This Saturday, the St. Thomas football team faced off against St. Olaf. It wasn’t a good day for the Oles – they lost 56-7, continuing the losing streak that began with their game against Bethel a few weeks ago. What makes this game significant, though, is the context: St. Thomas football is being kicked out of the conference the schools share, thanks in no small part to the work of President David Anderson ’74.
For years, St. Thomas and St. Olaf were both members of the MIAC, the conference for many small Division III schools in the state. The push to remove St. Thomas from the conference reached its tipping point in the fall of 2017 when the Tommies beat the Oles 97-0. Presidents of the various colleges in the conference – including St. Olaf, Carleton, Macalester, St. Catherine and Augsburg, among others – organized to remove St. Thomas on the basis of their overwhelming success.
The Tommies were a founding member of MIAC back in 1920. In the last few years, many of the school’s teams have come to dominate in the conference, and none more so than the football team, which has won six of the last nine MIAC championships. St. Thomas has finished their season with a winning record every year since 2007; their 97-0 defeat of the Oles is just one in a long line of victories.
St. Thomas was removed from MIAC through a secret vote, and will be forced to leave after the 2021 season. Now, the Tommies have a few options: they can join a new Division III conference, move to the murky waters of Division II, or try to make the move straight to Division I. The school has received an invitation to join the Division I Summit League, which would make them the only Division I football team in the state besides the University of Minnesota. However, the NCAA forbids teams from making the jump directly from Division III to Division I. St. Thomas can apply for a waiver to exempt them from the rule, but the future of the team nonetheless remains uncertain.
The role St. Olaf played in removing St. Thomas from MIAC made Saturday’s game an important one, but a number of other factors also contributed. St. Olaf head coach James Kilian spent three years coaching at St. Thomas immediately prior to coming to the Hill; Kilian’s time with the Tommies adds another layer to an already complex situation. On a lighter note, this game marked the first time since 2016 that the Oles have scored against the Tommies.
Neither St. Olaf nor St. Thomas supporters seemed to have this history in mind on Saturday, however. Cold but enthusiastic fans saw the Tommies win by 49 points, with an injury on the St. Thomas side within the first ten minutes and a surprise third-quarter touchdown from the Oles. Regardless of the layers of history surrounding the teams, it made for an enjoyable if chilly game.