MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — There are three Minnesota basketball teams in an NCAA tournament right now. The University of Minnesota is playing in the “big dance,” while the University of St. Thomas is in the Division III tournament and the Winona State men’s basketball team is in the hunt for the NCAA Division II championship.
UST has had success winning national championships in basketball, volleyball, and softball. But when it comes to full NCAA Division I programs in Minnesota, there’s (basically) only one — the University of Minnesota.
Hawaii, Maine, Vermont and Wyoming are the only other states with just one completely D-I program. Alaska has zero.
So why aren’t more Minnesota colleges in Division I?
“I think you look at surrounding states — South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin — they all support multiple D-Is,” said John Tauer, the head basketball coach at St. Thomas.
Iowa has 2.5 million fewer residents than Minnesota, and it has four D-I programs. Wisconsin has four D-I programs, too.
“Marquette has always been a national school, Syracuse has been national, Notre Dame’s always been national. Most of the schools in Minnesota were started as pretty local schools,” said Steve Fritz, the athletic director at St. Thomas.
Schools used to be able to go Division I in just one sport. For instance, University of Minnesota-Duluth, Bemidji State University, St. Cloud State University and Minnesota State University, Mankato are all D-I in just hockey.
But these days a college can’t go D-I in just one sport, Fritz said.
There are many requirements for D-I schools that D-II and D-III schools don’t have to meet.
For instance, while D-II schools must field 10 teams, D-Is have to have at least 14. They can have seven men’s teams and seven women’s teams, or six men’s teams and eight women’s teams.
Those teams alone can cost millions of dollars.
“Financially, it’s a tough transition to go to D-I. The number of scholarships, the number of seats, the arenas and stadiums that you need,” Tauer said.
Fritz also pointed out that there’s a lot of competition for the sporting dollar in the metro area.
“You look in the Twin Cities, there’s only so many dollars to go so far when you have Twins, Vikings, Wild, Timberwolves — let alone the University of Minnesota,” he said.
The University of Nebraska-Omaha is jumping from Division II to I in basketball. And to do so it had to drop wrestling and football.
The NCAA requires an average football attendance of 15,000, which practically means you need a stadium that will hold about 30,000 fans.
“We’re 5,000 to 7,000,” said Fritz. “In the end, it might cost us the football program [if UST were to go D-I].”
St. Thomas and all Division III schools don’t give out athletic scholarships. A Division II football program gives 35, Division I gives 85.
In men’s basketball, D-I programs give 13 scholarships. In D-II programs, 10; and in D-III programs, none.
The lack of D-I programs is a negative for Minnesota sports fans, according to both Tauer and Fritz, because elite hometown athletes tend to leave the state for college if they are good enough to get a scholarship.
“You look at the budgets, I’d get a slight raise,” laughed Tauer, who’s salary doesn’t quite compare to that of Tubby Smith at the University of Minnesota. “No bonus for making the national tourney either. Here it’s the intrinsic joy of being part of a team and being something bigger than yourself.”