Gene's Blog: Visibility, credibility surge in Division III

PHOTO: Two former D-III basketball players share a moment at Target Field in 2016: Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau and UST coach John Tauer.

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Hey Tommies, Happy NCAA Division III Week. The annual celebration falls in the first stretch of April, wrapping up the same day as the Masters' golf tournament.

That timing is a mere coincidence. Division III will always be more blue collar than Green Jacket, always be more about the love of the game than the roar of the crowd.

The Division III experience can best be summed up in a single word: Opportunity. That's true in the classroom, and true on the sports courts and fields.

D-III was formed in 1973, although some of its institutions go back a few hundred years. It has grown to 450 full and provisional members. Most campuses are located in the northeast and upper Midwest, although growth has brought the D-III flag to the west coast, Texas and parts of the southeast. 

In our state, the 13-member D-III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference is rolling along toward its 100th birthday in March 2020. While it's teams go to war every Saturday, the MIAC is better known for its diplomacy. Emphasis on the diploma.

In my 29-year run with the MIAC as an Auggie and Tommie sports information director, I've had a courtside seat to watch Division III's steady growth and success. 

On the academic side, the Division III reputation speaks for itself. But when describing D-III athletics in general and the MIAC specifically, I've often called it the Twin Cities' "best-kept secret." It will forever be overshadowed by local pro teams and the D-I Minnesota Gophers, and that's OK. Those who sample it, however, will find D-III to be a goldmine for entertainment, value, underdog athletes, bright coaches and fun characters.

Gradually, the secret is getting out. Division III's visibility and credibility are surging.

Locally in 2017, D-III alums seem to pop up everywhere across the sports and media scene.

The Minnesota Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey played baseball and studied economics at D-III Trinity (Ct.). Falvey's top assistant is General Manager Thad Levine, who was a lefty starting pitcher at D-III Haverford (Pa.).

Call this dynamic duo Robin and Batman: Falvey is the boy wonder at age 34, and Levine the more seasoned exec at the mature age of 45.

Their stories are similar to a pair of successful Tommie alums in high-profile jobs: Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider, and Penn State deputy AD Phil Esten, as well as Bethel grad Andy Birdsong, the San Antonio Spurs' director of pro player personnel.

When it comes to the folks who oversee an entire MLB team baseball operation, there's only one younger than Falvey. He came to the Cleveland Indians as an intern in 2007, two years out of Trinity College. He started in scouting and continued to ace every assignment and opportunity he took on. The Twins gave him the reins last fall.

After Levine graduated from Haverford in 1994, he mailed a resume to all 30 major-league baseball teams. Ninety percent ignored him, three sent rejection letters. "I was ecstatic," Levine recalled in a Washington Post feature story. "I got a Montreal Expo letterhead saying there was no job. I couldn't have been happier." Levine rolled up his sleeves, worked, networked and earned an MBA. His first baseball job offer came with the Colorado Rockies at age 27, and a big break came when he became the Assistant GM with the Texas Rangers in 2005. He was hired by Falvey and the Twins last fall.

 

Opportunity Knocks

The Twins' D-III connection isn't a fluke in pro baseball. Division III alums in key leadership roles include:

  • Chicago Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer, a proud graduate of Wesleyan (Ct.);
  • New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman of Catholic (D.C.);
  • Baltimore Orioles VP for Baseball Operations Dan Duquette of Amherst (Mass.);
  • Toronto Blue Jays VP of Baseball Operations Ben Cherington of Amherst;
  • Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington of Amherst.

Levine is among more than a dozen Haverford alums working in major-league baseball. Among that group is:

  • LA Dodgers Senior VP of Baseball Operations Josh Byrnes;
  • MLB Chief Operations Officer Tony Petitti;
  • super agents Ron Shapiro and Arn Tellem.

Williams (Mass.) College grads include the late New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, and current Pittsburgh Pirates owner Rob Nutting.

Add St. Thomas to the list with alumni contributors to pro baseball. After a successful business career, these days Ron Fowler is President of the San Diego Padres. Jake Mauer is in his 16th season as a player and coach in the Minnesota Twins' organization.

Mauer, who helped St. Thomas baseball win the 2001 national championship, is currently the skipper at Class AA Chattanooga after guiding the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernals to the playoffs in each of the last four seasons.

The Twins' front office and organization also includes local alums from:

  • UW-Stout (bench coach Joe Vavra);
  • Hamline (bullpen catcher Nate Dammann);
  • St. John's (official team photographer Brace Hemmelgarn);
  • Gustavus (general counsel Mary Giesler);
  • St. Olaf (Marketing exec Nancy O'Brien.

 

Another D-III Tom

The D-III flavor is also evident across downtown with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Wolves head coach Tom Thibodeau played D-III basketball at Salem State (Mass.) and coached there four seasons while getting his graduate degree in counseling. Thibodeau was a four-year letter winner and Salem State's team captain his senior season. The starting guard helped his 1980 and 1981 team claim MASCAC conference titles and advance to D-III NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

Thibodeau could be the poster boy for career flexibility. He might be the only guy to coach basketball at Harvard and in a later gig coach under the colorful Jerry Tarkanian. His climb up the basketball ladder is similar to that of St. Thomas hoops alum Sean Sweeney, a rising star on the staff of the Milwaukee Bucks.

One of Thibodeau's bench assistants, Andy Greer, is a SUNY-Brockport grad and later coached at Brandeis (Mass.). Daisuke Yoshimoto, the Wolves Special Assistant to Thibodeau, played basketball at Johnson and Wales (R.I.). 

In the front office, Wolves Chief Executive Officer Ethan Cassan was a basketball standout at Colby-Sawyer (N.H); Chief Financial Officer Roger Griffith is an Augsburg grad; Chief Revenue Officer Ryan Tanke is a St. Mary's alum; VP and General Counsel Suzanne Spellacy is a St. Ben's grad. 

Wolves' Video Coordinator Sam Newman-Beck played basketball at Emerson (Mass.); Strength and Conditioning coach Dave Crewe is a UW-La Crosse grad; VP of Medical Services, Sheldon Burns, is a Hamline alum; VP of Communications Brad Ruiter is a Northwestern-St. Paul grad.

 

Purple to Purple

The Minnesota Vikings' front office and staff are represented by alums of 25 different Division III institutions. 

President Mark Wilf graduated from New York U. Law School. Exec VP Jonathan Wilf holds a law degree from D-III Yeshiva (N.Y.). Alan Landis of the Vikings ownership group is another NYU grad. 

Vikings WR coach Darrell Hazell, a former Purdue and Kent State head coach, was a D-III All-America receiver at Muskingum (Ohio) and started his coaching career as an assistant at Oberlin (Ohio).

Assistant WR coach Drew Petzing is a Middlebury (Ct.) grad, and was a football teammate there of NFL kicker Steven Hauschka.

Linebackers coach Adam Zimmer, son of head coach Mike Zimmer, played college football at Trinity (Texas). As a freshman he was a member of the Trinity team that beat St. John's 41-34 in the national semifinals and lost to Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl.

Vikings Director of Pro Scouting Ryan Monnens is a St. John's grad.

St. Thomas alums with the Vikings include VP of Finance and Controller Kate Shibilski; Senior Manager in Accounting Ann Schumacher; and Vikings Cheerleader Co-Coach Nikki Kill.

Other Minnesota Viking employees are alums of Carleton, St. Olaf, St. Ben's, St. Catherine, Bethany Lutheran, DePauw (Ind.), UW-La Crosse, UW-Stevens Point, UW-River Falls, UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout, Framingham (Mass.) State, Minnesota-Morris, Simpson (Iowa), Knox (Ill.), Wartburg (Iowa), Buena Vista (Iowa) and Immaculata (Pa.).

 

Media Lens

Several familiar Twin Cities media members have Division III roots.

Who says Johnnies and Tommies can't be BFFs (Broadcasting Friends Forever)? Fox Sports North TV broadcaster Anthony LaPanta is a St. John's grad. One of his FSN on-air colleagues is Kevin Gorg, once a successful Tommie hockey goalie and later women's hockey head coach at St. Thomas.

Associated Press Minneapolis bureau sportswriters Dave Campbell and Jon Krawczynski are each St. Thomas graduates, as is their AP news colleague Amy Forliti.

Local newspaper folks with D-III connections include Star Tribune sports staffers Howard Sinker (Macalester) and Paul Klauda (St. Thomas).

(While he's not a D-III alum, an honorary MIAC degree should go to Pat Reusse. Will there ever be a better old-school storyteller of the conference scene that Patrick? Let's hope the pride of Fulda delays his full retirement.)

Vikings communications manager Mike Wobschall is a Gustavus grad. He also can be heard many mornings with Paul Allen on KFAN Radio. Another D-III connection at KFAN is producer/host Justin Gaard, a St. Thomas grad.

Minnesota Timberwolves TV play-by-play announcer Dave Benz is an Oswego (N.Y.) State alum. A Wolves radio assistant producer is Cal Soderquist, who once called St. Thomas webcasts while an undergrad here.

KARE 11 TV sports reporter-anchor Dave Schwartz is a Hobart and Smith (N.Y.) grad, while reporter-anchor Ryan Shaver is a St. Thomas alum. KARE reporters Boyd Huppert (UW-River Falls) and Karla Hult (St. Olaf) also have D-III roots.

WCCO Radio and TV broadcaster Mike Max is a Hamline grad. WCCO news colleague Natalie Kane Nyus is a Tommie alum.

St. Thomas alum Bob McNaney left a longtime reporting job at KSTP TV a couple of years ago for a top public relations role in downtown Minneapolis. But KSTP still has a strong D-III background with reporter Tom Hauser (St. Thomas); and news anchor Leah McLain (St. Thomas) and Bill Lunn (St. Mary's).

And don't forget KSTP sports director Joe Schmit (UW-La Crosse), and KSTP Radio host and Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray (St. Thomas), the Mayor of Garage Logic.

That's today's Division III: More than ordinary Joes... and no longer the Twin Cities' best-kept secret. 

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Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working in his 23rd season at St. Thomas and 29th overall in the MIAC. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at ejmcgivern@stthomas.edu