The NCAA gave the University of St. Thomas permission Wednesday to jump directly from Division III to Division I, the final clearance for a bold move born out of the Minnesota private school's ejection from its conference for being too dominant.
The Tommies, who had secured a spot in the Summit League for all but three of their 22 varsity teams pending NCAA approval, announced they'll join the Pioneer League for football and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for women's hockey. The men's hockey program is still in the process of finding a conference.
"We are looking more like our national Catholic peers in being a comprehensive university that competes at a level that broadens our platform,'' St. Thomas president Julie Sullivan said. "So I think it's really quite consistent with the trajectory of the university."
When a majority of school presidents in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference decided 14 months ago they wanted the Tommies out, St. Thomas leaders were first focused on Division III alternatives and the potential of moving to Division II. Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple, eager to add the Twin Cities market, targeted St. Thomas for the conference and played a vital role in encouraging the NCAA to allow it. Big Ten member Minnesota is the state's only other full-fledged Division I program.
"When you think about the future and what could be, certainly there's a lot to be excited about there, whether it's advancing to postseason in certain sports or competing against certain teams or whatever it might be, but for now just knowing that we've accomplished something that nobody has ever done before is really a testament to the perseverance and fortitude of the institution,'' athletic director Phil Esten said.
The NCAA's Division I council ruled in June that St. Thomas could make a formal request to waive reclassification rules for Division III schools seeking Division I membership that currently mandate a 12-year process with a stop in Division II. The council planned to vote by April on a proposal to reduce the reclassification process to five years, but the waiver was granted for St. Thomas in this unique, urgent scenario.
UST is the first school to make the two-level jump since the current rules were put in place in 2010 by the national governing body for college sports. Buffalo made the two-level jump in 1993. Dayton did the same that year, but the Flyers were already in Division I in basketball.
The 2020-21 school year will be the final season for the Tommies in the 100-year-old MIAC they helped found. The Catholic institution of about 6,000 undergraduate students located in the state's capital, St. Paul, is more than double the size of the other schools in the MIAC and has long produced the most powerful programs in that league in many sports. The Tommies have won the all-sports trophy in the MIAC for 13 consecutive school years on both the men's and women's side, and they have won 15 national titles in NCAA team sports since 1982.
"D-I is not a homogeneous division, just like D-II and D-III is not,'' Sullivan said. "When you say D-I, it doesn't mean that we're becoming Ohio State. So we are thrilled for this, because we believe this really broadens the platform by which we have impact. We broaden the geographic reach of our student recruiting, of our visibility through our competition.''
Like any school that transitions up, St. Thomas will have provisional Division I status for four years until first being eligible for postseason competition in the 2025-26 seasons.
The Summit League currently covers seven states with the following schools: Denver, Kansas City, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois.
The Pioneer League is a non-scholarship FCS conference that currently covers eight states from California to Florida to New York. It includes the University of San Diego, where Sullivan previously served, as well as Dayton, Drake, Davidson, Marist, Stetson, Morehead State, Butler and Valparaiso.
The Tommies could be part of the new iteration of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, a group of seven schools separating from the WCHA next year: two in Minnesota, one in Ohio and four in Michigan. New CCHA Commissioner Don Lucia said last month that St. Thomas is a program the league would "certainly have an interest in.''
On the women's side, the Tommies will land in by far the strongest league in the sport, joining Bemidji State, Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State, Ohio State, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin.
There are no NCAA or league requirements for larger facilities that must be met, Esten said, but St. Thomas will continue to evaluate its needs as the process of raising the profile and elevating the competition unfolds. The biggest need over time will probably be a hockey arena, with Tommies teams currently playing in a suburb off campus in a shared facility with a high school.
The university has a deep pool of donors, with an endowment that was reported a year ago at more than $518 million, well positioned in the region to raise the additional funds that will be needed to support Division I programs. The virus outbreak that has shuttered college sports hasn't had a major financial impact on St. Thomas, since it's still on a Division III budget for another year.