Next year arrived early for the University of Saint Thomas athletic program. Instead of having to wait until next spring, the university got the green light from the NCAA on July 15 to make the unprecedented leap directly from Division III to Division I effective with the 2021-22 season. Under NCAA rules, UST will have to wait until the fall of 2026 to be eligible to compete in an NCAA Division I post-season competition.

The Tommies will join the Summit League for 19 sports. The Summit doesn’t offer football or hockey. Accordingly, UST will join the nonscholarship Pioneer Football League in 2021. Its women’s hockey program will become part of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). UST men’s hockey is the only sport that currently doesn’t have a conference home.

“This has been a long time coming,” said university president Dr. Julie Sullivan. “It’s consistent with our history and our future.”

Coach Glenn Caruso celebrates with linebacker Jesse Addo during UST’s semifinal win over Linfield, Oregon, in December 2015. The Tommies advanced to the NCAA Division III title game, where they lost to Mount Union and finished the season with a 15-1 record. Photo by Brad Stauffer

UST athletic director Phil Esten now has the task of navigating the athletic program through its final season in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), while also getting its teams ready to step up two levels in a little over a year.

Thinking of the short term, Esten said, “We need to find a way to get students back to campus.” Looking ahead, he added, “We have a lot of work to do.”

In football, for example, UST moves into an 11-team conference that’s one of just two at the Division I level that doesn’t offer scholarships. (The Ivy League is the other.) That will still require finding nonconference games.

“We need to hustle,” Esten said. “There aren’t a lot of openings on 2021 schedules.”

 

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The Tommies will be playing against several well-known football powers, including San Diego, which has won 37 straight conference games and has advanced to the FCS playoffs four years in a row.

Pioneer Football League head Patty Viverito welcomed Saint Thomas by joking, “I feel I should be handing out cigars.”

The Summit League has nine full-time members and five part-timers. Seven of those schools are within busing distance, including Drake and the Division I schools in North and South Dakota. As a result, schedules are somewhat scattered. In 2019-20, the league had nine participants in men’s and women’s basketball, seven in softball and six in baseball.

In basketball, North Dakota State was 25-8 for the men last year and South Dakota went 30-2 for the women. Both would have been considered teams to watch if the NCAA tournaments had been played last March.

Summit League commissioner Tom Douple was thrilled to get a new member in the lodge. “They have a culture of success,” he said, referring to the Tommies’ dominance in the MIAC. He then offered this cautionary thought when UST takes on its new rivals: “The hardest thing to do is to have patience. Will this be easy? No.”

“This has been a long time coming,” said university president Dr. Julie Sullivan. “It’s consistent with our history and our future.”

In the short term, UST women’s hockey may become the school’s highest profile team. The WCHA women’s league will now have eight teams with some of the best skaters in the country, including the U of M and Wisconsin, who have won 11 of the last 20 NCAA championships.

“It was a no-brainer from our point of view,” said WCHA women’s league commissioner Jennifer Flowers. “To get to eight is huge.”

Where UST men’s hockey will end up remains unknown. There are three possibilities. The longstanding WCHA is losing several members to the newly formed Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) for the 2021-22 season. Thus, men’s WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson is looking for new faces.

“Saint Thomas would be a welcome addition,” said Robertson, a Cretin-Derham Hall alumnus. One possible drawback is the Tommies’ current home arena has room for roughly 1,100 spectators—less than the 2,500 usually required by the league. “For now, we could work it out,” Robertson said.

The new CCHA will have seven members, including Minnesota State (Mankato). The National Collegiate Hockey Conference has eight teams, including Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota. To all of this, Esten said, “It’s important to note this is not necessarily our decision to make. We need to be invited.”

As the giddiness of moving into the bigtime fades, Esten has to roll up his sleeves and get to the heavy lifting. Asked about the status of all sports at UST, including such nonrevenue ones like cross-country and tennis, he said, “At the moment, we’re proceeding with
all 22.”

A move like this expands costs considerably. One estimate had athletic budgets for Summit League schools at $20 million—quite a leap from the roughly $5 million Saint Thomas currently spends. To help make up the difference, Sullivan said, “We need income from ticket sales and philanthropy.”

However, she looked at the big picture regarding the move. “We need to look 10-20-30 years down the road,” she said. “This (move) puts us in line with our Catholic peers.”

So move over Notre Dame, Marquette, Georgetown, Dayton, Loyola and Villanova. You have company now.

—Dave Wright

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