Division I hockey is coming to South Dakota! Augustana University in Sioux Falls plans to drop the puck in the fall of 2023, but the foundation for the program starts right now.
Where the future holds ice, the present holds dirt. On the surface, Augustana University’s glide into hockey at the Division I level is a seamless transition. But beneath the ground is a purpose that runs even deeper.
"The more we looked into it, the more exciting it became," Augustana athletic director Josh Morton said. "The first Division I program that competes in Sioux Falls, that's meaningful to us."
Morton has always been a big thinker. Less than a year after being hired to lead Augustana’s athletic department in the spring of 2018, the University made its intentions known to move the Vikings' current sports from Division II to Division I. But at that point, hockey was a pipe dream.
"It was not part of the equation," Morton said. "It was about the multi-sport, the sports that we had, that was part of the Viking BOLD initiative."
"Our research led us to conclude that the sequencing of the steps would be to seek an invitation to an all-sports conference first," Augustana president Stephanie Herseth Sandlin added. "Again, that wasn’t intended to be limiting, but how we sequenced progress towards that particular aspirational goal."
Augustana expressed interest in joining the Summit League for most of their athletic programs, but the conference decided not to extend an invitation in May 2020.
"It was a mixture of surprise and deep disappointment," Herseth Sandlin said.
"I think you always have contingency plans, right?" Morton added. "We certainly had put a lot of eggs into one basket, but it wasn’t long after that that we had interest from other leagues too and spent a good bit of time going through that process as well."
"You can make some strategic adjustments and that’s exactly what we did," Herseth Sandlin said.
"But I think for hockey to come on board really started to pick up steam last spring," Morton said. "And then obviously getting in front of Mr. Sanford with something that really interested him as well about being a differentiator and that’s when it just took off."
In mid-April 2021, billionaire philanthropist T. Denny Sanford had a meeting with Augustana administrators that solidified the commitment to the ice.
"Dr. Pam Homan and I had an opportunity to sit down with Denny on April 14," Herseth Sandlin said. "And based on the questions he posed and what we thought was a pretty clear interest in learning more and his willingness to entertain a formal proposal, we got more serious very quickly."
"They’re both good pickpockets, let me put it that way," T. Denny Sanford said with a laugh. "They’re very good pickpockets. I’ve never seen them so excited about anything. ‘Woah, wait a second, you’re going to do this for Augie?’ Yeah, yeah, for sure I am."
Sanford’s gift is the single largest donation by an individual in Augustana history. Money may not be everything, but it provided the clarity to see how hockey fit into the frame of the big picture.
"I think it just evolved naturally over time," Morton said. "But it’s not necessarily about ‘well, this happened, so now this.’ It’s more, always looking for that one differentiator piece and as we kept talking about it, hockey was that thing that differentiated Augustana."
"I really like hockey, it’s my favorite sport, far and away," Sanford added. "My boys played all through high school and college. To me, hockey is more exciting than anything else."
With a plan in place, the focus then shifted toward making that difference-maker stick out even more.
"We had been having confidential, but small group meetings and then very individual follow-up on people who had the initial interest in investing in the program and what we found that first 30-45 days was incredibly affirming," Morton said. "This community was ready for it, they were ready to invest in in, and it was something that got people excited."
It was also something that was soon to get some national attention, by way of a tweet from ESPN’s John Buccigross.
"We knew it was going to get out, but we were also careful about we’re not going to make a huge splash about it yet until number one, we do have some other investors to bring along and to make sure that we celebrate it appropriately and that’s where we were at on October 5th," Morton said.
The corner of 33rd Street and Grange Avenue is where the new Midco Arena will be built, right across the street from the Elmen Center.
"We wanted it to be prominent and visible because this is a cornerstone facility for our campus," Morton said.
"It’s a very special corner," Herseth Sandlin added. "And we’ve had a lot of engaged alumni, a lot of strategic and community partners who have been waiting for the right opportunity for that type of visible corner and that kind of traffic."
"We're targeting around 3,000 seats, we want it to be the toughest ticket in town," Morton said. "It’s going to be premium seating, it will be at a premium, club seating, suites."
The product on the ice is now at the forefront of Augustana’s vision, with the idea of moving the rest of the athletic program to Division I temporarily on the back-burner.
"For the next five years, part of the vision that we had, is we’re not going to aggressively pursue a conference invite as we had been," Morton said. "We want to be the best in Division II. It’s still part of our vision, but our vision is a 10-year plan, a 10-year strategic plan where we feel like a multi-sport Division I invite is still something that seems to suit Augustana."
"I think this will help, this hockey program will help get Division I in everything," Sanford said.
The journey to Division I for Augustana has not been as smooth as the rink that will soon be laid down at 33rd and Grange. Zambonis, both literal and metaphorical, provide some polish on the surface, even with the imperfections that lie beneath. But the bottom line is the ground floor has been set, and there’s nowhere else for Augustana to look but up.
"I hope that the entire state of South Dakota embraces us as its home state team," Herseth Sandlin said.
"Everybody’s excited about it, I’ve probably had more comments on hockey than I’ve ever had on anything," Sanford added.
"This is not just an athletics department move, this is a University strategic decision to add this sport," Morton said. "So, it’s elevating the profile of the University, becoming Sioux Falls hometown team."
"At the end of the day, we’re here to win. And our current programs set the bar really high, and so our plan is to fund it to be competitively excellent."
Construction on the new Midco Arena is expected to begin in the spring of 2022 and that’s also when Augustana hopes to have its head coach in place.