ST. PAUL — St. Thomas is seeking to become Minnesota's second NCAA Division I institution.
The university that will soon to be ousted from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference due to its recent dominance of smaller schools in its longtime Division III home has received an invitation to join the Summit League with the goal of cranking up the competition for its 20 sports teams and going Division I.
St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan announced Friday that the university has submitted a request to the NCAA for a waiver of the reclassification rules that would allow it to bypass Division II.
If the waiver is granted, St. Thomas would become the 10th member of the Summit League, a mid-major mixture of public and private institutions mostly in the Upper Midwest, in the fall of 2021. The Tommies would then have to find a different conference for their football and men's and women's hockey teams, sports that aren't sponsored by the Summit League.
In May, the MIAC announced that St. Thomas, the largest school in the league and one of its founding members in 1920, was being "involuntarily removed." Conference presidents cited athletic parity as their primary concern about the Tommies, who have won 12 consecutive MIAC all-sports trophies. The private Catholic liberal arts university has about 6,200 undergraduates, double the enrollment of the next-closest schools in the league.
Because they preferred to stay in the MIAC, where their football rivalry with St. John's University is one of the most storied in the country, the Tommies took what's believed to be an unprecedented step of asking to move up two levels at once. There's no clear sense about when the NCAA would decide on this, athletic director Phil Esten said, though the expectation is the university will receive word at some point during the current academic year.
"There's no blueprint for this or no roadmap," Esten said. "I do think we have a pretty compelling case to make, but it's impossible to speculate."
Reclassification rules currently require an advancing Division III school to spend three years as a provisional Division II member and have five years of good standing before applying for Division I acceptance. Then there'd be another four-year provisional period before becoming a full-fledged Division I member eligible for postseason play. That's a 14-year process, including these final two years of MIAC membership as a Division III institution.
Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple said Friday the conference president's council "unanimously and enthusiastically" voted to approve the application by St. Thomas and support the reclassification process.
"While the league recognizes the extraordinary efforts ahead for UST to seek Division I membership, we believe this institution is the right fit," Douple said.
Current members of the Summit League are Denver, Fort Wayne, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota, South Dakota State, and Western Illinois. If the waiver is granted and the Summit League membership is finalized, St. Thomas would then have to apply for affiliate membership for both football and hockey. At the FCS level, the Pioneer League and the Missouri Valley Football Conference, which includes perennial power North Dakota State and three other Summit League members, would be the obvious options.
As for the future of the Tommie-Johnnie football game, which drew a Division III record 37,355 fans to Target Field in 2017, well, that's one of the many question marks facing St. Thomas in this period of transition.
"We'd love to find a way to make it work," Esten said, "within the rules and regulations and policies of whatever league we're in."