Thursday came and went without a decision on the future of St. Thomas in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
According to the Star Tribune, the MIAC Presidents Council was supposed to vote Thursday on changing conference by-laws to cap the enrollment of conference members — a passive-aggressive way of disqualifying St. Thomas, by far the MIAC’s largest school. The Council met and discussed membership but took no action, a MIAC spokesman said.
It’s an unusual week when a bomb threat that forced the UST to evacuate its St. Paul campus Wednesday wasn’t the most disruptive thing endured by the school. That the MIAC seeks to expel UST, one of seven charter members from the its founding in 1920, is stunning, a rare rebuke of a school for being too successful. St. Olaf and Hamline, which suffered embarrassing football losses to the Tommies in recent years, are believed to be behind the oust-the-Tommies movement.
So how did it reach this point?
A brief history of D3 and the MIAC
Like most breakup tales, it’s a long, complicated story. But before we get to that, a little background is in order.
D3, as it’s known, is the NCAA’s largest division with 449 members — about 40 percent of all NCAA schools, according to the NCAA. Undergraduate enrollments range from 274 to 25,175. Among football schools the spread is less pronounced but still massive, from 440 at Finlandia in Michigan to 12,301 at Montclair State in New Jersey, per d3football.com.
Academics, not athletics, are supposed to be paramount. D3 forbids athletic scholarships, though about three-quarters of athletes receive financial aid, per the NCAA. Athletes play shorter seasons and fewer games than Division 1, and travel shorter distances to do so. Bus trips in the MIAC are generally 90 minutes or less, except to Concordia-Moorhead, at Minnesota’s western border near Fargo. Staffs are smaller, too, with some coaches pulling double-duty as equipment managers, sports information directors and compliance officers. Most assistant coaches work part-time. Nobody is getting rich.
The problem is, commitments to athletics vary from school to school, even within the same conference. So do facilities. A movement to create a D4, separating schools who take athletics more seriously from those who don’t, failed in 2008 because member presidents and athletic directors couldn’t decide how to split them up.
That leads to disparities like those in the MIAC, where St. Thomas, St. John’s, and Bethel emphasize athletics more than Carleton and Macalester. Mac pulled its football team out of the MIAC to go independent in 2001, eventually finding a better competitive fit in the Midwest Conference. The school’s other teams remain in the MIAC. (The MIAC changed its bylaws to prevent anyone else from doing this; now it’s all in or all out.)
Over the years, St. Thomas’ undergraduate enrollment has grown to be almost twice as big as the next-largest institution, St. Catherine’s. Add the graduate school and St. Thomas boasts almost 10,000 students. But since graduate students aren’t eligible in the MIAC, undergraduate enrollment offers the fairest comparison.
|Institution||Undergraduate enrollment||Annual tuition|
|University of St. Thomas (sponsors football)||6,199||$41,133|
|St. Catherine University**||3,158||$39,669|
|St. Olaf College (sponsors football)||3,035||$47,840|
|Bethel University (sponsors football)||2,904||$37,300|
|Augsburg University (sponsors football)||2,427||$38,800|
|Gustavus Adolphus College (sponsors football)||2,201||$45,100|
|Hamline University (sponsors football)||2,162||$41,473|
|Macalester College (football in Midwest Conference)||2,136||$54,348|
|Carleton College (sponsors football)||2,078||$54,759|
|Concordia College (sponsors football)||2,034||$40,042|
|College of St. Benedict**||1,937||$45,264|
|St. John's University* (sponsors football)||1,720||$44,990|
|St. Mary's University||1,503||$35,110|
Source: U.S. News and World Report; * = men’s schools, ** = women’s schools.
Enrollment isn’t always a predictor of athletics success. St. John’s ruled MIAC football for decades under Hall of Fame coach John Gagliardi, while St. Thomas struggled. Glenn Caruso’s arrival as football coach in 2008 began an unprecedented run of Tommie dominance, and not just on the gridiron.
Caruso and his staff elevated the one major sport that had been lagging, leading the Tommies to six MIAC titles, eight NCAA Tournaments and two national championship game appearances in 11 seasons. Before that, St. Thomas hadn’t won a MIAC football title since 1990. Football’s emergence helped the Tommies sweep the MIAC men’s and women’s All-Sports competition the last 11 years, and they currently lead both categories again. Since 2013-14, the Tommies have amassed 72 conference titles, far more than the next closest schools, Gustavus Adolphus (16) and Carleton (10).
All the success aggravated officials at certain MIAC schools. That’s where it all started.
So it’s all about football?
Not exactly, though football pushed things over the edge. As one MIAC school official put it, it’s about enrollment and competition for students.
Officials at multiple MIAC schools, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to publicly, say St. Thomas bruised feelings with two ambitious institutional decisions that put it in conflict with conference members — reopening its law school in 1999, and most recently announcing plans for a nursing school.
The St. Thomas School of Law was the fourth in the Twin Cities — a lot for an area this size. Some claim St. Thomas pulled away potential students from Hamline, a MIAC institution, and William Mitchell. Those two law schools merged in 2015. And some in the conference fear a similar scenario with the St. Thomas nursing school, which will be located a mile from MIAC neighbor St. Catherine’s, whose nursing program goes back more than 80 years.
Some MIAC administrators believe St. Thomas eventually plans to expand to to 8,000 or 9,000 undergraduates, putting its teams even farther out of reach. Yet it’s not clear where that notion from. St. Thomas officials say undergraduate enrollment has been flat for 20 years, and nothing in the school’s 2020 Strategic Plan released in 2014 indicates a significant increase. Two dormitories under construction are meant to house all freshmen and sophomores on campus, a popular requirement in the MIAC, not to increase enrollment.
Then there is football, which like it or not drives male enrollment. St. John’s listed 170 players on its 2018 roster and St. Thomas more than 100. No one else in the MIAC matches those numbers. Given a choice of being a fourth-stringer at St. Thomas and St. John’s or starting for Hamline and St. Olaf, many recruits prefer standing on a winner’s sideline than getting their heads bashed in every week. That doesn’t help the second-tier MIAC schools compete, especially with high school participation numbers trending downward over concussion concerns. It also leads to lots of one-sided scores.
The oust-the-Tommies movement apparently gained strength in 2017 after its nationally-ranked football team routed Hamline 84-0 and St. Olaf 97-0. Both happened on the road, where MIAC rules limit travel rosters to 60 players.
St. Olaf officials in particular accused Caruso of poor sportsmanship. In the final game of the regular season, St. Thomas led 64-0 at half yet still sent out its starters to begin the second half. Another touchdown resulted. Then the Tommies converted a late Oles turnover into a touchdown on a run by a backup offensive lineman. This season Caruso changed his approach, pulling starters at halftime or earlier in blowouts.
St. John’s caught much less flak for a 98-0 non-conference wipeout of St. Scholastica in Collegeville that same season because it used nearly 100 players and subbed out starters in the second quarter. Caruso has supported expanding travel rosters, but conference athletic directors voted down a modest increase to 65, citing a lack of visiting locker room space.
Why is St. Thomas still in D3 anyway?
This comes up a lot. UST is larger than Augustana, the small Sioux Falls, S.D. university reclassifying from D2 to D1 (1,665 enrollment). And UST’s enrollment falls on the low end of D1 Catholic schools in the Midwest — bigger than Creighton and Xavier, but smaller than DePaul, Notre Dame, Marquette and Saint Louis. Notre Dame is the only one playing football.
MIDWEST D1 CATHOLIC SCHOOLS
|Institution||Undergraduate enrollment||Annual tuition|
|University of Notre Dame (sponsors football)||8,576||$53,391|
|Saint Louis University||7,411||$43,996|
|St. Thomas University||6,199||$41,133|
Source: U.S. News and World Report
But moving up is not that simple, or affordable.
St. Thomas studied possible reclassification to D1 in 2005 and chose to stay put, repelled by the cost and the likelihood of dropping football to pay for it. Now it’s even more complicated.
The NCAA forbids schools from going directly from D3 to D1. Any move to D1 requires a stop in D2, and the reclassification period from D3 to D2 to D1 can take up to twelve years. Used to be, schools could be D1 in one sport (usually hockey) and D2 or D3 in everything else. Not anymore. Now the entire program must move. And no D2 school can join D1 without a conference invitation in hand.
In 2014, the NCAA estimated the median annual operating expenses of a D3 athletic program with football at about $3.4 million. Expenses for a FCS program rise to about $17.3 million, and a D1 school without football close to $16 million, per the NCAA.
Where’s that money coming from? Certainly not gate receipts, where last season St. Thomas home football attendance averaged 3,161. And forget about the Johnnies-Tommies Holy Grail rivalry filling home coffers every other year. That goes away if the Tommies leave D3.
UST decided long ago that D3 best fits its mission and values. That should be their decision to make, not someone else’s. Despite the enrollment disparity, by geography and philosophy St. Thomas still belongs in the MIAC. We’ll see if the Tommies get to stay there.