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St. Thomas makes unprecedented jump to Division I

It's the first program in the NCAA's modern era to make the direct jump from Division III to Division I.
Credit: Dave Schwartz

ST PAUL, Minn — The University of St. Thomas is heading to Division I.

The university announced the NCAA's Division I Council approved a motion on Wednesday to allow St. Thomas to make the jump from Division III to Division I -- the first program in the NCAA's modern era to make the direct leap.

“Our St. Thomas community is excited to embark on this journey of building Minnesota’s first private D-I collegiate athletics program and the second D-I program in the state,” said University of St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan in a news release. “St. Thomas has a long history of academic and athletic excellence and embracing change with an entrepreneurial spirit. This move continues that trajectory.”

According to the release, the Tommies have officially accepted invitations to join the Summit League, the Pioneer Football League and the Women's Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). A conference decision for men's hockey is still pending.

“The Tommies were one of the NCAA’s most successful football programs at any level over the past decade and they live their university mission off the field, which makes them an outstanding institutional fit for us,” said Patty Viverito, Pioneer Football League commissioner in a release. “We are thrilled to expand to the Twin Cities, and proud to welcome a program with a track record for graduating players, winning conference titles and playoff games, and serving its community.”

St. Thomas will complete its final year in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) for the 2020-21 academic year before joining the D-I conferences for the 2021-22 academic year.

“Today, as much as ever, I’m proud to be a Tommie as we look to our university’s future,” said St. Thomas vice president and director of athletics Dr. Phil Esten in a release. "I thank the leadership at the NCAA, the Summit League, Pioneer Football League, WCHA and all who have supported our efforts. This decision aligns with our university’s bold vision to ever press forward. I am excited to compete in Division I, while ensuring conditions for our student-athletes to pursue comprehensive excellence.”

St. Thomas was a founding member of the MIAC, helping to launch the conference in 1920. The school went on to develop storied rivalries in the MIAC, particularly the annual Tommies-Johnnies football game against St. John's University.

In May 2019, the MIAC announced St. Thomas would be removed from its membership beginning in spring of 2021, citing athletic competitive parity of the school in the conference. 

Since 1982, The Tommies have won 15 NCAA team championships. They also have top-five national team finishes in 21 different sports. Of the NCAA’s more than 1,000 institutions, St. Thomas is the only to have secured at least one NCAA team championship in baseball, softball, volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball.

“St. Thomas brings the full package – an excellent academic reputation, experienced leadership, a massive alumni network and a winning culture,” said Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple in a release. “With their values-based mission and status as Minnesota’s largest private university, we know the Tommies will represent the Summit League well and we’re proud to welcome them.”

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St. Thomas has been a perennial powerhouse in Division III football, winning the MIAC championship seven times and two appearances in the NCAA D-III National Championship.

Over the past six seasons, the St. Thomas women’s hockey program has made two Women’s Hockey Championship appearances, won nine MIAC regular-season or playoff titles, and was ranked No. 1 nationally for the first time in 2018-19. The Tommies have gone 19 straight years without a losing season and are 202-87-36 overall over the last 12 seasons.

“The addition of St. Thomas enhances the WCHA regional footprint and further diversifies our incredible league,” said Jennifer Flowers, Women’s WCHA commissioner. “We look forward to expanding our Twin Cities fan base by welcoming the passionate Tommie fans. The WCHA is proud to be the women’s hockey home for the University of St. Thomas.”