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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”