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‘Painful and seemingly endless’: How the University of St. Thomas made the jump to Division I

Meet Tom Douple, commissioner of the Summit League, one of the key players in St. Thomas’ unlikely ascension to big-time college athletics.   

Some folks who follow Minnesota college athletics claim UST planned to go D1 long before the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference sought to kick them out.
Some folks who follow Minnesota college athletics claim UST planned to go D1 long before the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference sought to kick them out.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Now that it’s done, now that the NCAA has granted the University of St. Thomas unprecedented approval to go directly from Division III to Division I, a rumor persists that St. Thomas officials somehow orchestrated all 15 months of drama themselves.

No one will speak of this on the record, naturally, but here’s the gist of it: Some folks who follow Minnesota college athletics claim UST planned to go D1 long before the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) sought to kick them out. The Tommies cleverly manipulated their exit, the theory goes, to gain sympathy and remain in the NCAA’s good graces.

Former Macalester president Brian Rosenberg hinted last December something wasn’t on the up-and-up when he told The Mac Weekly, the school’s student newspaper: “The whole narrative of St. Thomas being involuntarily removed from the MIAC is not accurate.”  

That was curious, since the MIAC used the phrase “involuntarily removed from membership” in its statement announcing UST’s departure. Rosenberg, who retired in May, never clarified what he meant, and he declined to speak when contacted shortly after the story broke. 

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The rumor presumes the sort of nefarious motives usually seen in an HBO series, and my reporting turned up no credible evidence of any. Patrick G. Ryan, the Ryan Companies board chairman who also chairs the UST Board of Trustees, dismissed the rumor outright. “Absolutely incorrect, and I’ll go to my grave saying that,” he said. “That was not our desire. It was forced on us. It was an ill-conceived decision (by the MIAC).”

But the biggest piece of evidence countering the rumor: Going straight to D1 wasn’t even UST’s idea. It came from a guy known for big ideas, like buying a town in Texas and opening a pizzeria. 

Meet Tom Douple, commissioner of the Summit League, the one who made St. Thomas’ improbable move happen.

“Tom was the one to first step up and say, ‘We want St. Thomas to be part of our future,’” Tommies Athletics Director Phil Esten said. “We would not be here without Tom’s support and his guidance throughout the way.”

A commissioner with an idea

On April 5, 2019, Tom Douple was in Minneapolis, attending a reception for college athletics officials and sponsors at the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four. Douple can’t remember which hotel hosted the reception, but he distinctly recalls what everyone was talking about: Patrick Reusse’s Star Tribune scoop about the MIAC trying to expel founding member St. Thomas.

A Louisiana native with a thick mustache and booming voice, Douple is one of those people who’s always thinking — and frequently intrigued. Eleven years ago, he and three friends were eating barbecue in Lockhart, Tex. when they read an ad about a nearby small town for sale. Curious, they drove 15 minutes to check out McMahan, population 125, give or take. The deal included a five-building business district and five acres of land. 

Douple bought it, thinking he’d renovate the buildings and rent them out. Then he convinced his daughter and son-in-law to move there from Utah and convert one building into a restaurant. Whizzerville Hall, billed as a Texas pizza paradise, is still going strong under Douple family ownership, though you’d better call ahead for reservations. (McMahan was called Whizzerville in the 1800s.)

UST Board of Trustees Chair Patrick G. Ryan: “It was forced on us. It was an ill-conceived decision (by the MIAC).”
Ryan Companies
UST Board of Trustees Chair Patrick G. Ryan: “It was forced on us. It was an ill-conceived decision (by the MIAC).”
Dean Bresciani, the North Dakota State president who has known Douple for more than a decade, said that’s how Douple’s mind works. “He’s just a friendly, good old boy in some senses, but don’t let him fool you,” Bresciani said. “He’s always thinking down the road, and any good Division I athletic director in the nation is doing that. You’re constantly testing scenarios and what-ifs so you don’t get surprised.”

Douple didn’t know much about St. Thomas, but what he heard at the reception made him curious. So he fired up his laptop. Three big numbers about the school jumped out to him: 10,000-plus students, 110,000-plus alumni, and an endowment exceeding $500 million.  Division I numbers, without a doubt. 

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How, Douple thought, was a school with all that going for it not already at least Division II?

Two days later, Sunday, April 7, was an off-day at the Final Four. Douple was out sightseeing with his brother and niece, walking the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi River, when he suggested they take a drive. “Bear with me,” he said. 

They headed to the St. Thomas campus and walked around. Douple loved the vibe, the collegiate Gothic architecture, and the expansive Anderson Athletic and Student Centers.  “That really caught my eye,” he said. “I came back and did some more research.”   

It got Douple thinking. Suppose UST was D1 and joined the Summit League, a non-football conference that currently has nine full-time members — University of Denver, University of Missouri-Kansas City, University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University, University of Nebraska Omaha, Oral Roberts University, University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University and Western Illinois University — fielding nine men’s and ten women’s sports.

St. Thomas would give the league a presence in the largest metro market in the Upper Midwest, where 40,000 league alumni reside. Every league school except Denver and Oral Roberts could bus to UST’s St. Paul campus, with a major airport just five miles away. It made so much sense. (Unbeknownst to Douple, Fargo Forum writer Jeff Kolpack pitched the same idea — for a lot of the same reasons.)

So after Douple returned home to Sioux Falls, S.D., he phoned NCAA Membership Services and asked how a Division III school might skip Division II and go directly to Division I. 

To outsiders, the NCAA can be a labyrinth of committees, rules and bureaucracy. But Douple is no outsider. In thirty-one years in Division I athletics administration and 15 as Summit League commissioner, Douple served on two influential NCAA committees and guided four current Summit League schools from Division II into Division I. He knows who to lobby and who to call for answers.

Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple
The Summit League
Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple phoned NCAA Membership Services and asked how a Division III school might skip Division II and go directly to Division I.
If anyone could negotiate a path through this uncharted territory, it was Douple. St. Thomas didn’t know it yet, but its biggest advocate was about to put the NCAA’s cumbersome wheels in motion.

From the NCAA, Douple learned UST needed one of two things: An extenuating circumstances waiver or special legislation streamlining the traditional 12-year path through Division II. The latter, Douple said, would be “a tremendous heavy lift.” But he took it as a positive that the NCAA didn’t reject the notion of UST’s jump outright. What he didn’t know was just how heavy a lift it would be — or that competing legislation almost derailed the whole thing.

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A school with limited options

At the same time, over at St. Thomas, new Athletics Director Phil Esten was trying to manage a crisis. 

A former Tommies baseball player, Esten spent his entire career in Division I athletic administration at Ohio State, Minnesota, Cal and Penn State. He returned to UST in January 2019 seeking to escape the Power 5 rat race. He accepted the job knowing certain MIAC schools weren’t happy with the Tommies, but never expected the MIAC would force them out five months after he arrived. 

Esten’s D1 background and ambitions concerned Ryan enough during the interview process that he flew out to State College, Pa. to meet with him, trying to gauge Esten’s commitment to D3. A few months earlier, Esten had been a finalist for the AD job at D1 University of North Carolina at Charlotte. 

“There were some rumblings in the MIAC at this juncture as we were doing the interview, but there had been rumblings in the past, and I naively assumed those would dissipate and we would move forward,” Ryan said. “We obviously ultimately made the move to Phil, and felt very good about it. 

“Then the discourse with the presidents in the MIAC started to escalate, and Phil was instructed to look at what our options were if we were not able to successfully put that to bed, which we obviously were not. Quite honestly, our options were really limited.”

Athletics Director Phil Esten
Athletics Director Phil Esten spent his entire career in Division I athletic administration at Ohio State, Minnesota, Cal and Penn State. He returned to UST in January 2019 seeking to escape the Power 5 rat race.
In Division III, the option was the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC), made up of schools in the University of Wisconsin system. In Division II, it meant the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC), a mix of state and private schools in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska with enrollments from 755 (Upper Iowa) to 15,110 (Minnesota State, Mankato). Ryan felt St. Thomas didn’t fit either league, academically or athletically.

In the midst of this, Douple called Esten and mentioned the Summit League. “I said, look, here’s an option,” Douple said. “I think our folks would be interested. It’s a heavy, heavy lift. Put us on the list as an option.”

Douple visited UST again, officially this time, meeting with Esten, Ryan, school president Julie Sullivan and others. And when May came around and UST announced its impending departure from the MIAC, talks began. 

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“Tom is rightfully looking for all options within the Summit League footprint,” said Bresciani, chairman of the league’s membership committee. “If you know much about St. Thomas, you would recognize they had outgrown a Division III shoe. I think Tom was exploring what they were ready for and interested in. That’s how things got started.”

‘Down and out’ in St. Paul

Through June, July and August, UST officials assembled an institutional profile and strategic plan to present to the Summit League presidents, who needed to formally invite the Tommies to join. (The NCAA prohibits institutions from switching divisions on their own; a conference in that division must extend an invitation.)  

Sullivan, known for her purple-framed glasses that match the school’s primary color, made a persuasive presentation to St. Thomas’ Board of Trustees, laying out how D1 athletics fit the mission of the university. 

Specifically, she outlined how it would give UST a greater regional and national profile to spread its Catholic message. That, in turn, would help it attract more students from outside Minnesota. And it would put UST on equal athletic footing with peer Catholic institutions in the Midwest like Marquette, Creighton, DePaul and Loyola of Chicago, all of which are Division I schools. Initial funding would come from a Board-controlled endowment fund earmarked for start-ups.

School President Julie Sullivan
School President Julie Sullivan made a persuasive presentation to St. Thomas’ Board of Trustees, laying out how D1 athletics fit the mission of the university.
Private schools are already fighting for a diminishing pool of students, so this approach appealed to Ryan, a UST grad who founded Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in South Minneapolis. “I didn’t come to the board steeped in interest in athletics,” he said. “It was athletics and fine arts, along with all the other offerings, part of the full picture. 

“When I was asked by Julie and Phil what my thoughts were, I told them that I would weigh in on this from this perspective: If it did not enhance what we were trying to accomplish as a university, I would not be in support of a move to Division I. Said differently, I would only be in support of it if it helped the entire university. And I really feel strongly that it will.” 

A wrinkle … and months of uncertainty

On Oct. 3, 2019, the Summit League presidents voted to invite UST. The league, following protocol, then submitted a waiver application to the NCAA on behalf of St. Thomas. 

But a snag developed. A few months earlier, the Division II Presidents Council had requested the NCAA address a pressing issue tangentially related to UST’s waiver — institutions using the division solely as a stepping stone to D1. In October, the NCAA Strategic Vision and Planning Committee took up formulating a direct D3-to-D1 path. As part of that, the committee folded the St. Thomas waiver request into that legislation.

“That’s where some of the holdup came in for us,” Douple said. “Those on the committee said, ‘Wow, let’s address the whole big picture instead of just St. Thomas.’ So we fell into that.”

The legislation needed approval from the NCAA Division I Council, and it faced significant opposition. Normally it takes 12 years for a school to transition from D3 to D1, with a minimum five years in D2. The NCAA put that timeline in place for a reason — to prevent overly ambitious institutions from bankrupting themselves jumping too far, too fast. The proposed legislation eliminated the D2 step and cut transition time to five years. Some were concerned that was too short; others feared an onslaught of D3s rushing to move up.

“Boy, I thought we were down and out,” Douple said. “We had some other meetings that I attended where it was not positive, comments and responses from my colleagues on that. But it was on the April agenda. We tried to address every one of the concerns that had been raised.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The Council had more pressing issues and tabled the transition discussion to June. “That was tough, and it was tougher on St. Thomas,” Douple said. “They didn’t know what they were going to be doing. That was very trying times, to say the least.”

Esten and UST officials understood, but still needed an answer. Schedules and logistics for 2021-22 had to be done. What if the whole thing fell apart and UST was stuck in D3? They couldn’t go back to the MIAC. Playing as a D3 independent was an option, though scheduling would be a nightmare.  

Then in June, the 40-member Council sent the proposed legislation out for member comment, a 10-month process leading to an April 2021 vote. Realizing St. Thomas needed an answer long before then, it asked the Summit League to resubmit the waiver. 

The revised paperwork also included new invitations from the Pioneer Football League for football and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for women’s hockey.

Finally, on July 15, the Council approved the waiver. St. Thomas would join D1 in July 2021. Pioneer Football League Commissioner Patty Viverito, a mother of two, compared the waiting to the trimesters of childbirth, with the final one the most difficult.

“It was a painful and seemingly endless process,” she said on a video conference call the day after the waiver approval. “Every time we talked about it, there seemed to be complete understanding of the need for this to happen and to happen for St. Thomas, separate and apart from larger issues that were being sort of lumped into the conversation about a pathway for any Division III institution.

“St. Thomas is not any Division III institution. They had unique circumstances, and they are uniquely qualified to make the move to Division I. People acknowledged that, but sometimes bureaucracy gets in the way of the time.”

The uncertainty weighed on Douple, too. “The thing that hurt me to no end was, here you had 600 student-athletes there at St. Thomas,” he said. “They didn’t know what their future held, and that just gnawed at me from the beginning. There were times Phil and I were on the phone and I’d say, ‘Phil, this may not go through this spring. What are some other options?’ There weren’t pretty ones. I remained optimistic, but we also had to be realistic that if this thing went up in smoke…time was ticking on this.

“It was a lot of work. It was very difficult. But at the end of the day, I’ll say there are very good people who work at the NCAA who are on these committees. So finally we were able to get our story told, and here we are.”

Correction: This article originally mislabelled the name of the Division III athletic conference made up of Wisconsin schools. The correct name is the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC).