You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

In far-flung Pioneer League, St. Thomas football team is in for the long haul

Minneapolis Star Tribune logo Minneapolis Star Tribune 7/16/2020 By PATRICK REUSSE, Star Tribune

The original St. Thomas 2020 football schedule called for conference games to be played at Gustavus, Bethel, Concordia and St. John's. That would have called for trips totaling 400 miles, with 240 of those consumed by the Tommies buses jaunting to Moorhead to play Concordia.

I've been talking with MIAC coaches since joining the St. Cloud Times in 1966 and they have moaned consistently about the journey to Moorhead as if they were Meriwether Lewis leading an expedition to the West.

Fortunately for Glenn Caruso and the Tommies, the road mileage for this fall was set to be reduced by a St. John's money grab, with the move of its final football game vs. the Tommies on Nov. 7 from Collegeville (80 miles) to U.S. Bank Stadium (5 miles).

All of this is very much in doubt, with the coronavirus now an odds-on favorite to wipe out fall college sports — particularly with Division II and III programs, where tight money is the way of existence.

On Wednesday, the Tommies cleared the NCAA's final bureaucratic hurdle to make their historic move directly from Division III to Division I. It's a costly but simple transition for the 19 sports that can move to the Summit League, with its tolerable regional footprint for a university located in St. Paul.

The move is also fine for a 20th program, women's hockey, with the WCHA more than willing to embrace the Tommies as its eighth team. The league has been looking for one since those chauvinistic clowns at North Dakota dropped women's hockey in 2017.

The women's WCHA has signed off on the 1,000-seat arena in Mendota Heights at St. Thomas Academy (shared by the Tommies and the high school) as adequate for league competition.

That leaves two sizable difficulties: Committing to the non-scholarship, FCS Pioneer Football League, and how to get the eighth spot in the new CCHA coming on line in 2021-22 without a place to play?

First, football in the Pioneer … uff da.

St. Thomas' MIAC football rivals are located 3, 4, 10, 45, 45, 70, 80 and 240 miles away. The PFL also features a Morehead — spelled different, and located 800 miles away in Kentucky.

That is in the top five for Pioneer proximity to St. Thomas, trailing Drake (250), Valparaiso (450), Butler (581) and Dayton (700). The other schools in the PFL will require trips of over 1,000 miles, led by 1,990 miles to San Diego.

No rivalries and picking up the tab for 100-plus people to fly to points from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (Marist) to dang near Tijuana … from here, that makes the Pioneer a nightmare for Tommies football.

That opinion was relayed to Phil Esten, the Tommies' athletic director, on Wednesday evening and he said:

"There are only two non-scholarship Division I football conferences, the Ivy League and the Pioneer. We will have prestigious academic company in the Pioneer.

"The eight-game conference schedule is also protected to have the more regional opponents on your schedule every year. For us, that will be Drake and Valparaiso, as bus trips, and perhaps Butler.

"I anticipate developing a rivalry with Drake in Des Moines for sure, and others to follow. We also feel as if the Pioneer will extend the St. Thomas brand and reach, to the New York area, to California, to several places around the country."

The Tommies AD was interrupted for this comment from me: "Marist and San Diego Toreros football don't exactly dominate the sports media in their markets."

Esten said: "That's true, but playing football games against those teams allow us to reach out to alums and to high school students in those areas."

Jacksonville University in Florida recently dropped football, reducing the Pioneer to nine teams. The Tommies and Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., will make it 11 next fall.

Esten was asked about the strength of St. Thomas' commitment to football, considering increased costs, a made-for-Division III stadium and a strong potential for reduced attendance without the Johnnies and Bethel — to name two — on the schedule.

"Absolutely committed," he said. "Football is one of our flagship sports, and Glenn Caruso is one of the best in the business. Glenn had a fantastic recruiting year and he's excited to step up to another level."

As for finding a big-time league for D-1 men's hockey, Esten admitted there's an arena issue to be resolved before the CCHA (or, gulp, the NCHC) would consider adding the Tommies.

When you hear "facilities upgrades" needed for the plunge to D-I, think a Ridder-style arena (maybe 3,000 seats) south of Summit Avenue that also could be used for important basketball games. That's a rumor, by the way, not info from Esten.

Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing sports@startribune.com and including his name in the subject line.

———

©2020 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at www.startribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From Minneapolis Star Tribune

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Minneapolis Star Tribune
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon