Could a DIII power make a run at FCS?

One report says St.Thomas could just decide to go *really big*. Plus, the NCAA decides not to play school

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We’ve got two interesting stories today I’d love to talk to you about. Let’s get into it.

St. Thomas might look at joining FCS

Extra Points readers might remember the story of DIII St. Thomas, the school booted from their conference for repeatedly kicking everyone’s ass into the stone age. Also, because St. Thomas has an enrollment way bigger than everybody else and is pursuing different institutional priorities…but the fact that they were dropping 70 on people probably stung egos a teensy bit more.

On paper, the Tommies have a few options. They could join another DIII conference, perhaps the ARC, or the WIAC. They could jump to DII and join say, the NSIC. All of those leagues are reasonable geographic fits.

Or they could shoot for the stars and go big. Like, D1, big. And according to one report, that’s a real possibility.

From TwinCities.com:

A little birdie says St. Thomas, ousted by the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Association, could end up in the Division I Pioneer League for football and the Division I Summit League for its other sports. The university recently hired two assistant athletics directors.

Besides all the immediate reasons that may come to mind for being interested in D1…finding opponents in DIII may be difficult. From that same report:

Speaking of MIAC football, the only school interested in playing St. John’s in a non conference game in 2020 is a national Division III power Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) in a home-and-home series, but travel expenses would be $50,000.

If you’re struggling to find games to fill your DIII schedule, and the ones you do find come with hefty price tags…it’s easy to see why options outside of DIII might be attractive.

By nature, I’m a big skeptic of schools either starting D1 football programs, or moving up to that level. But let’s go ahead and unpack this, all the same.

On paper, the Pioneer League might be the perfect fit for a school like St. Thomas. It’s still a full-fledged FCS league, so the champion gets an auto-bid to the playoffs and can compete for an FCS title. Almost everybody in the league is a private school, and several of the teams (like Butler, Dayton and Valparaiso) are based in the midwest, so there’s some geographic and institutional fits.

And most importantly, it’s non-scholarship, just like DIII. And while most FCS teams play in stadiums that can seat at least 10,000 fans, nearly everybody in the Pioneer League plays in a much smaller stadium. That’s good, because St. Thomas’ stadium only seats 5,000, and its location would make extensive expansion difficult and expensive. Playing football at this level is probably the most expensive and least logistically intrusive possible, while still playing in D1.

The fit isn’t perfect. The Pioneer League is spread out all over the country, from the Midwest to New York, to the South, and even all the way out to San Diego. The league is adding an 11th member, Presbyterian, in 2021, so perhaps St. Thomas joining would allow the league to go back to divisional play, cutting down on travel expenses. But either way, there will be some long flights in the future.

There’s also the fact that playing in the Pioneer League means you’ll have a hard ceiling for what is possible for your football program. Most FCS teams give athletic scholarships, so out of conference play will likely be very hard. Only one Pioneer League team, San Diego, has ever won an FCS playoff game, and competing for an FCS title probably isn’t realistic. While St. Thomas could eventually compete for league titles, anything more than that probably isn’t happening.

There’s also the matter of the other sports, since the Pioneer League is football only. I can see why the Summit League could potentially be interested. With the departure of Purdue University Fort Wayne for the Horizon, the Summit is down to eight schools, although a ninth, UMKC, will rejoin in 2020. A 10th, Augustana University in South Dakota, is rumored to eventually end up in the Summit as well. 11 members is difficult to schedule for a football conference, but for basketball, it wouldn’t be an issue.

The problems would be twofold. The first, is money. The Summit League is very much a scholarship league, and St. Thomas would need to be prepared to spend to keep up. In 2017-2018, St. Thomas reported athletic expenses of a little less than $5 million for their 20 varsity sports. At the very bottom of the Summit League, schools are still easily spending twice that. If the Tommies don’t want to get stomped in every other sport, they’d need to make expensive facility and logistical upgrades to get up to par with their new peers, many of whom would be public schools.

There’s also the question of hockey. Right now, NCAA bylaws prohibit schools from jumping directly to DI from DIII, (without, I assume, a boatload of waivers), so St. Thomas would need to first go to DII. And DII does not sponsor hockey, which is very important to St. Thomas. Would they need to drop the sport? Get waivers to compete in D1 anyway somehow? And if the school needs to suddenly double athletic spending to compete with North Dakota and South Dakota State, can they still fund hockey? Is it worth risking it?

I’m not sure there’s a 100% right answer, and it sucks that St. Thomas doesn’t have the luxury of time to make these strategic decisions completely on its own timetable. But I do think that if a really successful DIII football program decided they ultimately wanted to be in D1, the Pioneer League may very well be a good fit.

And with a fanbase and a history of athletic success, they’d probably be in a better position than lots of other schools who transition to D1.

There’s something satisfying about kicking ass at one level, and then shooting for a promotion. Whether that final destination is DII or DI, here’s hoping St. Thomas finds a good athletic home, and soon.

The NCAA decides it doesn’t want to play school

After an embarrassing and public basketball scandal involving multiple top programs and the FBI, the NCAA quickly leapt to demonstrate it was about ACTION. There were blue ribbon committees formed (Condoleezza Rice was invited!), speeches made, and solemn promises to get to the bottom of this "corruption…even though many sportswriters and fans just don’t care about folks breaking amateurism regulations anymore. This isn’t 1981.

The organization also recently faced an actual out and out scandal, with UNC offering hundreds of questionable classes in one of the largest cases of academic fraud and dishonesty in recent memory. But the NCAA’s response this time?

Nah.

From the News Observer:

The NCAA this week quietly dropped a recommended reform that would have given the association more authority to handle the kind of academic misconduct that left dozens of athletes at UNC-Chapel Hill with subpar education.

Part of that blue ribbon Condoleezza Rice committee recommended that the NCAA added a new, overarching bylaw to punish institutions that engage in widespread academic fraud, like North Carolina, who mostly escaped punishment by arguing that the NCAA doesn’t really have academic oversight over member institutions.

At the end of the day, most NCAA member schools agreed, they’d like to keep it that way.

The preference for institutional “home-rule” over centralized decisions has a long history in the NCAA. That prevented the enforcement of the Sanity Code, and for a long time, led to pretty weak enforcement mechanisms. Only when the NCAA gained the power to control television did something resembling the modern body appear.

I intellectually understand this argument, honestly. The NCAA is full of so many wildly different types of schools, and they all bring their own egos and biases to the table. Harvard doesn’t want or care about BYU’s opinion of what might constitute academic fraud at Harvard. Michigan doesn’t want to hear from Oregon State, and no SEC school wants to hear from a perhaps self-interested, or at least self-righteous, northern private school. Fears of a sea of schools with beams in their eyes, looking for motes in others, are not totally unjustified, in my opinion.

But as Jon Solomon and other smart NCAA watchers have pointed out, the NCAA simply cannot have it both ways. You cannot be interested in academic compliance once when it is convenient.

The NCAA member schools are happy to try and police the academic quality of various high schools. They’re happy to brag about APR (even though that’s dumb). They’re happy to point to the courts, the press, or anybody that will listen, that athletes are paid…in a college education. But they’re not willing to do anything that might help ensure that said education means squat.

No matter how you feel about amateurism, you should probably want students to get the best possible education they can get while on campus. But as UNC has shown, the repercussions for dishonesty are minimal. Accrediting agencies, who do have the power to litigate academic quality, almost never meaningfully punish anybody. Lawmakers, both at the state and federal level, have mostly ignored the issue (although at least one senator cares). And if the NCAA can’t, or won’t, punish an offender, what’s the risk? A few bad headlines? That’s the risk of an athletic department, generally.

I’m not 100% sure of the best, practical solution here. I think many of my peers under 35 generally advocate for the NCAA to get out of doing anything other than sponsoring and running events and tournaments. If they get out of the education game entirely, well, you can’t call them hypocrites for not going after this sort of this.

It’s also possible that there could be a world where they abandoned fighting over amateurism but doubled down on investigating and punishing student welfare issues that would lead to positive outcomes…but that could require a massive change in heart among administrators that doesn’t seem likely.

The takeaway here, in my opinion, is that this is proof that most schools, especially the most powerful ones, are more interested in lip service around education than actually doing the work. That doesn’t mean there aren’t students athletes who get a great education. But there’s no real mechanism to require it. That’s a failure of multiple institutions, but only one is constantly crowing over how much they value and treasure education.

Somehow, this didn't make it into the official press release. 

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