With a third football member leaving, EIU's conference seeks new members

The Ohio Valley Conference has played football since 1948.

Late last week, the Ohio Valley Conference lost its third member in the past eight months leading to speculation of where the league turns to next.

The news affects Eastern Illinois University, which has played football in the OVC since 1996.

Austin Peay State University announced last Friday it is leaving the Ohio Valley for the ASUN Conference effective July 1, becoming the new league’s 13th full member.

“I know I haven’t been in this conference long, but these (other OVC members’) coaches and this place are first class,” first-year Austin Peay head coach Scotty Walden said during Tuesday’s OVC weekly media address. “I know that conference re-alignment, all this stuff is hard and crazy . . .

“From our university and athletics program, we just felt like we had to do what we had to do to take a step for us. And that’s it . . . I just want to say how proud I am to be a part of this conference.”

Walden, who at age 31 is the youngest head coach at the Division I level, led the Governors to a 4-2 record in the spring OVC schedule.

Austin Peay will join Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State – both of which left the OVC in January – in the ASUN. According to multiple media outlets, the OVC sued both schools in August, contending each school didn’t pay a $1 million exit fee.

The defections of Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State left the OVC and its members scrambling to fill schedules.

“We have some teams that are playing some conference teams twice, one is a conference game and one is not,” Tennessee Tech head coach Dwayne Alexander said. “That’s unfortunate. I’ll just call it out, I do. It’s a bad deal, but it is what it is. Everybody is dealing with it.”

The addition of Austin Peay will give the ASUN’s six football-playing members, allowing the conference to qualify for an automatic berth to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The ASUN now will be the 15th Division I conference sponsoring football with 20 total sports sponsored by the league.

Where does this leave the OVC?

Austin Peay’s departure will leave the OVC with only six members playing football: EIU, Murray State, Southeast Missouri State, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech and UT-Martin.

OVC commissioner Beth DeBauche issued a statement following the news.

“We look forward to adding schools who, like the members of the OVC, are committed to our principles and our goals,” DeBauche said. “We invite other colleges who are seeking this type of conference experience, for the betterment of their institutions, to contact us. The OVC welcomes those conversations.”

While thhe OVC likely does not wish to rush into a poor expansion decision, the league will certainly have to act whether it means adding one school or multiple schools.

While a university 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 certainly 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 last winter. “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.”

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