RICHMOND — The Ohio Valley Conference has awarded 67 football championships in its history — and Eastern Kentucky has competed for every one of them. Yet it is possible that 2015 will be the final OVC crown the Colonels pursue.
Eastern has been open about its desire to move from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. At present, an invitation from the Sun Belt Conference appears to be the only viable path for EKU to enter the FBS.
New Eastern Athletics Director Steve Lochmueller said Tuesday he expected to hear "sooner rather than later" what the Sun Belt will do about expansion.
In July, a Sun Belt expansion committee visited EKU. League officials later visited Coastal Carolina and New Mexico State. Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson has stated publicly that the Sun Belt would like to add a school that could serve as a "travel partner" for Appalachian State in Boone, N.C.
"If they are going to have that for the '16-17 season, time is becoming short," Lochmueller said.
The Sun Belt's 11 full members now include two schools each in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia plus Appalachian State. Benson has said the conference would like to be able to split into East and West divisions for scheduling purposes.
Presumably, the desire for an Appalachian State travel partner makes New Mexico State — which, along with Idaho, is now a football-only Sun Belt Conference school — a tough sell for full league membership.
How do EKU and Coastal Carolina "match up?"
Geography seems a wash between Eastern and Coastal Carolina. Google Maps says the EKU campus is 268 miles from Appy State, while Coastal Carolina's home in Conway, S.C., is 285 miles from Boone, N.C.
Coastal Carolina became an autonomous university in 1993. According to the Equity in Athletics Data Base, Coastal had a $20,548,216 athletics budget for 2013-14 (the most recent figures available), while EKU spent $13,033,262 on sports.
Yet while EKU's Roy Kidd Stadium has a listed capacity of 22,000 (due to a renovation, it will hold less in 2015), the biggest knock on Coastal Carolina seems to be that its football stadium seats 9,214. The school reportedly has promised the Sun Belt it will expand immediately to 20,000-plus seats if it is invited into the league.
"Coastal being such a young school ... most everything they have is brand new," said Lochmueller, the 1970s Kentucky Wildcats basketball and (briefly) football player. "... They've got a very excellent baseball and softball complex. A brand new basketball gymnasium. Competition-wise, they're a good school."
When the Sun Belt officials left Richmond in July, Lochmueller said, Eastern had the impression they liked what they had seen.
"We showed them our facilities," the AD said. "Those that we feel like need to be improved, we told them what our plan was. In our particular instance, we need to improve our baseball and softball (facilities). The Sun Belt is a big baseball and softball league. And we have a plan in place to, we have the financing and the funding, to do both softball and baseball."
Should Eastern receive the Sun Belt nod, Lochmueller said, the school has a five-year projection that sees its athletics budget growing to "about $20, $21 million."
"We believe what we were told from the Sun Belt folks is that, with the baseball and softball facilities being upgraded, we are in pretty good shape for an invitation," Lochmueller said. "It's like we're waiting to go on a date, we're just waiting on that invite."
If the Sun Belt asks EKU to the prom, Lochmueller says Eastern would join its new league July 1, though it would not become a full football member until 2018. That could make the 2015-16 season the Colonels' final one sharing a conference with ancient rivals Murray State and Morehead State.
Lochmueller said Eastern has not had any specific conversations with its fellow in-state schools about the ramifications of the Colonels leaving the OVC. "But we've been very transparent with the conference," he said.
Conversely, if the Sun Belt spurns EKU, Lochmueller said Eastern cannot let that burst its bubble.
"At this juncture, we've got all our cards with the Sun Belt," he said. "If we're not successful, we will continue to work hard and try to elevate every program here to the next level. Who knows about the future? I don't think realignment is over yet."