Tommies make the leap to Division I

Courtesy U. of St. Thomas Phil Esten

A longtime Division III small-school power, the University of St. Thomas, better known as the Tommies, left the MIAC and leaped up to Division I, joining the University of Minnesota as the state’s only big level schools. Such a large jump isn’t unprecedented, but doing it in less than two years is.

Because St. Thomas in the past didn’t have to award athletic scholarships, which isn’t allowed in Division III, an extreme makeover was instantly needed in the transformation of the UST athletics department. Besides scholarships, other aspects of athletics—ticketing, sports medicine and communications, for example, had to be upgraded to Division I standards.

Athletic Director Phil Esten said in a recent MSR phone interview that last year’s pandemic outbreak allowed him and his staff some unexpected extra time to put things in place. “Last year would have been a challenge in and of itself, preparing for this move to Division I,” he recalled. “There’s been two years’ worth of work to get to where we are today.”

“An infrastructure” needed to be built literally from the bottom up. “Some of the details behind the scenes that most people don’t necessarily think in Division I athletics…they’re the things we need to roll up your sleeves and dig in a little bit,” explained Esten. “Building a compliance system and academic reporting system, and making sure that we have the systems in place to award athletic aid. Building new and learning new relationships, the different cities, building relationships with hotels and bus companies etc. across the country.”

Hiring staff is mainly done, Esten added: “I’d say the majority of our hiring has been on the coaching front. We didn’t have fulltime assistant coaches.”

Leon Hayward, one of two Black assistant hockey coaches in the NCHC, was hired in the same capacity at UST. Gameli Ahelegbe, a 10-year veteran assistant coach in the Summit League, was hired as a men’s basketball assistant, as well as former De La Salle star Cameron Rundles, who played a decade overseas as an assistant. Teonna Jewell, an 11-year veteran coach, was hired as Tommies assistant women’s basketball coach.

Asked how diverse the rest of the UST athletics staff is, especially in off-court positions, Esten said, “I believe that our staff is about 17% diverse. The hires that we’ve made over the last couple of years, 30% of our hires roughly have been diverse. We’re making good progress there.

“I’m proud of the priority that we’ve set there,” he said of diversity. “That includes assistant coaches, administrative leadership staff, and other support staff.”

The annual Tommies-Johnnies football game between St. Thomas and St. John, one of the oldest rivalries in the country, is now history. Esten hopes in the near future new rivalries will emerge. UST will compete in the Pioneer League (football), WCHA (women’s hockey), CCHA (men’s hockey), and Summit League (19 of 23 sports).

“I think some of these [rivalries] are going to establish themselves organically over time,” surmised Esten. Pioneer League member Drake is a possibility in football, he believes. “Some of the Minnesota schools might be good rivalries for us [in women’s and men’s hockey]. It might be a couple years till we know for sure.”