The NCAA gave the University of St. Thomas permission Wednesday to jump directly from Division III to Division I, the final clearance for a bold move born out of the Minnesota private school’s ejection from its conference for competitive reasons.
The Tommies, who previously secured a spot in the Summit League for all but three of their 22 varsity teams, announced they’ll join the Pioneer League for football and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for women’s hockey. The men’s hockey program is still in the process of finding a conference home.
The NCAA’s Division I council ruled in June that St. Thomas could make a formal request to waive reclassification rules for Division III schools seeking Division I membership that currently mandate a 12-year process with a stop in Division II. The council planned to vote by April on a proposal to reduce the reclassification process to five years, but the waiver was granted for St. Thomas in this unique, urgent scenario. UST is the first school to make the two-level jump since the current rules were put in place by the national governing body for college sports.
The 2020-21 school year will be the final season for the Tommies in the 100-year-old Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference they helped found. The Catholic institution of about 6,000 undergraduate students located in the state’s capital, St. Paul, is more than double the size of the other schools in the MIAC and has long produced the most powerful programs in that league in many sports.
“D-I is not a homogenous division, just like D-II and D-III is not,” St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan said. “When you say D-I, it doesn’t mean that we’re becoming Ohio State. So we are thrilled for this, because we believe this really broadens the platform by which we have impact. We broaden the geographic reach of our student recruiting, of our visibility through our competition.”
The Summit League currently covers seven states. Its schools are Denver, Fort Wayne, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota, South Dakota State, and Western Illinois.
The Pioneer League is a non-scholarship FCS conference that currently covers eight states from California to Florida to New York. It includes the University of San Diego, where Sullivan previously served.
The Tommies could be part of the new iteration of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, a group of seven schools separating from the WCHA next year: two in Minnesota, one in Ohio and four in Michigan. New CCHA Commissioner Don Lucia said last month that St. Thomas is a program the league would “certainly have an interest in.”