Richmond defeated Davidson 41-0 on Saturday in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs while St. Thomas had to sit back and wonder what could have been.
The Tommies finished 10-1 in their second season as a Division I program, including 8-0 in the Pioneer League. They outscored opponents 358-189 and finished ranked 19th in the AFCA Coaches' Top 25 poll after a 27-13 win in their regular-season finale on Nov. 19 against Butler. After surprisingly finishing tied for third in the conference last year, St. Thomas went to another level this season in becoming the class of the Pioneer.
Its opponents are now living the life all those MIAC teams did when they were bulldozed by the Tommies winning seven conference titles in 10 years starting in 2010.
But the Tommies could only watch this year's playoffs begin. St. Thomas is stuck in Year 2 of a five-year moratorium from postseason competition, an NCAA-mandated condition St. Thomas agreed to in 2020 when it received a special waiver to jump from Division III to D-I.
Is there any chance the school can appeal this five-year postseason ban?
"We were very fortunate to get [the moratorium] for five years," said St. Thomas football coach Glenn Caruso. Before St. Thomas' waiver, D-III programs had to go through a 12-year process to move from D-I.
"It's funny because everyone is asking that question now. We knew what the deal was going in, a year and a half ago. We signed up for it, grateful that it got trimmed down."
Caruso's boss, St. Thomas Athletic Director Phil Esten, might not be as patient. Esten told me Tuesday he thinks "it's time to take a look at whether it is still the right period of time for this transition."
A lot has changed in two years, Esten said. "We're becoming more student-athlete-centric across the entire (NCAA), and it would seem to me we can find a balance of student-athlete experience while ensuring reclassification occurs in a responsible way," he said.
Rules are rules, though, and at least for now, the Tommies are sidelined by this one. The FCS playoffs started without them last week.
Davidson, defeated 27-16 by the Tommies during the regular season, was awarded the Pioneer League postseason bid instead, and the Wildcats were plastered by the Spiders. Perhaps St. Thomas would have acquitted itself better. Perhaps its defense would have given it a chance to win. Perhaps they'd be getting ready to play in the FCS Sweet 16 this Saturday.
It would have been interesting to see St. Thomas in the same football tournament this week with South Dakota State and North Dakota State, programs that have a combined 43 players from Minnesota on their rosters. St. Thomas will eventually add even more local flavor to the FCS postseason mix.
Part of the reason for the NCAA moratorium is to make sure the incoming school fully adapts to Division I standards. St. Thomas is doing that by increasing its athletic support staff and planning changes to athletic facilities. Those plans include building a hockey arena on the south campus. Good things are happening in the heart of St. Paul.
The other Tommies sports have not been as successful as football, but there are some hoops fans who believe the men's basketball team could take down the Gophers.
What hasn't needed much upgrading is the performance of the football team. It was picked last season to finish eighth in the conference but finished third. It was picked third this season but won the title, with Caruso being named league coach of the year. The Tommies will graduate 21 seniors but started 14 freshmen and sophomores this season.
Now that two of the five years of the postseason ban have been burned, the Tommies can approach recruits with the opportunity of playing in the FCS tournament by the time they are seniors. Harvard, a fellow non-scholarship program that St. Thomas has begun to bump into on the recruiting trail (the Pioneer League is a non-scholarship football conference), is on the schedule for the next two seasons.
If the five-year ban gets revisited, as Esten suggests it should, perhaps the Tommies are in the postseason sooner than planned. The Pioneer League would benefit from that, given that the Twin Cities is one of the largest markets in its setup.
Caruso is not banking on that development, though, and staying focused on building his team, part of a Tommies athletic program that is growing up — and out.
"The clear mark of growth is to be able to play better than you played last year," Caruso said. "To beat teams that you lost to last year. We not only lost to teams that we beat this year (but) last year we were losing handily to those teams. The growth in the last 12 months, even if it is difficult to quantify, is pretty clear when you look at that."