THE UNIVERSITY OF ST. THOMAS AND THE MINNESOTA INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (MIAC)
Everything is either upside-down, sideways or going south.
Right is either wrong or left.
Imagine being singled-out, chastised and repudiated because you’re good?
Penalized because you’re too good?
Thrown out? Besmirched? Accused of eschewing parity? Running it up?
How does this work exactly?
Founded in 1885, The University of St. Thomas is a private Roman Catholic, liberal arts and archdiocesan institution with its flagship campus located in St. Paul, Minnesota and a large satellite campus in Minneapolis which opened in 1992. St. Thomas currently enrolls nearly 10,000 students (6200 undergrad; 3700 graduate) making it Minnesota’s largest private, non-profit university. The university is a member of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) which competes in NCAA Division III athletics.
Their longtime archrival Saint John’s University from Collegeville, MN. — the football rivalry with St. Thomas dates back to 1901 — boasted the winningest coach in college football history, the late John Gagliardi (489–138–11; 27 MIAC Titles; 4 National Championships).
When the Johnnies allowed it, the Tommies thrived too and in 2012 for the first time, St. Thomas played in the Stagg Bowl (Salem, VA.), the Division III Football National Championship game, losing 28–10 to The University of Mount Union (Alliance, Ohio).
They returned to the championship game in 2015 losing once again to Mount Union, this time by a score of 49–35.
In an effort to promote and ensure parity the MIAC decided in late May to oust St. Thomas, the league’s largest school and a charter member of the conference “for competitive purposes.”
The university helped found the MIAC in 1920 and in recent seasons has emerged as the 13-school league’s dominant force in multiple sports.
Striving to achieve and maintain “athletic competitive parity,” the MIAC’s presidents’ council voted to “involuntarily remove” St. Thomas after the 2021 spring season, while noting that the school had not violated any conference or NCAA rules and will depart in good standing.
Apparently conference university presidents conducted the campaign to banish St. Thomas clandestinely, according to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.
The death knell was sounded in 2017 after the Tommies put a serious can of whoop-ass on St. Olaf College in a football game, embarrassing the “Oles” 97–0.
Since Head Coach Glenn Caruso assumed the reins of the football program in 2008, his teams have won six conference titles and played in the two aforementioned national championship games.
The men’s and women’s basketball teams along with the volleyball team and the softball team have also been the class of the conference, winning more league championships than any other MIAC member.
St. Thomas Athletic Director Phil Esten who replaced Steve Fritz — on the job for 52 years — in January lamented in a telephone interview that given the news of expulsion, “it’s a sad day for St. Thomas. It’s a difficult day for us and it’s a sad day for the MIAC.”
He conceded that by the time he was hired the conference presidents were well on their way to gathering the nine votes of 13 needed to cast out St. Thomas. Nothing he or university President Julie H. Sullivan did to try to sway votes worked.
“When I started, these were conversations that were going on,” Esten remarked. “Ultimately there was just an inevitability. We realized this was going to happen.”
For her part, Sullivan remarked in a letter to the campus community on May 22 that “St. Thomas expended tremendous effort to remain in the MIAC and stabilize the conference. However, the Presidents came to a consensus that the conference itself would cease to exist in its current form if St. Thomas remained.
The primary concern cited by the other MIAC presidents is the lack of competitive parity within the conference, across many sports. They stated that St. Thomas has not violated any MIAC or NCAA rules and leaves the conference in good standing.
While this decision is extremely disappointing…the strength of our athletic programs, our institutional commitment to excellence and our location in the metro area will make us an attractive candidate to other conferences.”
What Sullivan meant when she said “that the conference itself would cease to exist in its current form if St. Thomas remained,” was that other MIAC presidents vowed to leave the conference and effectively disband if St. Thomas was to be included moving forward.
The school was unceremoniously kicked to the curb by the conference it helped form 99 years ago.
Interestingly, league member St. John’s the national football powerhouse, reportedly would have voted against St. Thomas hitting the bricks.
And as for St. John’s, how did they escape the wrath suffered by St. Thomas and emerge unscathed?
Their football legacy in the college sport with the greatest visibility and most prestige is far richer.
Further, from 1998–2009 the Johnnies spanked the Tommies on the gridiron 12 straight times and then there are of course those two NCAA D-III national titles in 1976 and 2003. (Their other two national championships in 1963 and 1965 were earned while competing in the NAIA).
Yet the football rivalry between the two schools remains white-hot, incendiary enough to have attracted in 2017 a Division III-record 37,355 fans to Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins.
That would seemingly translate into healthy box-office percentages for each institution and the conference.
It seems that the MIAC is still wiping egg from its face by citing “athletic competitive parity in the conference as a primary concern” for booting the Tommies — and not enrollment size. Example: St. John’s as of 2016-’17 enrolled 1,958 undergraduate students or roughly one-third the number of St. Thomas.
And what about the issue of favorable geographical proximity?
Six of the MIAC schools are located in the Twin Cities metro area and five more are less than a 90-minute drive away, including St. John’s. Only two foes, Concordia College in Moorhead near the North Dakota state line and St. Mary’s University in Winona not far from Wisconsin, are more than 100 miles from St. Thomas.
The Tommies could try to join another D-III circuit such as the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference which has eight full-time members, all public schools larger than St. Thomas. Road trips would range from 1 ½ to 4 ½ hours.
Or they could opt to move up a level or two, a costly and complicated process.
The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference in Division II would be a nice geographical fit with most members in Minnesota but St. Thomas would have to add athletic scholarships to compete in a league where big boys Minnesota State and St. Cloud State have more than twice their enrollment.
(The MIAC as a Division III conference does not offer athletic scholarships).
To eventually land in Division I where only a few FCS schools play non-scholarship football would require at least a 12-year reclassification ordeal with a mandated stop in Division II, per NCAA rules.
With more than a trace of resignation Sullivan further noted that, “We believe our strong presence and success in the conference has made it a better and more competitive one. This history holds importance to our entire community, including our students, coaches and alumni.”
Never mind Denmark, something is rotten in the state of the MIAC.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in June 2019.]
ADDENDUM: The future of St. Thomas football was to be determined in a late April 2020 NCAA Division I Board of Directors meeting waylaid by the Covid-19 pandemic. The agenda item regarding reclassification of athletic programs was tabled and will be discussed in the near future.
A lifeline to St. Thomas football was extended by the Summit League (D-I) in the form of a tentative invitation but with it came the caveat that the Tommies could secure NCAA approval to make the immediate jump. A judgment is expected to be rendered sometime this summer.