NCAA OK’s Thomas More’s bid to return to Division II, Saints will join Great Midwest Athletic Conference

Dan Weber
Dan Weber
Dan Weber is LINK nky's sports editor-at-large. Contact him at [email protected]

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All is going according to plan.

Thomas More has been accepted back into the NCAA, this time as a Division II school (with athletic scholarships), and into a conference of “like-minded programs,” Pres. Joseph Chillo said.

The Saints, coming off an NAIA national championship in women’s basketball and a semifinal finish on the men’s side, will move on to the Great Midwest Athletic Conference in a year as a provisional NCAA member after the organization’s Thursday notification to the Crestview Hills college.

As the 14th school in the GMAC (the 10th in football), Thomas More will join a conference of private schools that spans four states – Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee with the same number of metropolitan areas (Clevelend-Akron-Canton in Ohio; Nashville, Tenn.; Columbus, Ohio; and now Cincinnati.

And that’s a big part of this. While the NCAA was spending months evaluating Thomas More’s bid to return after two years in the NAIA following a sensational run in the NCAA’s Division III (no athletic scholarships) that also saw a national title in women’s basketball, the Saints were making their case.

As Chillo said of the Saints’ “perfect fit,” it wasn’t just because the GMAC is made up of “all private schools, all value-based institutions,” but something else. And not just something TMU will get from re-joining the NCAA – and joining up with the GMAC.

It’s also what Thomas More, as the lone Division II program in Greater Cincinnati, can offer “the conference and the NCAA,” Chillo says.

Not all that often does a national championship school come a’ knocking on a door but here they were. And that “excites” GMAC Commissioner Tom Daeger. “It’s good for Cincinnati and for the league . . . We quickly became aware they’d be a great fit for the GMAC.”

“The NAIA has been a great experience for us,” Chillo said, “but this was an opportunity too big to pass up.”

As if to make the point, the NAIA’s Mid-South Conference, of which TMU has been a strong member, named Saints athletes winners of two of the conference’s top individual awards Thursday. Senior linebacker Drew Bartolovich became the school’s first recipient of the MSC’s Character First Award. And Saints senior outside hitter Emily Mohs earned the MSC’s Female Student-Athlete of the Year award, again another first for a TMU athlete.

“As a student-athlete, the NAIA has been great for us athletically,” basketball player Zoie Barth said, but the NCAA “both academically and as a brand,” is just in a different place.

Thomas More will start abiding by NCAA rules this year, AD Terry Connor said, with this recruiting class although he doesn’t anticipate great deal of difference in the final NAIA go-round. Except for this: “I’ll be attending a lot more meetings.”

Current GMAC members include Ashland University, Cedarville University, the University of Findlay, Lake Erie College, Malone University, Ohio Dominican University, Tiffin University, Ursuline College, and Walsh University, all in Ohio. Hillsdale College and Northwood University are both in Michigan. Kentucky Wesleyan College is in Owensboro while Trevecca Nazarene University is in Nashville, Tenn.

“We compete in 26 sports,” Daeger says of the GMAC and Thomas More will offer teams in all of them.

“As we invest in our athletics program by adding new sports, full-time coaches, and renovations and expansions in facilities,” Chillo said, “this opportunity to elevate the position of Thomas More Athletics with the reputation and brand of the NCAA is a significant and transformational endeavor.”

After its final NAIA and Mid-South Conference season in the coming year, TMU will transition to provisional NCAA membership and be eligible for GMAC championships the following year as a full member the 2024-2025 season but without the ability to compete for NCAA Division II championships until the 2025-2026 seasons.

“It’s exciting,” Chillo said of “the opportunity to offer a Division II college experience to our athletes.” Asked the difference between a Division I and Division II college experience, Chillo said: “Our students are still student-athletes.”

No million-dollar NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) deals for them. “The big difference,” Chillo said, “is the out-of-class and travel time. Our students are not going to miss that time.”

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