At Monday’s Ohio Valley Conference football virtual media day, commissioner Beth DeBauche spent much of her seven-minute and 30-second address highlighting positives about the league.
Her topics ranged from successes during the global pandemic (“you only have to look at last year and the OVC played all but one of its football games”) to having an conference player selected in the first round of the recent MLB draft (Eastern Illinois short stop Trey Sweeney) to a former league standout in the NBA Finals (Murray State’s Cameron Payne).
She highlighted accomplishments on the playing fields and in the classrooms and communities.
When DeBauche opened herself up to questions from the media came the inevitable inquiry about the OVC’s search for possible replacements for departed Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonsville State.
Both EKU and JSU left the OVC to join the Atlantic Sun Conference. In addition, Central Arkansas departed the Southland Conference to join the ASUN.
“We’ve been very, very thoughtful in our approach to membership. At 10 members with seven playing (football), we are a good and strong league,” DeBauche said.
“When I took this job we were a 10-member league with an 11th member transitioning,” said the 12th-year OVC commissioner. “We will be very thoughtful in our approach to membership.”
DeBauche said that the 74-year-old league has only had nine transitions up until this point.
“We are a league that has had stability and the reason why we’re had that stability is because there’s been such a similarity in mission and vision in the type of school and a regional sense to our members,” she said.
“As we look to membership, and we will look to membership, and we will absolutely consider growth, the (university) presidents will be very thoughtful to make decisions that make sense for this conference that can last and sustain,” DeBauche continued, “so no, there isn’t a specific timeline. The approach will be to make sure that we have done our due diligence and that everyone feels comfortable with the moves that are made, feeling confident that we are a good and strong conference that members will want to be a part of.”
Asked if the OVC has contacted potential schools or if institutions have reached out to the league about joining, DeBauche said, “Certainly again, we are a successful conference and there’s interest in this league as you would expect.”
Doubling up in the fall
Eastern Illinois, a member of the Ohio Valley Conference since 1996, is certainly affected by the decision.
The OVC enters the fall season with seven football members: Austin Peay, Eastern Illinois, Murray State, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, Southeast Missouri and UT Martin.
Thus, the OVC now faces a quirky 2021 schedule in which members will play a conference school twice in the fall. For example, EIU plays at conference preseason favorite Murray State Oct. 2 and then hosts the Racers Nov. 20. Both games will count in the conference standings.
“The OVC is a tremendous conference that places a high value on football. We’re disappointed to see Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky depart, as they have been tremendous competitors and programs. However, change is an inevitable part of college athletics and we look forward to continuing our strong football tradition of competition and developing young men,” EIU head coach Adam Cushing said in a released statement in early February.
Should the OVC stay with seven football programs the schools will need to find two more non-conference games. The OVC would retain its automatic qualifier for the conference champion into the FCS playoffs.
As DeBauche indicated, the OVC is not likely to rush into a poor expansion decision. While a school such as Indiana State or Southern Illinois might make sense geographically for Eastern Illinois, those programs are not likely to leave the Missouri Valley. Western Illinois, which competes in the MVFC for football and the Summit League for its other sports, could be a candidate.
“Things are shuffling and reshuffling and it’s happening very fast, right now everything is fluid,” Western Illinois Director of Athletics Danielle Surprenant told Scott Holland of The McDonough County Voice. “We’re seeing things happening with conference realignment and we’re all watching the impact it is having on college sports as a whole, especially since our program has FCS football.”
The recent reshuffling of conferences has also left Chattanooga and East Tennessee State as strong possibilities. Both certainly fit the geographic mold of the OVC.