It looks like St.Thomas will be allowed to jump from DIII to D1. Are they the only DIII school that could pull that off?

The NCAA will establish a pathway for DIII schools to jump all the to D1. Are there schools that could actually take it?

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Okay! Enough with the ad reads. Let’s talk about DIII football.

Things are looking good for St.Thomas

After getting drummed out of the MIAC for simply kicking too much ass (and also for a bunch of perfectly legitimate reasons that we’ll get to in a second), St. Thomas needed a new conference home. The Summit League, in D1, offered them a spot, but because NCAA bylaws prohibit schools from jumping from DIII to DI without spending time at DII first, the Tommies needed a waiver.

It isn’t official, but things look good. On Wednesday, the NCAA announced that “it would be receptive to a formal waiver request from…St. Thomas (Minnesota) and the Summit League that would allow the school to begin the reclassification process.”

Not only that, but the NCAA also announced they would introduce a proposal that would create a pathway for other DIII schools to make a similar jump. If the new proposal is adopted, a school could jump from DIII to DI over a five year span, so long as they followed all of the NCAA policies. Via the press release:

Under this proposal, Division III members planning to reclassify to Division I would be required to spend at least one year in the pre-application process. Criteria to move forward from that pre-application period to the existing Division I reclassification process would include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • Submitting a strategic plan.

  • Conducting a feasibility study for Division I requirements, including provision of athletics scholarships and meeting compliance standards.

  • Securing a formal invitation to join a Division I conference.

  • Establishing school policies and procedures that reflect a commitment to Division I principles, including academic integrity, diversity and inclusion, and student-athlete health and well-being.

That’s not an official waiver approval for St.Thomas, but the school certainly took this as a positive sign. They released the following statement:

On paper, this all makes a lot of sense to me. St. Thomas had to make a tricky conference realignment decision based on extenuating circumstances (again, kicking so much ass that their conference peers banished them), and their enrollment profile (close to 10,000 students, with growing graduate programs) is much closer to a typical D1 school than a MIAC school. I’m normally very skeptical of any school jumping to D1, but for St.Thomas, I really do think this makes sense.

But now that the NCAA is strongly considering creating a pathway for another school to do this, it’s worth considering….are there any other DIII schools that actually could jump to D1?

I had a few hunches. But I figured I better consult an expert.

I grew up in a DIII college town (Granville, Ohio, home of the Denison University Big Red), and I know several of those institutions pretty well. But DIII is sprawling, and contains so many schools and leagues that I’m just not familiar with. So I reached out to Steve Ulrich, who runs the excellent D3Playbook, to see what he thought.

First, I figured we’d look for schools that fit the St.Thomas profile, schools that aren’t just very successful athletically, but lord over the conference peers in terms of enrollment, endowment, facilities and more. “Nobody complains when you’re beating the big school”, Ulrich told me, but “when the big school starts winning in everything, then people complain.” He recounted how other schools in the Centennial Conference used to grumble that Johns Hopkins enjoyed too much of an athletic advantage thanks to their Big Ten Network lacrosse money…which doesn’t really exist.

But Hopkins might be one of the closest potential examples of a St. Thomas type situation. Most Centennial Conference schools are pretty small, with enrollments under 2,500. Johns Hopkins has an enrollment of over 20,000. They’re one of the biggest research institutions in the country. They already compete at the D1 level in men’s and women’s lacrosse. Their academic prestige would be a welcome addition to nearly any league.

This isn’t to say that Johns Hopkins IS going to jump to D1, or even that they’d want to. There are plenty of reasons to maintain the status quo. But is it so hard to imagine them joining the Patriot League and being competitive in many sports? I don’t think so.

Johns Hopkins’ elite academic peers in D3? Might be a tougher path

There are plenty of other outstanding schools that compete at the DIII level. The United Athletic Association functions as a bit of a baby Ivy League for DIII, featuring schools like Emory, Case Western Reserve, Carnegie Mellon and NYU. These are brands that again, any number of D1 leagues would love to associate with.

But mostly, the UAA schools don’t have the athletic tradition and infrastructure of a Hopkins, and it’s even less clear why they’d want to jump. Emory or Case don’t really need D1 branding to attract and retain undergrads. They generally have large endowments and donor bases. The reward isn’t really there, especially since outside of the Patriot League, there wouldn’t be an obvious D1 conference fit. I’m sure the Horizon League would love to have one of these schools, but would that fit CWRU’s branding? That’s harder to see.

The trick is getting a conference invite. If pure academic muscle isn’t enough, what about travel costs?

One of the huge sticking points to jumping a division level seems to be the conference invitation requirement. So many DIII schools are clustered in the Midwest and New England areas, where there aren’t many low D1 leagues hurting for members or regional scheduling opportunities.

But in an era where so many schools are trying to cut back on flights, could a DIII school potentially be a promotion option to help with travel?

Ulrich also agreed that would be at least possible. A potential area to consider there would be in the west. A school like Colorado College, who also already participates in some D1 programs, could theoretically be an attractive candidate if only to shave off some travel expenses. CC isn’t very large (~2,000 students) which would also make a jump challenging. Another potential candidate might include a school like Mary Hardin-Baylor, a decent sized school and a DIII football powerhouse, that is a short trip from D1 newcomer Tarleton State. Some of the larger members of the SCIAC, like Chapman, or University of Redlands, might be able to attract interest as well.

The ASun is a rare D1 league that is openly courting new member institutions, but with a bevy of DII schools with established athletic programs already in their footprint, and a relative dearth of DIII schools in that area, it’s harder for me to see a school in the Deep South as a DIII promotion candidate.

There’s one other potential pool: schools without stable homes

The catalyst for St.Thomas’ move to D1 wasn’t just their own ambition, it was the fact that staying in DIII was no longer an option for them. They got kicked out of their league! If other DIII schools suddenly lacked conference stability, perhaps they could kick around the idea of reclassification.

Ulrich mentioned it may be worth keeping an eye on the remnants of the Capital Athletic Conference and American Collegiate Athletic Association. The ACAA, as he described it to me, is a little bit like the mid 2010s WAC of DIII. It’s a league for schools without homes. There’s no prescribed regular season schedule, and includes teams from California to New York to Virginia. The ACAA will merge with the CAC, giving the new league eight members in men’s sports. Given DIII budget levels, that’s probably not the most stable place in the world.

So if you’re a school like, say, UC Santa Cruz, or Christopher Newport (in Newport News, VA), or Mary Washington, maybe an ambitious reclassification would be something the school might consider.

Unfortunately, there is also a good chance that multiple DIII schools will drop athletics, or perhaps even fold entirely, over the next few years. It’s possible that a school with a stable conference home might find themselves in a substantially less stable situation should a few of their peers drop out of athletics. That could lead to them investigating other options, including reclassification.

Would a jump from DIII to D1 be easy? No. But for the right school, it isn’t impossible anymore

Running a D1 athletics program is expensive, and it’s only going to get more expensive. A tiny liberal arts school hoping to boost enrollment through athletics would almost certainly be better suited remaining at DIII, where they wouldn’t need to offer scholarships or make anywhere close to the infrastructure investments needed to attract the attention of a D1 league. I think it’s reasonable to question whether many D1 institutions are really benefiting from those costs.

But even so, in certain situations, reclassifying up might be the right decision for a few DIII schools. There are a lot of NCAA member institutions. It’s nice that we might have a policy that might make it a little bit easier for those schools, who differ in location, resources and institutional missions, to find the classification that fits best for them.

Of course, this would be so much easier if DIII schools were allowed to classify for just one sport….but that’s a different newsletter.

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