Ten years from now on Selection Sunday there might be Minnesotans other than Gophers fans sitting in front of televisions to learn where their men’s basketball team is headed in the famous NCAA Division I Tournament. St. Thomas, as a member of the Big East Conference, might be in line for an invitation to the Big Dance, too.
As of today, the Tommies are a long way from membership in the prestigious Big East, but this scenario could have more credibility than you think. The Division III Tommies are optimistic about an NCAA vote this spring allowing them to jump to Division I status starting in the 2021-2022 school year. Most of the St. Thomas sports, including men’s and women’s basketball, are likely to compete in the mid-major level Summit League whose nine members are Denver, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, Purdue Fort Wayne, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois.
The switch to Division I status will be expensive but St. Thomas is a school with deep pockets and generous donors. The Tommies will also count on the men’s basketball program becoming a profit center. As a mid-major, the Tommies will be looked at in their early Division I years as “cannon fodder” for major conference teams, and many of them in leagues like the ACC and Big Ten pay large guarantees to easy opponents. Six-figure paydays from programs like Duke, Michigan State and Kansas will ease the financial burden (including scholarships) of going Division I for St. Thomas.
Home crowds in St. Paul for the Tommies are likely to be small in the initial years of men’s Division I basketball, but eventually school leaders could build an on-campus arena seating about 8,000 to 10,000 fans. Such a facility, combined with an improving and competitive basketball roster, and a home in the Big East Conference, would help fulfill the St. Thomas vision to establish the school in the same image as nationally known Catholic schools like Marquette and Villanova.
St. Thomas president Julie Sullivan wrote about the Division I process in an October, 2019 article on the school’s website last fall. “This decision is about more than athletics – it’s about advancing our vision to be a leading Catholic university recognized at the national level. An important outcome of increasing St. Thomas’ visibility, for example, is an ability to attract a more geographically diverse cross section of students who are accomplished in and out of the classroom.
“This additional representation would add value to classroom discussions, campus life, co-curricular activities and virtually every aspect of St. Thomas while providing St. Thomas with the opportunity to extend the reach of our mission and impact. The presence of Division I sports teams will also build on the strong Tommie fan loyalty and provide the campus and alumni with more engaging fan experiences.”
The caliber of high school basketball in the state of Minnesota has been impressive for years, and still seems to be trending upward. The Gophers have frequently blundered acquiring their share of the talent, consistently seeing top players attend schools far and wide, including the Wisconsin Badgers who tied for the Big Ten championship this year with Minnesotans playing key roles.
With the arrival of St. Thomas in Division I, the Gophers will no longer be the only program in the state with that status. Word is St. Thomas is already showing interest in younger high school players whose college years will match the launch of the Tommies D I debut in the Summit League.
The St. Thomas athletic director is Phil Esten who once was a top administrator in the Minnesota Athletic Department. Esten’s responsibilities with the Gophers included overseeing the building of TCF Bank Stadium. He has also worked in athletic departments at California, Ohio State and Penn State. He is respected in college athletics, and his relationships and experiences are an asset to St. Thomas in gaining Division I status and growing its programs.
One day the Tommies may have progressed to a position of authority in the Summit League and could receive an invitation to join the Big East Conference whose membership is dominated by Catholic schools including Creighton, DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s and Villanova—all programs with rich basketball legacies.
St. Thomas men’s and women’s teams have been Division III powers for years, including in NCAA tournaments. Most recently, the St. Thomas men won the 2016 Division III national title.
Because of Coronavirus concerns the Twin Cities Dunkers has postponed its March 18 meeting where Texas A&M head football coach Jimbo Fisher was scheduled to speak at the Minneapolis Club. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck was to introduce Fisher who has a family tie to the University of Minnesota.
Congratulations to former Gophers All-American defensive end Bob Stein after the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame named him a member of the 2020 College Football Hall of Fame Class. A key contributor to Minnesota’s 1967 co-Big Ten championship team, he is the 19th Golden Gopher player to join the College Football Hall of Fame, and first since quarterback Sandy Stephens in 2011.
Sean Engel, a 2016 Chaska High School graduate, will be a senior at Augustana (Sioux Falls) next season and the 6-foot-5 wide receiver has pro football ambitions. He made the NSIC South Division all-conference first team in 2019 after catching 39 passes for 546 yards and helping his team to a 9-3 season and the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2015. Older brother Derrick was a wide receiver for the Gophers.
Harvey Mackay, the University of Minnesota alum, former Gophers golfer and New York Times best selling author, has a new book out, You Haven’t Hit Your Peak Yet, and in late January it was Barnes & Noble’s best selling business book.