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St. Thomas is too good for the MIAC (says the MIAC). So where do the Tommies go from here?

UST athletics director Phil Esten
UST athletics director Phil Esten broke the news to Tommies athletes and staff Wednesday, the day the MIAC announced UST would be “involuntarily removed” from the conference after the 2020-21 school year.

Phil Esten, University of St. Thomas Class of 1995, knew the dilemma his alma mater faced when he succeeded Steve Fritz five months ago as UST athletics director. It wasn’t yet public knowledge that the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics Conference Presidents’ Council wanted UST out of the conference. But all the important people knew, Esten included, and he and UST president Julie Sullivan did their best to head off the movement.

Nothing worked. Esten broke the news to Tommies athletes and staff Wednesday, the day the MIAC announced UST would be “involuntarily removed” from the conference after the 2020-21 school year. UST walked away before the Presidents’ Council could vote to change MIAC by-laws and set an enrollment limit for conference members, the first step in the removal process. UST, with about 6,100 undergraduates, is by far the largest MIAC school.

UST took the gracious way out, but the MIAC damaged itself. By trying to boot UST from behind closed doors, the President’s Council created a public relations fiasco. For the next few years, maybe more, the MIAC will be known as the conference that kicked out a founding school for winning too much.

“Our efforts and our focus have really been to stabilize and maintain our position in the MIAC,” Esten said. “We’ve expended a great deal of energy to try to understand the concerns, and how could we solidify our membership in the conference. We haven’t spent the time looking at what [other] options there might be.”

A MIAC source familiar with the Presidents’ Council discussions told MinnPost seven institutions planned to leave the conference if St. Thomas remained: St. Olaf, Hamline, Augsburg, Carleton, Macalester, St. Mary’s and St. Catherine’s. Two more, Gustavus Adolphus and Concordia, considered joining them. All but St. Mary’s and all-female St. Catherine’s play football.

That would have left St. Thomas, St. John’s, Bethel — the conference’s three strongest football schools — and all-female St. Benedict’s, St. John’s sister school, in the MIAC. Seven is a magic number in Division III; a conference needs that many institutions to qualify for an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

Conference Commissioner Dan McKane declined to confirm which schools wanted out, but said the MIAC “would have broken up within a year” if St. Thomas hadn’t left. Esten confirmed that. “I know they came to a consensus that the league would not continue to exist if St. Thomas was in it,” he said.

There’s some irony here. St. Olaf, one of schools believed to be behind the oust-UST movement, was a MIAC charter member until leaving in 1952. When the Oles sought to return in 1975, UST successfully lobbied the other schools to agree to it.

University of St. Thomas football
Courtesy of the University of St. Thomas
For the next few years, maybe more, the MIAC will be known as the conference that kicked out a founding school for winning too much.
Any conference shakeup usually has money at its root, and the MIAC is no different. Though the MIAC statement noted “athletic competitive parity” as the primary concern — the Tommies won 47 percent of MIAC championships since 2003, and 12 consecutive men’s and women’s all-sports trophies — UST’s institutional ambition and graduate programs concerned other MIAC presidents, according to multiple conference sources.

Competition for male students is especially keen among private liberal arts colleges. Only undergrads are eligible in the MIAC, but too many presidents felt UST’s athletic success and graduate school offerings — the law school and a soon-to-open nursing program, among others — gave the Tommies an edge in attracting men, whether athletes or not. That gap, they feared, would only grow wider. That meant fewer students for the others, and less revenue. Don’t be surprised if a MIAC school closes or merges with another in the next ten years; that’s where things are trending.

The MIAC, like so much of Division III, is a conference of geographic convenience, a mix of institutions with different academic standards, missions and emphases on athletics. That leads to a whole bunch of inequities, some manifested on football fields every fall Saturday. In the end, all of that contributed to St. Thomas being asked to remove itself from its conference home since 1920.

So what now? Esten said all options are open, from finding another Division III conference to moving up to Division II. The NCAA forbids teams from going directly from Division III to Division I. Now it’s a process, with a mandatory stop in Division II. The whole thing usually takes 12 years.

The easiest, least costly and most sensible landing spot for UST is the eight-team Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in Division III. The name suggests it’s limited to Wisconsin schools, but that’s not the case. Gustavus Adolphus and Hamline are associate members in women’s gymnastics, which the MIAC doesn’t sponsor.

UST’s enrollment fits with current WIAC membership, which ranges from about 5,500 to 11,000. The largest school is Wisconsin-Whitewater, the six-time national football champion. The WIAC could use a ninth school for easier football scheduling. And remaining in Division III allows UST to maintain its popular, lucrative rivalry with St. John’s. That rivalry, and all that ticket and merchandise money, goes away if the Tommies move up a division.

“I feel the school’s mission and values fit the Division III ideal,” said Esten, a former UST baseball player who worked at Ohio State, Cal-Berkeley, Minnesota and Penn State before returning to St. Paul. “I also happen to believe that can occur at various different divisions. The approach to athletics certainly isn’t anything we’re going to compromise or change. Whether than can occur at Division III or II is something we’ve got to determine is the best fit for us.”

University of St. Thomas
MinnPost file photo by Corey Anderson
Too many MIAC presidents felt UST’s athletic success and graduate school offerings — the law school and a soon-to-open nursing program, among others — gave the Tommies an edge in attracting men, whether athletes or not.
UST alums may support a path to Division I. But the costs for scholarships and travel can be prohibitive, even in Division II. And since there is no Division II hockey, what happens to UST’s successful men’s and women’s programs? “Before we look at a move to D2, we have to have a solution for hockey,” Esten said. Fund-raising and philanthropy will be paramount. UST always found generous donors before, but it needs more.

Telling UST’s athletes about this wasn’t any fun for Esten. He used to be one of them. He knows what they’re losing, and it hurts. “This was difficult for us, and I think it was for them, too,” he said. “They enjoy the rivalry. They enjoy competition. They enjoy riding down the street to Hamline and Macalester to play, and other places. It’s a great conference, one of the best in the country.

“But I also know they have a really positive outlook on this, like we all do, and they’re looking forward. As I said to them — and I think they embraced this — (Wednesday) was not necessarily the last day of the MIAC as much as the first day for whatever’s next for us. That’s the way we have to look at it.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Mike Link on 05/25/2019 - 07:30 am.

    If we shift lens we see one more example of how athletics really dominates the colleges. No one is ever removed for having too many academic accomplishments.

    In a sense it is too bad that the Tommies cannot move into a league with St Cloud, Mankato and other state schools.

  2. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 05/25/2019 - 08:48 am.

    Change is constant in college sports these days. Look at the Big Ten. I don’t blame the other schools. St Thomas became an outlier and outgrew the MIAC. I think they would look forward to being in a more competitive environment.

  3. Submitted by Gary Derong on 05/25/2019 - 10:25 am.

    The WIAC would be an excellent fit for St. Thomas, even in hockey. The influence of Minnesota hockey has over time tilted Wisconsinites’ interest in the sport to the western and northwestern side of their state. St. Thomas would join neighbors River Falls, Stout, Eau Claire and Superior — and conference power Stevens Point — to form a six-team league.

    Moreover, the WIAC is a much stronger conference than the MIAC. WIAC schools have won 46 NCAA titles in the last 10 seasons.

    Overall, UW-La Crosse has won 33 track and field titles, 18 indoor and 15 outdoor. UW-Whitewater won six football titles under Lance Leipold in a span of eight seasons, beginning in 2007 and ending in ’14. The league has won the men’s basketball title 15 times – four by UW-Whitewater, four by UW-Platteville, four by UW-Stevens Point and last season by UW-Oshkosh.

    The WIAC has placed five schools in the top 50 of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Cup in each of the last 14 years.

    Travel distance for St. Thomas would be shorter than what Superior typically faces.

  4. Submitted by Kyle Anderson on 05/25/2019 - 11:22 am.

    There is also inequity within individual schools. I played tennis and ran cross country at a D3 school in Illinois and we were worse than the suburban Chicago high school teams in those sports so we were uncompetitive with the top teams in our conference. Our women’s basketball team, however made the NCAA Elite 8 and could play with anyone. When you have this disparity within a school’s programs it is almost impossible to find a conference that works for all sports.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/25/2019 - 11:30 am.

    In contrast to Star Tribune coverage, which has consistent been pro St. Thomas and anti MIAC, this actually explained the history in more detail as well as the motivations of all parties.

    Of four other Catholic schools in the conference, two, St. Catherine’s and St. Mary’s wanted the divorce. St. Catherine’s was a sister school until St. Thomas went coed. St. Thomas is now launching a nursing program, undercutting St. Kate’s nursing program like it once did Hamline’s former law school. St. Mary’s is too small to have football, with less than 25% the enrollment of St. Thomas. Of course St. John’s and it’s sister school St. Benedict favor St. Thomas as it keeps its rivalry and the peer relationship.

    I am glad that St. Thomas has the path to achieve its destiny – to be a major Catholic University. Everything it has been doing is moving in that direction. An obvious model – Marquette University. D1 with total enrollment of 11 thousand.

    If you combined the enrollment of St Thomas and St Catherine’s you are already there. Nobody is suggesting a merger yet, but if you consider just the real estate, it makes some sense. And a sly suggestion of a new name and mascot – Tomcat.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/25/2019 - 01:47 pm.

    I went to an MIAC college and I don’t think ever in its 800 year history has any man chosen to go there because of football. Football at my school was just something that guys did when they got tired of playing Dungeons and Dragons. That being the case, what was the point of playing Saint Thomas, a school where football was actually taken seriously?

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/25/2019 - 01:57 pm.

    Money may be at the root of the MIAC conflict but the issue is how much of it do they want to lose.

  8. Submitted by Stan Hooper on 05/25/2019 - 03:26 pm.

    I’m not impressed with all the angst. The Tommies have been getting almost free wins for years and it’s high time they played in a conference that provided them with real competition so that their stellar records can mean something.

  9. Submitted by Jody Russell on 05/26/2019 - 05:44 pm.

    Just as a side note since I saw Macalester mentioned. They are in MIAC except for football — at least for the past years!

    • Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 05/28/2019 - 10:28 am.

      Yup, Macalester dropped football from the MIAC a number of years ago and played a non-conference schedule for a few years. I don’t recall when it joined the Midwest Conference which is made up of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa Schools. Beloit, Cornell College, Grinnell, Illinois College, Knox, Lake Forest, Lawrence University, Monmouth, Ripon, and St. Norbert.

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