University of St. Thomas officials are awaiting word on whether the NCAA will allow the school to jump directly to Division I without a pit stop at Division II. A decision didn’t come at the NCAA Convention this week, likely pushing an announcement to April.
Recruiting never stops, though. For St. Thomas coaches, this interim period has created a weird dynamic in courting the next wave of players.
Do they recruit Division III-level talent or Division I?
There is a difference.
“Right now we’re in a little bit of limbo because we don’t know for certain where we’re going to be,” men’s basketball coach Johnny Tauer said. “We’re spending more time evaluating a wide range of players in preparation for when we know our next direction.”
School officials don’t want to assume anything after being forced out of the MIAC, but they remain optimistic the NCAA will allow the Tommies to reclassify to the D-I Summit League starting in 2021. The football team would compete in the Pioneer League, a football-only, non-scholarship conference that competes at the FCS level of D-I.
Tauer has maintained one of the premier basketball programs in Division III in his nine seasons as head coach. A move to Division I will allow him to offer athletic scholarships for the first time, which means he must recruit a different-caliber player. Bigger, stronger, faster.
Tauer’s teams typically have a few players who could play D-I. He will need more than a few once they move up two levels. Tauer said finding players that fit his program’s way of doing things will always be a priority, but “certainly if we’re playing Division I, we’re probably going to have guys who are taller and quicker, at least some spots.”
Glenn Caruso likewise has built a football powerhouse at St. Thomas. Too powerful for some MIAC folks. Caruso said his staff recruits 600-650 players every year with an emphasis on the metro area. They target kids with Division I talent who might be interested in a different collegiate experience.
Caruso said the majority of players on his roster held athletic scholarship offers to either Division I or D-II schools. He doesn’t anticipate a radical shift in his approach.
“We already recruit the heck out of guys that are Division I guys,” Caruso said. “We get some of them, but I’ll be honest, we lose the vast majority. The hope is — assuming that everything goes through — we’re able to recruit in a similar manner and yield more of the guys because we would be in a Division I position.”
St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten delivered a message to all his coaches in preparation for a big jump: Don’t cut corners. Focus on culture more than results.
This will be a slow process. Coaches won’t be able to snap their fingers and have a roster filled with Division I talent in Year 1.
“We are not bending on our core principles and our culture,” Caruso said. “There is nothing that would ever make me mitigate that. We’re not perfect, but we bring young men in that are unabashedly proud that they can have the best of both worlds — the academic rigor and the athletic success.”
Recruiting is a cutthroat business under normal circumstances. Recruiting without knowing where the school might be in two years is especially tricky. A Division I scholarship is a powerful recruiting tool, but Tauer said he hasn’t had those conversations with recruits or their parents because the school isn’t in that position yet.
“It would be premature and presumptuous to do anything other than be in communication with guys that you think would fit,” he said.
When it does happen, Tauer will enter a new recruiting world because Minnesota has become a hotbed for hoops, with more college players being produced here than ever before.
This is very much a basketball state, too. Of course, there’s also fierce competition among Division I recruiters who come here looking for talent.
The school first needs the NCAA to announce its ruling. Then recruiting hypotheticals will give way to reality.