleacher is located behind home plate and there’s some room to stand down the base lines.

St. Thomas currently has no outdoor home courts for tennis. All of that will come into play when making a move such as this.

There are other issues as well that the NCAA will need to be satisfied with before approving St. Thomas’ jump. For example, St. Thomas will have to increase its athletic budgets, hire more assistant coaches, and hire more staff in its media relations department to compete at the Division I level.

So there’s a lot that still needs doing before the NCAA signs off on St. Thomas’ application. This was just one hurdle down, with many more to follow.

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