July 26, 2021

Scoggins: Inside the incredible leap happening in St. Thomas sports

6 min read

Phil Esten went to sleep on June 30 as a Division III athletic director and woke up July 1 as a Division I athletic director, a quantum leap for someone who didn’t change jobs. He didn’t feel any different.

“Kind of like the day you turn 40,” he said, chuckling. “Feels the same as when you were 39 the day before.”

Besides, he said, the new beginning for St. Thomas athletics was less of a light switch moment and more a blur of projects that needed to be crossed off a never-ending checklist over the past year after the school successfully petitioned the NCAA to jump directly to D-I.

With so many things to do and so little time to do them, it felt like running a mile at a dead sprint.

“We are starting from scratch,” said Esten, hired as AD in November 2018. “I think some people don’t realize how blank the slate actually was.”

Esten has hired four new head coaches (with one more coming soon) and 12 full-time staff employees while signing off on the addition of a dozen or so full-time assistant coaches. And he still has more positions to fill.

Being able to offer athletic scholarships brings a labyrinth rulebook and stringent regulations. For instance, Tommies men’s basketball coach Johnny Tauer coached in recent summers an AAU team that included Michigan signee Will Tschetter of Stewartville, the state’s No. 2 ranked recruit. The NCAA allowed it because D-III does not offer scholarships. Not anymore now that Tauer is a D-I coach.

Esten hired a compliance director to keep everything in order. Every coach went through NCAA recruiting certification last fall.

The Tommies also now must comply with the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR), which penalizes teams that fall short of standards. Esten hired a director of academic support who is responsible for, among other things, developing systems to monitor academic data that must be reported.

Fundraising? Yep, that’s a major component of any D-I operation. Esten hired a senior administrator to oversee this growth and create a new fundraising umbrella called the Tommie Athletic Fund.

The department build-out touched every area: facilities, ticketing, sports medicine, strength and training, communications. The extreme makeover included having to change out all the MIAC signage on campus to Summit League.

“In any given year, that’s a project for us one summer,” Esten said. “But it’s just one of 87 other things.”

That list included an about-face in June on eliminating women’s tennis after being threatened with a Title IX lawsuit.

Esten worked in athletic departments at Ohio State, Minnesota, California and Penn State, so he understands what he calls the “normal cadence of business” in D-I. St. Thomas had to create that operation in one year.

“A year from now, we’ll be so much smarter,” he said. “We’ll have a year under our belt as far as selling tickets, engaging with corporate sponsorships, recruiting, scheduling.”

The Tommies’ move comes with a provisional status for five years, making them ineligible for NCAA postseason play but allowing them a buffer to get up to speed. Esten told his coaches not to worry about wins and losses right away but to build a sustainable foundation instead.

“Let’s put it all together so that by the time we hit the end of that provisional period we’re in a position to be successful,” he said. “That helps you not get too concerned about the immediate jump that we have to take.”

St. Thomas signed an inaugural D-I class of 150 athletes who have an average grade-point average of 3.65, Esten said. The number of athletes on full-ride scholarships is about one-quarter of what the final number will be eventually as that process moves in phases.

Esten has a projects wish list. His No. 1 priority for facilities is to build a hockey arena with a capacity of 4,000 to 5,000. He envisions a new basketball arena of similar size someday.

The next milestone happens Aug. 19, the school’s first Division I contest when women’s soccer plays at Wisconsin-Green Bay.

As he relaxed over lunch this past week, Esten didn’t need a reminder of what lies ahead, but his mind drifted there.

The last women’s hockey game St. Thomas played as a D-III program came against St. Mary’s. Their first Division I game will be against Ohio State, a national semifinalist this season.

The last men’s hockey opponent before the transition was St. John’s. Next up: St. Cloud State, the national runner-up.

Welcome to Division I.

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