ST. PAUL — St. Thomas is on its way up. The Tommies received approval Wednesday from the NCAA’s Division I council to jump from up from Division III to the NCAA’s top level starting with the 2021-22 school year.
The Tommies will compete in the Summit League in most sports, while the football program will compete in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League in the Football Championship Subdivision and the women’s hockey team will play in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, where it will compete against the Gophers.
“A conference decision is pending for men’s hockey,” the school said.
With the move, St. Thomas will be the state’s second full-time Division I college athletics program, joining the University of Minnesota. That will raise the University’s already prominent local profile, but also provide more Division I opportunities for in-state athletes. Minnesota is currently one of just six states with only one Division I athletics department.
“St. Thomas has a long history of academic and athletic excellence and embracing change with an entrepreneurial spirit,” university president Julie Sullivan said in a statement. “This move continues that trajectory.”
Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference presidents voted St. Thomas out of their Division III conference last year. The Tommies will compete in the MIAC through the 2020-21 season before moving to the Division I level.
Wednesday’s announcement means big changes are coming for the St. Paul school. Fundraising, facilities, staff sizes and general resources all will need to be significantly upped. As a Division III school, the Tommies currently cannot offer athletic scholarships.
“The funding for the transition to D I will primarily come from philanthropy, incremental athletics revenue and start-up funds authorized by the Board of Trustees,” Sullivan said in the school’s release. “The transition period will be managed and timed to ensure that new expenses are phased in and do not dilute academic excellence in any way.”
St. Thomas is the first program in the NCAA’s modern era to reclassify directly from Division III to Division I college athletics.
“Today, as much as ever, I’m proud to be a Tommie as we look to our university’s future,” St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten said in a statement. “I thank the leadership at the NCAA, The Summit League, Pioneer Football League, WCHA and all who have supported our efforts. This decision aligns with our university’s bold vision to ever press forward. I am excited to compete in Division I, while ensuring conditions for our student-athletes to pursue comprehensive excellence.”
The process to reach this point was long. The Summit League invited St. Thomas to join the conference back in October, and the waiver process to make the jump to Division I has been ongoing ever since. In the past, the jump from Division III to Division I took 12 years, including at least a five-year pit stop in Division II.
There is a four-year NCAA postseason moratorium for schools that transition to the Division I level. So upon its arrival at the Division I level, St. Thomas will be ineligible for NCAA postseason competition until the fall of 2025.
The Tommies have dominated at the Division III level over the past few decades. St. Thomas has won 15 NCAA team championships since 1982, and finished in the top five in the nation in 21 different sports.
“This approval recognizes St. Thomas’ growing reputation and academic and athletic success and will help us expand our mission and impact beyond Minnesota,” Sullivan said in the school’s release.