Phil Esten walked into turmoil after being hired as St. Thomas’ new athletic director in mid-January. This mess that welcomed him home to his alma mater wasn’t a surprise, though.
Esten knew the school was on shaky ground with MIAC membership because that tension was part of Esten’s conversations with school President Julie Sullivan during the hiring process.
“I didn’t necessarily expect to be looking for a new conference four months into it,” Esten said during an interview in his office last week. “But I did know that this was part of what I was walking into.”
His department was hurtled into a state of limbo after MIAC presidents ousted St. Thomas from the conference over the Tommies’ athletic dominance. The official phrasing was “involuntarily removed from membership,” which is an academia way of telling St. Thomas to hit the bricks.
This is personal for Esten, who played baseball at St. Thomas, earned his degree in 1995 and worked four years on campus in the cafeteria as a student. His wife also graduated from the school.
Esten, who turns 47 in July, left his post as deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer for Penn State’s athletic department in mid-January. He says he found a new professional opportunity at his alma mater appealing.
It’s fair to wonder now if Sullivan privately realized a split from the MIAC was inevitable and sought to hire an AD with Esten’s experience — especially his history in managing difficult circumstances — to shepherd the athletic department on its new course.
Esten has held leadership positions in athletic administrations at Minnesota, Cal and Penn State.
He was point person for TCF Bank Stadium’s legislative approval and construction under former AD Joel Maturi. As Gophers fans know well, that project was filled with challenges.
At Cal, Esten encountered tough financial conditions in the aftermath of the 2008 stock market crash. He arrived at Penn State three years after the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case rocked the university. Esten’s task was to help rebuild trust and athletic brand.
“There is a difference between crisis and disruption,” Esten said. “To me, this is more disruption.”
Sullivan and Esten spent the past few months meeting privately with MIAC presidents and athletic directors, trying to salvage their relationship.
“It became clear pretty early that [the ouster] was inevitable,” Esten said. “Some percentage of your efforts are spent trying to save it. While at the same time, [I was thinking], ‘If this thing goes in that direction, what are we going to do?’ So when it’s finally final, it lets you let go of having to worry about saving it and you’re solely focused on whatever is next.”
That’s the great unknown for now. The school plans to form an advisory group to discuss the most important criteria in finding a new conference. Esten said both Division II and III are options. NCAA bylaws typically require a 12-year process in reclassifying to Division I.
Esten has myriad factors to consider in determining the best fit for his department and athletes. There are travel considerations, financial costs, Title IX requirements, evaluations of staff, how to maximize their brand and what to do with hockey if the school moves up to Division II. The NCAA doesn’t offer D-II hockey.
“We’re going to continue to play ice hockey,” he said.
Esten said he and his coaches have experienced a wide range of emotions. Disbelief, anger, denial. He’s at a point now where he’s ready to move forward.
“It’s a unique opportunity for this institution,” Esten said. “We need to do it quickly, but we shouldn’t do it poorly.”
St. Thomas has a two-year window to find a new league, but Esten said the Tommies could leave before then. “If another option is presented to us sooner than that, we’ll take a strong look at it,” he said. “We want to do what’s best for our student-athletes.”
Esten described his alma mater as “entrepreneurial and innovative.” Being forced to start over in a new conference after 99 years in the MIAC will require savvy strategic thinking. Esten has faced challenging circumstances at other schools. He’s the right athletic director to guide St. Thomas in this next phase, wherever that leads.