Dr. Phil Esten (@pjesten) returned to the University of St. Thomas in January 2019 as a Vice President and Director of Athletics. It's a homecoming of sorts for the 1995 alumnus, who played baseball for the Tommies during his undergraduate days, and also had extensive experience working in college athletics at the nearby University of Minnesota.
Esten is just the third individual in the last 50 years to serve as St. Thomas athletics director, following Frank Mach (1968-92) and Steve Fritz (1993-present). Fritz remains with the department in spring 2019 to assist with the transition of leadership.
"I'm excited that we are bringing a Tommie home to lead our athletics program," stated Julie Sullivan, president of St. Thomas. "I can't tell you how important it is that Phil was a St. Thomas student-athlete and that he embraces the core principles of Division III athletics: a quality student-athlete experience, academic success and athletics as an integral part of the student-athlete educational experience. He took his and bachelor's degree in corporate fitness-business from St. Thomas and used it to learn the business, operations and fundraising components of NCAA sports, while never losing sight of the student-athlete experience."
Esten brings experience from athletics leadership positions at Big Ten and PAC 12 universities. Since 2014 he has served as deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer for Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics, working closely with Sandy Barbour. He previously served the University of California, Berkley (2012-2014); the University of Minnesota (2004-2012) and The Ohio State University where he earned his master's. He earned his Ph.D. in kinesiology – sports management from the University of Minnesota.
"President Sullivan's vision for St. Thomas is both ambitious and inspiring. She is committed to excellence in all areas. I'm truly honored to have the opportunity to work alongside her, the St. Thomas Board of Trustees and so many others on campus who share a passion for St. Thomas," Esten said. "I have a strong passion for the impact athletics can have on student-athletes and the broader community. Marrying that with my affinity to my alma mater is something I'm really excited about." In the last 50 years, St. Thomas has had only two athletic directors. Esten will follow Steve Fritz who will retire in June after 27 years in the role, with a total of 52 years at the university. Frank Mach served as athletics director from 1968-1992.
"Of course, the biggest testament to the outstanding leadership and experience Phil brings came during my discussions about him with Steve Fritz. Like Steve, Phil is a family man of outstanding character and great integrity. Steve was not only confident of this hiring decision; he was thrilled," Sullivan shared.
St. Thomas' Next Chapter
Esten returns to lead a St. Thomas program that has excelled regionally and nationally in both the classroom and in athletics: St. Thomas ranks in the top 20 of all Division III institutions in Capital One CoSIDA Academic All-Americas with 102, including 78 honorees since 2000-2001. Along with 16 national championships, St. Thomas is the lone Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference school – and one of just 12 national Division III institutions – to place in the top 10 percent (top 40) all 21 years of the Learfield Division III Directors' Cup all-sport standings.
"I grew up the son of Division III coach, and was a Division III athlete myself, so my values have developed around the idea of the student-athlete in a true sense," he said. "St. Thomas is among the very best across the country at the Division III level. Steve has built a phenomenal program."
Returning to St. Thomas is a homecoming for his family, as well: His wife, Dani, is a 2001 alumna, and together they have three children: Lucas, Cooper and Hannah.
"We're grateful to Phil Esten for the incredible impact he's had on Penn State, Intercollegiate Athletics, our students, and our community," Sandy Barbour, Penn State Director of Athletics said. "As a St. Thomas graduate and baseball student-athlete, Phil has a great passion and understanding of the mission of St. Thomas and the role that Athletics plays on campus and with alumni, students and fans. thrilled for Phil and his family for this opportunity at his alma mater. St. Thomas students, coaches and community will benefit greatly from his strong, determined and passionate leadership. The Penn State nation is grateful for his time with the Nittany Lions and wish he and Dani great success at St. Thomas."
"Excitement is the only word for it," Esten said. "This is an opportunity for Dani and me to come home. It's something we've thought about for a long time."