Friday, June 5, 2020

Time for St. Thomas to Move On Up!?

Random thoughts while watching the St. Thomas men demolish St. John's 94-63 in a game in which everyone agreed that St. John's played well....

90 years ago Carleton was the powerhouse of Minnesota small college athletics. After 6 straight MCC (the forerunner of the MIAC) basketball titles and similar success in football, Carleton went in search of tougher competition, joining the Midwest Conference featuring schools like Coe and Beloit and Grinnell. It would be about 50 years before the Knights would come back to the MIAC, their glory years by then far in the rear-view mirror.

Today it is St. Thomas that is the 800-pound gorilla of Minnesota small college athletics. In basketball, the Tommies men have won or shared 7 straight conference titles and won a total of 31 such titles, 8 more than anybody else, through the years. They're 71-3 in the conference since 2006, and St. Thomas won the national title in 2011.

The Tommies women, meanwhile, have won 13 MIAC titles, tying with St. Ben's for the most in conference history. They've won 2 straight, and made the NCAA D3 Final Four last year.

And so it goes, in sport after sport after sport.

Men's Sports

Baseball--31 conference titles, #1 all-time in the MIAC, with 9 in a row and a 224-36 record in the 21st century.

Cross-Country--24 titles, #1

Ice Hockey--28 titles, #1

Indoor Track--27 titles, #1. Oh, and the MIAC has had indoor track competition for, ah, 27 years. The Tommies are 27-for-27.

Outdoor Track--29 titles, #1, including 24 of the past 29.

Then there's football (16 titles, #4, but 3 in a row and national runner-up this past fall), Golf (9 titles, #4), Swimming (10 titles, #4), Soccer (6 titles, #4) and Tennis (9 titles, #7). In only Soccer and Tennis has there not been a title in the 21st century.

Women's Sports

Cross-Country--15 titles, #1

Indoor Track--24 titles, #1, 12 in a row and 24 of 27 overall

Outdoor Track--27 titles, #1, 7 in a row and 27 of 30

Softball--17 titles, #1, 10 of the past 12

Volleyball--13 titles, #1

Golf--8 titles #2

Hockey--2 titles, #2

Tennis--1 title, #3

Soccer--4 titles, #4

Swimming--no titles


Then there's the fact that St. Thomas has almost twice the enrollment of the MIAC's next largest universities with 6,800 undergraduate students (plus another 4,000 graduate students, but for athletic purposes, they don't count). Next best are St. Catherine's at 3,800 and Bethel at 3,500. Granted, this is a little misleading, as St. Kate's enrollment is 97 percent women, so  for women, St. Thomas is the 2nd largest. For men, it is the largest by a good margin with about 3,300. St. John's has just 1,900. It and Bethel are pretty close for #2.

St. Thomas 6,300 undergraduates (plus 4,000 graduate students)
St. Catherine's 3,800 undergrads (mostly women)
Bethel 3,500 (plus 3,000 graduate students)
Augsburg 3,200 (plus 900)
St. Olaf 3,200
Concordia (Moorhead) 2,600
Gustavus 2,500
St. Ben's 2,100 (all women)
Carleton, Hamline, Macalester, St. Mary's about 2,000 (St. Mary's has 3,200 grad students, Hamline 2,900)
St. John's 1,900 (all men)

Concordia (St. Paul) (D2) for comparison 1,700

Show Me the Money

Then there's the little matter of money, as measured by the endowment funds. These are a big help with facilties, for example. Is it a coincidence that St. Thomas and Macalester have shiny new basketball arenas?

Macalester $665 million (acc. to US News)
Carleton $645 million (acc. to the school)
St. Thomas $335 (acc. to US News), $408 (acc. to the school), $557 (acc. to Wikipedia)
St. Olaf $327 (the school), $345 (US News and Wikipedia)

St. John's $144 (US News)
Gustavus $109 (US News)
Concordia (Moorhead) $83 (US News)
Hamline $76 (US News, Wikipedia)
St. Kate's $55 (US News)
St. Mary's $45 (US News)
St. Ben's $45 (US News), $38 (Wikipedia)
Augsburg $33 (US News)
Bethel $25 (US News)

Concordia (St.Paul) for comparison $22 (US News)

MIAC + Concordia St. Paul Average: Enrollment 2,600 Endowment $195M


Who is St. Thomas like? The following are all Roman Catholic affiliated. All are D1 in basketball. Many do not have football.

St. Thomas 6,300 undergrad enrollment, classified as a National University and rated #113 in its class, with an endowment of $400 to $500 million

Chicago Loyola 9,800 National University #106, $388 million
Boston College 9,000 National U #31, 1,756M
St. Louis 8,600 National U #92, $880M
Marquette 8,400, National U #83, $400M
Georgetown 7,600, National U #21, $1,162M
Duquesne 5,600 National U #120, $171M
St. Joseph's 5,500, Regional U #8, $173M
Seton Hall 5,100 National U #131, $232M
Xavier 4,500 Regional University #4, $120M
LaSalle 4,500 Regional U #41, $73M
Creighton 4,150 Regional U #1, $300M
Providence 3,850 Regional U #4, $165M
Holy Cross 2,900 National Liberal Arts College #32, $600M

Average D1 Basketball, Not Football: 5,750 enroll, or about 500 less than St. Thomas. $360M endow, or about 10 percent less than St. Thomas.

Not So Comparable

If you narrow it down to private schools that play D1 football, you find that St. Thomas is not very comparable, specifically as it relates to $$$, with schools like these:

Notre Dame 8,500 National U #17, $6.4B
Duke 6,700, National U #8, $5.7B
Northwestern 8,500, National U #12, $5.5B
Stanford 7,000, National U #6, $16.5 B
USC 17,500, National U #24, $3.5B

There are a few other private schools that play D1 football--SMU, TCU, BYU--but not many.

Average D1 Football: 11,600 enroll, not quite twice as many as St. Thomas, and a multi billion dollar endowment ($7.5B), or about 20X more than St. Thomas.

What About Division 2?

So if St. Thomas wants to play football, Division 1 is a stretch. But what about Division 2? Here are some Division 2 private schools with football programs.

Bellarmine 3,100 Regional Universities 11, $42M
Dallas Baptist 3,500 Regional U 50, $34M
Drury 2,100 Regional U 11, $66M
Hillsdale 1,300 National Liberal Arts college 96, $312M
Lewis 4,500, Regional U 35, $40M
Mary 2,800, Regional U 105, $34M
Maryville 3,400 National Liberal Arts 161, $34M
Rockhurst 3,000, Regional U 21, $33M
St. Joseph's IN 1,000, Regional U 27, $20M
St. Mary's TX 4,500 Regional U 20, $126M
William Jewell 1,000 National Liberal Arts 140, $65M

Concordia (St. Paul) 1,700, $22M

Average D2 with football: Enroll 2,750, less than half of St. Thomas. Endow only about $80M, or about 20 percent of St. Thomas.


St. Thomas is an odd duck. It is a Roman Catholic private school that plays football (along with other sports) in D3. Compared to its peers on these criteria, St. Thomas:

• Has a larger enrollment
• And has a lot more money than its peers

Compared to its peers regardless of classification (Roman Catholic and of its general size and wealth), St. Thomas:

• Plays football

If St. Thomas were to move up to D1 or D2, it:

• In D1, it would have many peer schools that do not play football. But if it wanted to play D1 football, there is virtually no model of "comparable" schools based on size and wealth that play football.

• In D2, the schools that are comparable to St. Thomas (private schools of similar size that play football), their peers would have lower academic ratings on average and much lower endowments. There is virtually no school that is truly comparable to St. Thomas playing football in D2.

This is not to say that St. Thomas is not free to forge a new path, one that few other schools have chosen. But there are in fact 4 private schools in the Northern Sun Conference already. St. Thomas would hardly be the first.

Concordia St. Paul--Regional University # 93, enrollment 1,700, endowment $22M
Augustana--Regional University #3, enrollment 1,800, endowment $53M
Sioux Falls--Regional U #32, enrollment 1,500, endowment $20M
Upper Iowa--Regional U Tier 2, enrollment 5,700, endowment $9M

Still it is hard to see how St. Thomas' prestige would be enhanced by an affiliation with these schools rather than the Carletons and Gustavuses and Macalesters of the world. The next most logical conference affiliation might be the Great Lakes Valley Conference, Western Division. which includes:

William Jewell

These would be much more prestigious than than, well, 3 of the 4 privates in the Northern Sun, but the travel would be vastly greater than in the MIAC or NSIC.


Still, the competitive issues remain substantial. Sure, it's great from the Tommies perspective to be successful. But for the rest of the MIAC members, frankly, St. Thomas' obvious superiority has to be a pain in the butt. Or does it? The fact is that MIAC members derive some prestige from their association with St. Thomas, both from an overall perspective and from an athletic perspective.

So on one side, one's sense of fair play is somewhat offended by the Tommies superiority over its day-to-day opponents in the MIAC. But it is almost impossible to construct an alternative model wherein it makes sense for St. Thomas to be in D1 or D2. Not what I set out to discover, frankly. But on a closer look, an inescapable conclusion.

St. Thomas, you have my blessing to stay D3 in the MIAC. (Which I am sure must be a vast relief to all you Tommies out there.)


  1. Great article, great insight. I think a potential home for St Thomas football would be at the D1-AA, non scholarship level. Currently, schools like Dayton, Drake, Butler and Valpo play at this level and make up the Pioneer League. All have somewhat similar enrollment sizes and endowments. From a football perspective, I believe St. Thomas would be a great fit in this league. The Pioneer conference stretches oddly enough from San Diego to Jacksonville, Florida, and obviously a step up to that level would increase the travel budget. It would certainly elevate UST's profile nationally. Of course, UST would have to go D1 in all sports then, which would be a challenge.

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