College Sports

St. Thomas announces intentions to go Division I after getting removed from MIAC

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 DI Summit League, pending NCAA approval of the school's waiver claim to jump directly from Division III to DI.

NCAA rules specify that a DIII school must first stop at Division II before climbing to DI, 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 Conference. Teams from both of those conferences compete at the Football Championship Series (FCS) level, one notch below the Football Bowl Championship (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, North Dakota, South Dakota and South Dakota State compete in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, which does allow 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 Division I WCHA after the 2020-21 season – Minnesota State Mankato, Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan.

"I think it's difficult to make any kind of predictions as to what that might look like," Esten said. "There's some other Division I men's conferences out there that I think is incumbent upon us to take a look at as well. Again, very important that we spend time deliberating over what we think the best long term decision is for St. Thomas."

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

"Under the direction of Commissioner Tom Douple, 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 prior to that 2011 change, there were no schools that reclassified directly from Division III to Division I," NCAA spokeswoman Megham Durham said in an email. "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. "We are proud of our strong record of athletic performance and even prouder that our student-athletes are recognized for their great work as scholars in the classroom and as good citizens in our community. Those values will remain paramount no matter which athletics conference we ultimately join."

Staff writer Marcus Fuller contributed to this report.