Reusse: St. Thomas-MIAC split has been ‘good for everybody’

There was a call from a St. John's connection early in April 2019. You figured the matter must have some urgency, since the call came at 6:30 a.m.

"The MIAC presidents are getting ready to throw out St. Thomas,'' he said. "They have the votes to do so.''

This Johnnie was very upset, for he cherished the Tommies-Johnnies rivalry, not only in football but in all sports competition.

The announcement St. Thomas would be leaving came seven weeks later, on May 22. There were headlines far and wide — including in London tabloids — declaring: "Team thrown out of league for winning too much.''

The ridicule also was too much for the leaders of some MIAC schools, and they fueled another narrative: "St. Thomas wanted out. The 'involuntary' removal was intended to give the Tommies an angle to move directly from Division III to Division I.''

Which was what happened, so everyone can embrace their own theory: Wanted out, forced out, or the one I've adopted … who cares?

It's only the middle of the second college sports season since St. Thomas left and already both entities are on the way to getting much of what they wanted from the divorce.

St. Thomas: Excellent for the budget and for the existing stadium is playing in non-scholarship FCS in football. Glenn Caruso's Tommies swept the Pioneer Football League at 8-0 in their second D-I season.

Overmatched now in hockey but there's an arena coming and the Tommies will be good. Middle of Summit League in men's basketball, slightly below in women's. Those are the majors.

MIAC: The COVID-19 interruptions prevented All-Sports Competition trophies in 2020 and 2021. Before that, St. Thomas was the All-Sports winner for both men's and women's competition for 12 consecutive sports seasons: fall 2007 to spring 2019.

In the 10 seasons from fall 2009 to spring 2019, St. Thomas won or shared 58 out of 110 possible conference championships in both men's and women's competition.

No Tommies now, and take a glance at this weekend's MIAC playoffs: Carleton was the No. 1 seed in men's basketball; newcomer St. Scholastica in men's hockey (although Augsburg had been more dominant here than St. Thomas in recent times).

There were other breakthroughs: St. Benedict with its highest women's hockey seed ever at No. 3; Hamline now in the women's basketball playoff field when it was abysmal for numerous winters in the 2010s.

Jason Verdugo, in his 11th year as Hamline's athletic director, was asked about what appears to be a renewed chance for schools of 2,000 students or fewer and with modest resources.

"Frankly, there's one more spot available in conference playoffs in nearly every sport without St. Thomas,'' Verdugo said. "Hamline, Carleton, Macalester — schools you might not expect to see in the top four or five, but we have coaches in place that allow us to be competitive.

"I think when you see how well St. Thomas has done right away in Division I, winning a fair share, not being overwhelmed as I guessed it might … I think it tells you where the Tommies were compared to most of us in the MIAC.

"I wish them the best of luck in this venture. I think what is happening over there and with the MIAC … it's good for everybody.''

Jeff Swenson, Augsburg's athletic director, former wrestling coach and creator of a program so strong that St. Thomas gave up and dropped the sport in 2000 (that's my comment, not Swenson's), said:

"When you have a program with the very strong athletic history of St. Thomas, its departure will create opportunities for others.

"The MIAC is still a great Division III conference. When you see our former Auggie assistant, Ryan Kershaw, do what he's done in his first season as head basketball coach at Carleton, you see that opportunity come to the front in a big way.''

What hasn't changed in the MIAC is football, where St. John's and Bethel remain powerhouses. They just don't have to worry about beating St. Thomas now to make the top two.

"The MIAC and Division III aren't any different than football in the Power Five, in mid-major, in FCS or in Division II,'' Verdugo said. "The same programs are dominant every year … whether it's Alabama and Georgia, or whether it's now St. John's and Bethel, with big rosters and tradition, in our league.''