The Summit League, home to UNO athletics since 2012, has invited the University of St. Thomas, a Division III school in St. Paul, Minnesota, to join the conference, less than five months after St. Thomas was involuntarily removed from the Division III MIAC.

The move is pending a waiver from the NCAA that would allow St. Thomas to jump from Division III to Division I.

NCAA rules specify that a DIII school must first stop at Division II before climbing to DI, a process that normally takes 12 years. St. Thomas said if its waiver is approved, it will join the Summit League in 2021, which is when the Tommies must exit the MIAC.

Athletic Director Phil Esten said “it’s hard to say” whether the NCAA will approve the waiver.

“I do feel like our case is pretty compelling,” Esten said. “We’re dealing with extenuating circumstances that as far as I know, this is the first time this specific situation has presented itself. I do think that St. Thomas is uniquely positioned to make the move.”

St. Thomas has been a member of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for nearly 100 years, but in August it was voted out. Reasons cited were its size (undergraduate enrollment of 6,300) and a lack of competitive balance.

St. Thomas currently sponsors 20 teams: baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s golf, football, men’s and women’s hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, softball, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s track and field, and volleyball.

The Summit League does not have Division I football, but Esten told the Star Tribune that the school is exploring the Division I Pioneer League for football, along with the Missouri Valley Conference. Teams from both of those conferences compete at the Football Championship Series level.

“We’re just taking a look at where we think the best landing spot for us is right now,” Esten said. “I will say an important first step was receiving an invitation from an all-sports conference like the Summit League.”

For hockey, Esten said, the Tommies have explored other options, including joining the seven schools that are scheduled to leave the Division I WCHA after the 2020-21 season.

“I think it’s difficult to make any kind of predictions as to what that might look like,” Esten said. “There’s some other Division I men’s conferences out there that I think is incumbent upon us to take a look at as well. Again, very important that we spend time deliberating over what we think the best long term decision is for St. Thomas.”

In a statement, Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple said the conference’s President’s Council “unanimously and enthusiastically voted to support the membership application made to the League by the University of St. Thomas. … While the League recognizes the extraordinary efforts ahead for UST to seek Division I membership, we believe this institution is the right fit for The Summit League and we will support the reclassification process.”

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