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

With school's future in MIAC in doubt, former St. Thomas athletes wonder what comes next Photo: KSTP/File

May 16, 2019 11:55 AM

Fritz Waldvogel certainly staked out his place in St. Thomas athletics history.

The wide receiver was a two-time All-American and two-time MIAC player of the year during his career with the Tommies, which ran from 2008 to 2011.

He was a member of head coach Glenn Caruso's first four teams at the school, and played a key role in helping turn a program that finished 2-8 the season before he arrived into a national power.

But now Waldvogel and the many others who were a big part of the Tommies' history in the MIAC and NCAA Division III over the decades are wondering what the future holds when it comes to athletics at their alma mater.

That's because reports and rumors continue to swirl about an effort by some of the conference schools to force St. Thomas - a charter member in 1920 - from the MIAC.

RELATED: MIAC says no decision made after membership discussion

The conference has only said that the MIAC's Presidents' Council met last month "for a discussion on philosophy, competition, and membership." And that while no action was taken at that time, the league's 13 school presidents "attended and agreed to continue discussions at future meetings."

The presidents are again scheduled to meet on May 29. But neither the league nor representatives at a number of MIAC member schools contacted by KSTP would comment on what might come next.

The reports have been unsettling to those like Waldvogel, who continues to support St. Thomas athletics.

"It's definitely been a shock," he said. "It just seems bizarre to me that this could happen. It seems like a short-sighted decision. St. Thomas has been such a big part of the conference for so long. I would really hate to see the rivalries that have been built up over the years - especially with St. John's - go away."

According to numbers from the Minnesota Private College Council and the Minnesota Department of Higher Education, St. Thomas had an undergraduate enrollment of over 6,100 in the fall of 2017. St. Catherine - the next closest member school - had an undergraduate enrollment of over 3,100.

St. Olaf - the next closest of the nine schools that currently play football in the league - had an undergraduate enrollment of over 3,030.

The Tommies have also laid claim to the conference's all-sports titles on both the men's and women's side every school year since 2007-08 -  winning both again this year.

But Waldvogel and others say it feels to them like the school is being penalized for the success they had a hand in creating.

And that doesn't seem fair.

"I guess I feel like there's so many of us who helped build it into what it is today," said Laurie Spinner, a 1988 graduate who was named MIAC women's basketball player of the year as a senior.

"We worked hard at that. So to see it maybe being part of the reason for all this is disappointing, for sure."

What next?

And the question many involved with St. Thomas athletics - past and present - are asking is what comes next if the Tommies do leave the MIAC?

In Division III, the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, which has a number of Minnesota members, is made up of largely smaller schools and is still relatively new to the Division III level, having made the transition in 2008-09. So it's hard to see any scenario that would make it a realistic option for the Tommies.

And UMAC Commissioner Corey Borchardt confirms there have been no discussions between the conference and St. Thomas.

The next-door Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference is currently made up exclusively of schools in the University of Wisconsin system, though other schools are affiliate members in various sports - including MIAC members Gustavus and Hamline in women's gymnastics.

And the league's bylaws do not prohibit other schools from becoming full members. In an email Thursday morning, WIAC Commissioner Gary Karner reiterated a statement also issued to other media organizations, saying the league has and remains open to adding either full or affiliate members. And that the WIAC has, in the past, talked with schools outside the University of Wisconsin system about joining.

But could St. Thomas move up to Division II, or even eventually Division I?

An opening could arise at some point in the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, home to schools like Concordia-St. Paul, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State-Mankato, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State-Moorhead, Bemidji State, Winona State, Southwest State, Minnesota-Crookston and others.

Augustana has announced publicly it plans to transition to the Division I level, though NSIC Commissioner Erin Lind said the school has yet to officially notify the conference of its intention to leave.

A school must spend at least five seasons in a Division II conference before it can transition to Division I. And then the transition to the next level requires additional time as well.

Lind said no discussions have taken place with St. Thomas regarding potential membership in the league. 

"When we look at new members, and this is talking about any school, we'd look at if it's a high-quality institution who could bring an outstanding academic and athletic portfolio to the league," she said. "And we would talk about what that school's long-range plans are as well.

"We want people who want to make this their home. We don't want to be a way station along the way to someplace else."

Lind said going up a level is not an easy process. Going from Division III to Division II, for example, would mean establishing athletic-based scholarships, which are not offered at the Division III level.

"It wouldn't be a walk in the park for any school," she said. "No matter who they are."

And there is also no Division II in men's and women's hockey.

"Like most people, I've been pretty surprised to see all this," said Steve Aronson, who was named the Division III men's hockey player of the year as a senior with the Tommies in 2000 and became the first player to sign with the Minnesota Wild during their first year as a franchise.

"It just seems like St. Thomas has been such a long-standing part of the conference. So it seems odd that people would be talking about removing them.

"Hockey-wise, my personal opinion is that there aren't a lot of places to go. But if they had to try to be a Division I school, I think they'd be fine. We live in such a hockey-rich area, and the school is in such a great location. The biggest issue would probably be the rink (the school's current arena, the St. Thomas Ice Arena, is located in Mendota Heights and has a capacity of just 1,400).

"But I think there's a way to figure that out if that's the path they had to go."

A school spokesperson said officials at St. Thomas, including new athletic director Phil Esten (who came to the school after serving as the deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer at Penn State), are not commenting on the status of the school in the MIAC, or on what the future might hold.

Though Esten has previously said in a statement that the school is committed to the values and ideals of the MIAC and Division III and doing what it can to keep conference membership stable.

"As a founding member of the conference, we are proud of our history and heritage in the MIAC, and are committed to the league values and D-III ideals," that statement read. "We are very interested in doing what we can to stabilize conference membership now and into the future."

Waldvogel said he would hate to see the school leave its Division III history behind.

"I don't think people really know what comes next," he said. "I'm not sure a lot of us thought this day would ever come. There is good leadership in place. Phil Esten is really good. He's well-qualified, and he's the perfect person to help figure all this out.

"But I really hope there's some way this doesn't happen. I think the goal should be to stay in Division III if that's possible."

But given the potential changes that may be coming, alumni realize it might not be.

"The first time I heard about all this, I thought 'Whatever, they wouldn't do that," Spinner said. "But now it seems like it really could happen.

"I guess we're all just watching and waiting to see what comes next."

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Frank Rajkowski

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