Phil Esten had more than 20 years of athletic department experience at the Division I level when the University of St. Thomas tapped him to return to his alma mater as athletic director. He's tasked with helping the Tommies make a successful transition from Division III athletics to Division I.
In most sports, St. Thomas competes in the Summit League. In hockey, it's the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) for women and the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) for men. Football is in the Pioneer Football League, which St. Thomas just won in only its second season in the league.
Eye On St. Paul recently chatted with Esten about how the transition has been going, as well as the school's efforts to upgrade its sports facilities. This interview was edited for length.
Q: Congratulations on the football championship. Why do you think football transitioned so well from D-III to D-I compared to other sports?
A: First of all, they were highly competitive at the Division III level and, in any sport, to be highly competitive at the D-III level, you need a couple of athletes that are probably Division I-caliber athletes who made a decision to come to St. Thomas for different reasons. So we started from a good spot.
Secondly, it's hard to compare sports. Hockey is just really different. As they're ramping up scholarships, it's hard to compare apples to apples. Football obviously stepped into a conference where there is already kind of a level playing field because it's a non-scholarship football conference. And then of course you've got to give a great deal of credit to the coaching staff for the culture that they've built over time.
Q: What's going to have to happen for hockey, volleyball, baseball and softball to become more competitive?
A: If you look at all our sports, last year, basketball I think finished 8th. Baseball and softball finished 5th and 6th in conference. Volleyball finished ninth. Football obviously had success and it translated to some wins. A lot of our other sports, we're still ramping up from a scholarship standpoint. In many sports, we're not at the scholarship level that we'll be at. So we're playing with less than a full slate of scholarships. We're seeing more competitiveness, but it doesn't always translate into wins.
I'm really proud of the way our coaches are building culture so that once we do get to that level of being competitive for conference championships, it should be sustainable. We want to make sure we build it right on the front end and not cut any corners.
Q: What is the biggest challenge in making this transition?
A: One of the things that a lot of people don't necessarily see is when a university transitions to Division I, it's not just the athletic department. It's a structure that has to support it. It's an institutional community that has to support it, whether it's financial aid or academic support services. I've really been pleased with the amount of support that we've had on campus.
Q: We have written about your efforts to upgrade facilities — a baseball and softball complex proposed for Highland Bridge and, now, a hockey arena on your south campus. How is that process going?
A: Certainly, that's one of those opportunistic circumstances where we've got a site that's not far from us [Highland Bridge] that could accommodate a baseball and softball facility. I feel pretty strongly that it can serve as a community asset, whether it's youth baseball or high school baseball. It's a site right now that doesn't have any long-term plans on it. I feel like we're improving that site, adding value from a community perspective.
One of the key components of this is from an environmental standpoint, that the site is mitigated of any contaminants that might have been there as a result of the railroad living on that site for so long. We're working with the St. Paul Port Authority [on remediation].
Q: How are you going to squeeze a hockey arena onto the south campus?
A: We are hiring a design-build partner. We've got an RFP [request for proposals] out right now to identify a partner to help us bring that to life.
The fact that we're going to put hockey on campus is really exciting. It's exciting for our student athletes. From a student attendance standpoint, we're doing shuttle buses. If we were on campus, I think we'd see even better student attendance than we've had.
It will add a lot of vibrancy to campus. In addition to being a hockey arena, it will serve as a multipurpose facility and allow us to do some other things like commencement and convocation and job fairs.
Q: What is seating capacity at the [St. Thomas] Academy arena and what are you hoping to have in an on-campus arena?
A: We're right around 1,000 at the Academy right now. I'll tell you that the CCHA average capacity is right around 5,000. I don't know if that's the right number for us. I'd rather underbuild than overbuild. I'd rather have a 4,000 facility where we have 500 people on a waiting list than a 6,000 facility that's not full.
Q: Did I hear that football is going to play Harvard?
A: Yes. We were able to schedule a home and home with Harvard. We're going to head out to Boston next year and then they're going to return the game in 2029 back in St. Paul. It'll be a good trip for a lot of our alumni to take. It'll be a lot of fun.