Mark Story: EKU is 'discussing' moving its football program up to the FBS

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 14, 2013 

Eastern Kentucky Colonels head coach Dean Hood wanted to hear it from the crowd for his defense as EKU played Robert Morris on Thursday August 29, 2013 in Richmond, Ky. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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In college football circles in the commonwealth, the scuttlebutt about Eastern Kentucky University in recent weeks has been rampant. Word is that Eastern, under its new president, Michael T. Benson, is considering moving its football program into the Football Bowl Sub-Division.

The rumors are true.

"There is some discussion of that," EKU Athletics Director Mark Sandy said Friday. "It would be a big decision by our Board (of Regents) and president."

Going back to Roy Kidd's two national championships (1979, '82), Eastern has a long history in what is now known as the Football Championship Sub-Division (formerly Division 1-AA).

Sandy said the idea of EKU joining Kentucky, Louisville and Western Kentucky in the FBS is not as simple as Eastern just deciding to make the move.

"You can't just decide you want to move your program up," he said. "You have to have a conference invite you. So, unless or until that happens, it's just something we are taking a look at."

Sandy mentioned the Sun Belt Conference — which Western is leaving after this school year to join Conference-USA — or the Mid-American Conference as possible FBS leagues that could be a good fit for EKU.

Longtime FCS powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern have already been invited to join the Sun Belt. They will be eligible for FBS post-season play in 2015.

WKU, Eastern's historic rival, made the move in 2009. The success that Western, which made a bowl game last season and has now beaten UK two years in a row, has enjoyed has not gone unnoticed in Richmond.

"We've kind of kept our eyes on the things Western Kentucky has done," Sandy said. "That is something that we've factored into our thinking."

A move from the FCS to the FBS would require a significant financial investment by EKU into its football program. It would mean going from a level that allows 63 football scholarships to one where there are 85 such players. "There would also be a need to enhance our facilities, there's no question about that," Sandy said.

At this point, Sandy said its premature to attach any timetable to it if or when EKU will try to make a step up in football classification. "Too soon to tell," he said. "It's something we're going to look at and see if we are a viable candidate."

EKU vs. UK in 2015

When Eastern played at Louisville in the second week of this season, the Colonels got a $425,000 guarantee. Next season, EKU will get $575,000 for traveling to Florida to play in The Swamp.

Sandy said Friday that Eastern has signed a contract with Kentucky for $450,000 to play the Wildcats in Commonwealth Stadium in 2015.

Interestingly, EKU is slated to play a guarantee game at Purdue in 2017. With an eye on improving his league's strength of schedule, Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany has said his longterm objective for that league is no longer playing FCS schools.

"At the moment, (Purdue) is saying they are going to play that (2017) game," Sandy said.

EKU vs. Morehead

On Saturday, an Eastern football team will travel to Morehead State to face the Eagles, something that has not happened since 1993. Once a fierce annual rivalry, EKU and MSU have played only sporadically and always in Richmond since the Eagles stopped giving football scholarships in the early 1990s.

Asked what led to Eastern playing at Morehead (7 p.m. Saturday night), MSU Athletics Director Brian Hutchinson said "(EKU AD) Mark Sandy and I are good friends. A couple of years back, we talked and just decided it made sense financially for two schools as close as we are to play if we could."

The last two times Eastern and Morehead have played, MSU lost "only" 16-8 in 2008 and 24-17 last year. Those two outcomes were more competitive than many of the games between the schools in the latter years of their annual rivalry — when MSU was still giving football scholarships.

"At this point, it's probably not right for us to claim we are football rivals of Eastern's," Hutchinson said. "But we are basketball rivals and baseball rivals and the two schools themselves are rivals. We're excited about this. Our stadium seats 10,000 and we're shooting to have 10,000."

Overall, Eastern has won 25 of its last 26 games against Morehead. The Eagles last beat EKU in 1990, a 27-17 win in Richmond. MSU has not beaten Eastern in Morehead since winning 10-7 in 1971.

UK vs. Western?

As was well documented in the run-up to what became Kentucky's season-opening 35-26 loss to Western Kentucky, the four-year contract that had the Cats and Hilltoppers playing each other is over.

After the loss to WKU, new Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said he was open to playing Western again in the future.

I recently asked UK AD Mitch Barnhart what the future is for Kentucky playing Western in football.

"We have not talked about it," Barnhart said. "We've been pretty good about spreading it around the state. We've played Murray (2003). We've played Eastern (1998, 2007, 2009). Obviously, we play Louisville, and we've played Western. I think we've been good stewards of playing everybody (in the state)."

There is scheduling uncertainty for UK, Barnhart said, until the SEC decides whether it will go from eight to nine league games each season. When or if Western gets back on the UK football schedule, "will depend on what (the SEC) does with the league (schedule)," Barnhart said.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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