The University of St. Thomas has a new vice president and director of athletics.
Phil Esten ‘95 will return to his alma mater in January, bringing with him a breadth of experience from athletics leadership positions at Penn State University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Minnesota and The Ohio State University.
“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.
“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.
“He has great experience,” said Steve Fritz, who is departing St. Thomas after 27 years as athletic director. “That’s really what excites me: Look at all the experiences he has gained in a short time in his career. He’s a person who can carry on a lot of the great things that are going on at St. Thomas. And, it’s time for some new vision, new ideas. I know Phil will bring that.”
“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.”
Esten will start at St. Thomas after the season concludes for Penn State football, a program he has overseen since 2014.
A La Crosse, Wisconsin, native, Esten played baseball at St. Thomas while earning his degree in corporate fitness-business. He later attended The Ohio State University, receiving his Master of Arts degree in sports management and working as the assistant director of athletic ticketing and events. He returned to Minnesota to earn his doctoral degree in kinesiology, and taught graduate classes as an adjunct professor for almost a decade at the University of Minnesota.
During his time at the University of Minnesota, he worked in intercollegiate athletics for six years, ultimately leaving as an associate athletics director to serve as the president and CEO of the Alumni Association. In the former role, he managed the overall strategic plan for the Gophers’ athletic program, and also worked to oversee the construction and operations of the TCF Bank Stadium project, which opened in 2009. Esten was instrumental in the stadium fundraising, an effort that included $90 million in individual and corporate support for the stadium, as well as more than $45 million for academic programs and other university initiatives.
Esten served from 2012-14 as University of California, Berkeley’s deputy director of athletics for external relations and chief development director. He supervised many support roles for Cal’s 30-sport program. Since 2014 Esten has served as the deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer for Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics.
Crafted over more than two decades in leadership roles across the country, Esten brings to St. Thomas a vision and understanding of the large impact athletics can have for students, especially, but throughout the entire university community, as well.
“I’m very grateful that President Sullivan has asked me to serve in this capacity as she, too, sees intercollegiate athletics as a vehicle to make a profound impact on the lives of those engaged with St. Thomas, whether students, faculty and staff, alumni or the greater community,” Esten said. “When all the variables align and intercollegiate athletics truly creates conditions for success for its student-athletes, the results can be remarkably positive for the university community.”
To accomplish that, Esten said athletics must put “a stake in the ground around comprehensive excellence” in four main areas: the classroom, the community, building character and in competition.
“Building a culture around comprehensive excellence is not negotiable, and will be our approach to sustaining a successful athletics program,” he said.
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 98, 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.”
Esten’s return 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.
“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.”