The Ohio Valley Conference, of which Eastern Illinois is a member, enters the off-season facing a daunting task. Three football-playing members have announced their departures from the league within the past calendar year.
As reported by Mike Organ of The Tennessean, charter member Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State, which joined in 2003, left in the summer. Austin Peay, which joined in 1963, is leaving in 2022. Most recently, Belmont — which does not field a football team — announced it was joining the Missouri Valley Conference.
Thus, in a time when conference affiliations seem to be changing on a regular basis, the OVC faces challenging times at best.
As things stand, Austin Peay’s departure will leave the OVC with six members playing football: Eastern Illinois, Murray State, Southeast Missouri State, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech and UT Martin.
However, there have been recent reports that Murray State may join the Missouri Valley, which will lose Loyola-Chicago to the Atlantic 10 Conference after the 2021-22 season. Speculation also has Tennessee State — coached by former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL All-Pro Eddie George — looking to move on.
What does this mean?
In short, the Ohio Valley — which has been around for 73 years and honored football champions since 1948 — needs to add new members.
“(While) we don’t have a specific timetable, we are aggressively engaged in the process of cultivating relationships to find institutions that share a similar mission and vision. Our Presidents have been very engaged, and this process has reaffirmed how much people care deeply about this league,” OVC commissioner Beth DeBauche said last week in a written statement to Prairie State Pigskin.
Eastern Illinois athletic director Tom Michael also shared his thoughts.
“Anytime institutions leave your conference for whatever reasons they are, and they’ve all left for their own individual reasons, and whatever they are, they have to do what’s best for them individually,” Michael told Prairie State Pigskin Monday, “but certainly it’s concerning when we’ve lost four institutions in the last year.
“All of us (that remain) are looking to create some stability in the league. We have 10 institutions that are committed to the OVC right now, but we need to continue to look at the football piece from a scheduling standpoint and try to figure out a way that fits both from a competitive standpoint, a geographical/budgetary/travel standpoint.”
UT Martin’s Jason Simpson has been in coaching for 25 years, the last 16 with the Skyhawks. On Tuesday, Simpson was named the league’s coach of the year; moreover, his team won the OVC title and qualified for the FCS playoffs.
“It’s different than ever, but it is the way it is,” Simpson said on an early November OVC Zoom call of the constantly-changing landscape of college football.
The defections of Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State left OVC teams playing a strange schedule in which schools played other league teams twice in the same fall with only one of the games counting in the conference standings.
Many OVC coaches shared their displeasure with that format at various points this past season.
“There’s not an AD or football coach that would like to play a team twice like we did with Murray State this year. If we could avoid those types of things, certainly as we move forward, that would be everybody’s preference,” Michael said.
Who could be added?
At this point, both OVC leadership and members have been unwilling to name any possible candidates to join the league.
“We’ve talked about a lot of different scenarios on how we get to the right number in our league, whatever that might be,” Michael said. “The crazy thing with all of this is that I don’t think it’s done yet with the movement as we look to try to put the ’22 schedule together. It’s kind of penciled in because I still think there’s some movement around that could shift some things.”
Earlier in the fall, Organ — who has covered sports for over 30 years, many of those spent following OVC teams — wrote a story speculating which schools the Ohio Valley may be most likely to add.
Organ named 10 schools, however only half of those have football teams. Those five schools are: Alabama A&M, Chattanooga, East Tennessee State, West Florida and West Georgia. The latter two currently play at the Division II level.
Organ wrote: “Bringing in Alabama A&M would give the OVC a second HBCU to join Tennessee State. The location in Huntsville (Ala.) is ideal, but convincing the Bulldogs to leave the Southwestern Athletic Conference would be a challenge.”
As for Chattanooga, Organ wrote: “The Mocs already are an associate member of the OVC with their beach volleyball team. But getting the school to become a full-time member would be difficult because it has been a member of the Southern Conference in all other sports for 45 years.”
Last week, the Twitter account Major Madness (@low_madness), which covers “the Small Conferences of NCAA Division 1 that continually overachieve and steal the spotlight in March,” tweeted the following:
Western Illinois is presently a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Summit League in its other sports. Perhaps, given the uncertainty of the OVC’s stability going forward, WIU’s interest has waned.
Western Illinois athletic director Danielle Surprenant did not reply to two requests by Prairie State Pigskin for comment.
In October, the OVC and the Southland Conference announced plans for a football scheduling alliance between the two FCS leagues in the 2022 and 2023 seasons.
The planned collaboration will have institutions from each conference fill available non-conference dates on schedules in the next two years with a focus on competitive balance and reasonable travel.
“Our presidents, chancellors and athletic directors have enthusiastically supported this alliance,” DeBauche said at the time. “We are delighted to work together to promote one another and provide a quality student-athlete experience. This partnership strengthens not only both football leagues, but the FCS overall with quality non-conference matchups. Given the changing Division I landscape, this demonstrates ways that conferences can collaborate to support one another.”
Southland football members include Houston Baptist, University of the Incarnate Word (San Antonio, Texas), McNeese State, Nicholls State, Northwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana and Texas A&M University-Commerce.
Yet, the measure appears to be more of a short-term stopgap.
“I’m speaking for myself, but just from a sheer travel perspective I don’t think that’s in our best interest to have that as a long-term solution,” Michael said. “Traveling a football team can be expensive and when you join a partnership with a league that is in Texas and Louisiana that makes travel somewhat difficult and probably not the most economical way to do things.”
The OVC has long prided itself in being what both DeBauche and Michael have called “a bus league”.
“There’s a ton of advantages and there’s a comfort level for the student-athlete experience and the health and welfare of our student-athletes if we can jump on a bus and get there and get back at a reasonable time and continue to do our business with limited class absences. That would certainly be what we’re shooting for,” Michael said.
As both Organ and Major Madness pointed out, basketball and the lure of the revenue generated by bids to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament may trump football when decisions are made to add schools to the OVC.
“Does that mean we’re going to have some non-football playing schools come into our league? I think that’s a possibility, but certainly for all of us that play football, it’s important for us to get that component in a good place too,” Michael said.
Whatever the outcome, the Ohio Valley Conference fall football season will certainly not resemble what it has in the past.