On Wednesday the news broke that the University of St. Thomas would be allowed by the NCAA to reclassify from Division 3 to Division 1 and become the second Division 1 school in the state of Minnesota.
"Today, we received long-awaited news from the @NCAA that St. Thomas has been approved to begin reclassification to Division I athletics." –President Julie Sullivan https://t.co/OIrvT0mtAs— University of St. Thomas (@UofStThomasMN) July 15, 2020
Beginning in the 2021-2022 season the Tommies will no longer be a member of the Division 3 MIAC but will begin play in Division 1 in at least three and most likely four different conferences depending on the sport. Depending on your relation to St. Thomas you are either excited (probably a grad), annoyed (A St. Johns/St. Bens grad), or quite indifferent (pretty much everyone else). As Minnesota Golden Gophers fans, you may wonder how the U will be affected having a second D1 school just down the road from Dinkytown. The true answer—not too much at least initially. Let’s break down in groups of sports just how Minnesota will deal with St. Thomas going forward from the most interaction to the least.
This is the one sport where Minnesota and St. Thomas will instantly interact on an every singe season basis. On Thursday the WCHA confirmed that St. Thomas will become the 8th member of the Women’s WCHA beginning in 2021-22. Assuming the schedule is set up the same way that it was when North Dakota was the 8th team in the Women’s WCHA, the Gophers and Tommies will play four times each season—twice at Ridder Arena and twice at St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights.
While the Tommies will be a WCHA member, initially it won’t be pretty. Consider the Tommies at best on the level of a Minnesota State—who the Gophers have an all-time record of 93-3-3 against and have won 48 straight games over. There will be no recruiting battles between the two schools. Minnesota will get all the players they want and St. Thomas will fight the Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and Bemidji States of the world for the others.
Is there a potential for a crosstown rivalry? Maybe someday. But initially—not a chance.
St. Thomas is still a men’s hockey free agent, but is getting strong overtures but not yet an official offer from the new version of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) that will begin play in 2021. Former Gopher head coach Don Lucia is now the CCHA commissioner and has a great relationship with St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten who spent several years as an assistant AD at the U. It would make too much sense for it not to happen. The Tommies would join the two other Minnesota schools in the conference in Minnesota State and Bemidji State in one trio along with a trio in the UP of Michigan in Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State. Ferris State and Bowling green would complete the eight team conference.
While not in the same conference, it would not be surprising to see the Gopher schedule the Tommies for a non-conference series. The U helped grow other startup D1 schools in Minnesota in hockey and the Tommies will not be the 6th team in that group joining Bemidji, Mankato, UMD, St Cloud and the Gophers.
St. Thomas is still trying to figure out where they would play as well. The St. Thomas ice arena holds only 900 people—not big enough for a D1 men’s team. Some potential options include The State Fair Colosseum—though that would involve a major renovation to a new ice plant, and potentially even Ridder Arena. There is even talk of a new combined basketball/hockey arena somewhere on the UST campus—but that is several years away.
Will the Gophers be fighting with the Tommies for any recruits? Well we all know college hockey has significantly changed in the last 20 years in the state of Minnesota, but I’d be shocked if the Gophers lose any players they wanted to UST any time in the near future.
Is there a potential for a crosstown rivalry? Again not initially, but give it 10-15 years and sure, its possible. But it would take a lot to get to the place were the Gophers are with the other in-state schools.
Men’s and Women’s Basketball
The Tommies have been granted immediate entry to the Summit League for both basketball teams...and every other D1 sport they play.
St. Thomas receives @NCAA waiver to join The Summit League in 2021-22— The Summit League (@thesummitleague) July 15, 2020
The Tommies will be the league's 10th member#ReachTheSummit | #RollToms
️: https://t.co/wPICO7ctWz pic.twitter.com/2Y1iLFjjRT
St. Thomas becomes the tenth member of the Summit League and joins the four Dakota schools, Nebraska-Omaha, Denver, UK-Kansas City, Oral Roberts and Western Illinois. This is where I think there is the most potential for a pair of programs that while a step down from a Big Ten program in Minnesota, there could end up being a natural rivalry. St. Thomas has a rich history in its basketball programs and with the less emphasis on football in the new era, expect all the resources to be directed to their basketball programs. In fact, some say St. Thomas has loftier goals for its basketball programs—hopefully using the Summit League as an audition for a few years before lobbying for a Big East bid.
Minnesota regularly plays Summit league schools in the non-conference and while the Gophers may want to see the Tommies get their feet under them for a few season before putting them on the schedule, I have no doubt they will be making a trip to Williams Arena in the near future.
I don’t expect any recruiting fights between the two schools—there aren’t now between Minnesota and the other Summit League schools but undoubtedly there will be that one local recruit the Gophers spurn who blows up at UST and everyone whines about it.
Is there potential for a crosstown rivalry? Not in the first few years, but I can definitely see it being an annual game within 5 or six seasons, and if UST gets good and rises to the top of the Summit League then yes, I do see a potential rivalry here. Probably not as ugly as the Xavier/UC rivalry, but potentially with a lot of the same animosity and games being played at Target Center instead of either home school.
Other Division 1 Programs (Except Football)
St. Thomas will be in the Summit League for all of their other programs as well. Most overlap with programs the U has (women’s soccer, volleyball, track and field, baseball, softball, etc). In those cases I don’t see any recruiting battles, but I definitely could see the Gophers playing the Tommies regularly in non-conference games in a few seasons. The Gopher baseball team already plays mid-week games against some of the other Summit League schools between Big Ten series—why not have one with no travel issues.
One interesting thing to watch will be to see how big some of the programs that St. Thomas might offer that the U does not have do. Currently St. Thomas does offer a men’s soccer team while Minnesota does not. If you want to play D1 soccer as a player in Minnesota—you need to leave the state. Not so anymore. Can the Tommies use that to their advantage? Of course noone has any idea how athletic departments will look once Covid is done with them. But for now, it’s an interesting talking point.
There will be absolute no change to the way that the Gophers operate in football. St. Thomas is a D3 power, but instead of joining a league like the Missouri Valley Conference with the North and South Dakota schools, St. Thomas will be joining the non-scholarship Pioneer League instead joining schools like Drake, Bradley, Butler and other very very far flung schools like San Diego and Jacksonville. The Tommies will be classified as a FCS school and after the transition period is over can compete in the FCS tournament, but with no scholarships given out in football, don’t look for UST to be taking any potential players the Gophers may have their eye on.
Also. it will be interesting to see how long the Tommies see football as a worthwhile endeavor. The Pioneer league will incur some expensive travel, and it might not be worth it in a few seasons. The location of the Tommies football stadium would be a perfect location for a new basketball/hockey arena as well.
Additionally as a non-scholarship team, don’t expect to see Minnesota and St. Thomas playing. There is no way Minnesota will add the Tommies to the schedule.
In the short term the only program that will be significantly impacted by St. Thomas’s rise to Division 1 will be the women’s hockey team as they will now both be members of the WCHA. Will other Gopher teams add the Tommies to their schedule? I think gradually over time yes. Is there potential 10-15 years down the road for a really good basketball rivalry series? I think it’s possible. Will football be affected at all? Not even one bit.