MIAC announces St. Thomas is out

June 18, 2019 02:16 PM

The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference announced Wednesday that "after extensive membership discussions, the University of St. Thomas will be involuntarily removed from membership" in the conference.



A release said:

"The MIAC Presidents' Council cites athletic competitive parity in the conference as a primary concern. St. Thomas will begin a multi-year transition immediately and meanwhile is eligible to compete as a full member of the MIAC through the end of spring 2021."

It brings to a close a process that has played out almost entirely behind the scenes as reports and rumors about the school's future in the MIAC have continued to swirl.

"St. Thomas is one of the seven founding members of the MIAC and will leave the conference in good standing and with a long and appreciated history of academic and athletic success," the release concludes.

"We have had to navigate some challenging conversations with respect to membership over the last several years," read a statement from Rebecca Bergman, the President at Gustavus Adolphus and the current Chair of MIAC Presidents' Council.

"After extensive discussions, the Presidents' Council determined that there was no path forward that preserved the MIAC in its current form. For that reason, we have come to this agreement. Throughout this process, our goal has been to preserve the MIAC as a well-respected Division III athletic conference for the sake of our more than 7,000 student-athletes. Supporting the experiences and well-being of those student-athletes will continue to be our primary focus moving forward."

A conference source said the belief was that at least eight of the 13 member schools may have withdrawn from the conference by May 31 if St. Thomas had not been removed, essentially imploding the league. And the source said St. Thomas did "a really good thing" for the league by recognizing the handwriting was on the wall and accepting its removal.

RELATED: With school's future in MIAC in doubt, former St. Thomas athletes wonder what comes next

Representatives at several MIAC schools contacted by KSTP Wednesday referred all comment on the issue to the conference itself.

St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan released a letter to the full campus community following the announcement.

"As a founding member of the MIAC, St. Thomas has a long history with these competitors, and 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.

"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."

Bethel football coach Steve Johnson, whose team beat the Tommies 21-15 last season, said he is saddened to see them go.

"I don't think many of the coaches in our league in any sport wanted St. Thomas out," he said. "Maybe 10 percent if that.

"I'm disappointed in the way it went down. I think our league is better with St. Thomas in it."

What the announcement means for the future of athletics at St. Thomas remains unclear. Sullivan's letter said athletic director Phil Esten and others in the campus community would "immediately begin a deliberative process to explore other options."

"We made it very clear ... we've been consistent we wanted to stay in the MIAC," Esten told KSTP Wednesday. "That this was something not voluntary for us. We spent some time trying to understand what the concerns were, and again, ultimately, it was inevitable that this decision was going to be made and so we're looking for what's next."

The Tommies could elect to try and remain an NCAA Division III school and pursue membership in another league such as the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

That league's full-time membership is currently made up entirely of Wisconsin University System schools, though other schools are affiliate members in certain sports, including MIAC members Gustavus and Hamline in women's gymnastics. And the league's bylaws would not prohibit a school like St. Thomas from joining on a full-time basis.

Or the Tommies could try to move up in levels, which would mean - at least at first - a stop in Division II. A school would have to spend at least five seasons in Division II before it can transition to the Division I level. And then the transition to the next level requires additional time as well.

An opening could arise at some point in the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which contains a number of Minnesota members. Augustana (S.D.) has announced publicly that it plans to begin the transition to the Division I level.

"While this decision is extremely disappointing, we will continue to prioritize the welfare and overall experience of our student-athletes," Sullivan's letter continued. "They embrace and represent both academic and athletic excellence and are important contributors to our university's culture."

St. Thomas has long been the MIAC's largest school. According to the Minnesota Private College Council and the Minnesota Department of Education, St. Thomas had an undergraduate enrollment of over 6,100 in the fall of 2017.

St. Catherine, the next closest member and an all-women's school - had an undergraduate enrollment of 3,100. St. Olaf - the next closest of the nine schools currently playing football in the league - had an undergraduate enrollment of over 3,030.

The Tommies have also been among the most successful conference members across a spectrum of sports. St. Thomas has laid claim to the league's men's and women's all-sports titles every school year since 2007-08 - winning both again this year.

Current St. Thomas students reacted angrily to the news.

"A lot of kids come to this school because of how good they are in sports," junior Sam Schiller said. "I think it's unfair."

Maddie Schaber, a sophomore, said she had hoped the school would be allowed to remain in the conference, home to archrivals like St. John's. The Tommies/Johnnies football game in 2017 drew a Division III record crowd of over 37,000 to Target Field. And this year's game is scheduled to be played at Allianz Field in St. Paul.

"I'd prefer they stay because I like the rivalries in the MIAC," she said. "I think they should be able to stay because that's where we've always been."

St. John's athletic director Bob Alpers said he too was saddened St. Thomas is being removed from the conference, and said he'd like to see the rivalry with the Tommies continue beyond the next two seasons. 

But he said a lot is uncertain at the moment.

"I'm just really disappointed that the league is not going to stay together," he said. "We've had such a great relationship and such a great rivalry with St. Thomas for a long time now. And we're going to do what we can to continue that if possible.

"But everything is still evolving. We'll have to see what they end up doing and where they end up going."

Johnnies football coach Gary Fasching echoed those sentiments.

"We are disappointed that the MIAC did not remain intact," he said via text message. "We love the rivalry that we have with St. Thomas and will do everything we can to continue that great rivalry."

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