It’s been over a week since the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference removed the University of St. Thomas from its membership, leaving the school without a conference following the 2020-2021 season. Officials with the school have stated openly that they want to remain in the MIAC, and this is very much an “involuntary” separation.
Dan McKane, commissioner of the MIAC, said the conference presidents felt that they and St. Thomas had clashing “philosophies” around athletics, but at the end of the day, it was about the Tommies dominating the league, winning over half of the conference championships in all sports over the last five years. This creates obvious headaches and stress for the university to determine the next course of action for athletics.
The administration, staff, coaches and athletes now face the challenge of turning this sadness and fear into an opportunity. However, there is no reason why anyone associated with St. Thomas should fear what the future holds. The athletic department has backing from the administration, a strong culture of tradition and excellence that dates back to 1904, and a strong alumni base to help determine a plan over the next three to five years. Tommies Athletic Director Phil Esten told multiple media outlets in the Twin Cities that all options are on the table. This includes exploring other Division III conferences for membership, and the possibility of moving up to Division II.
I for one firmly believe St. Thomas has the facilities, leadership and support to reclassify up to D-II and explore membership in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. It’s a strong league that has five private institutions as members already. St. Thomas also has an enrollment of 6,000 undergraduate students, more than eleven NSIC schools. Its campus fits perfectly in the geographic footprint and is located 1.7 miles from NSIC member Concordia-St. Paul, so you also have an in-city rival from day one. With Augustana’s impending move to Division I, the timing may actually be perfect.
This type of repositioning would certainly come with some growing pains and would mean securing some financial commitments to increase the budget, but we have seen similar institutions like the University of Sioux Falls and the University of Mary find ways to make it work. There is no reason to think St. Thomas could not do the same. Transitions are hard, long and seem to last forever, but in the end, more often than not, they are worth it.
When North Dakota State made the transition to Division I (yes, it was its choice to do so), there were a lot of skeptics that thought it would mean some lean years and relative obscurity for a decade or two until programs could catch up. Fast-forward fifteen years, seven FCS national championships, multiple NCAA Tournament appearances in various sports, and two individual track and field national titles later (thanks Payton), the Bison athletic department is relevant on the national stage and is continuing to build and grow. It took a lot of work from many people to get to this point, but ultimately, the support was there to make it happen.
I remember having a conversation with former NDSU Football Coach Craig Bohl just before he left for Wyoming. I asked what the biggest challenge was for him building the program up over his 11 seasons, and his response was simple.
"Brian, the toughest part was getting everyone associated with university and the programs to change the way we looked at ourselves," he said. "Finally, when we had success and validation, people started to believe."
Folks at the University of St. Thomas have had a lot of success in Division III for decades, and even though they have enjoyed the accomplishments and were booted out of its league because of them, take these lemons and make some lemonade. Perhaps in the future some of their old rivals from the MIAC would like to make a similar move someday and will need the univesity’s support to make that happen. Wouldn’t that be something?