College Sports

Mark Story: The best time ever to be an OVC basketball player in Kentucky is now

Eastern Kentucky University’s Javontae Hawkins will get between $2,800 and $3,600 beyond his traditional scholarship as part of the new stipend.
Eastern Kentucky University’s Javontae Hawkins will get between $2,800 and $3,600 beyond his traditional scholarship as part of the new stipend. Photo submitted by EKU

There has never been a better time to be a basketball player, men’s or women’s, at one of Kentucky’s three Ohio Valley Conference schools than right now.

Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State and Murray State decided to pay cost-of-attendance stipends this year to their basketball players, men’s and women’s. The schools are paying those to no other scholarship athletes, however.

Hoopsters at EKU will receive a payment between $2,800 and $3,600 beyond their traditional athletics scholarships. At Morehead State, basketball players will get an average of about $3,000; at Murray State, it will be “a little over $3,000.”

The decision to treat basketball players differently than all other athletes on campus came from several different factors.

“The OVC came out with a recommendation, not a mandate, that institutions try to do cost of attendance for men’s and women’s basketball,” Eastern Athletics Director Steve Lochmueller said.

Murray State AD Alan Ward said his school’s decision on COA had less to do with a league request and more to do with Murray’s determination to see its men’s hoops program continue to excel.

The Racers won NCAA Tournament games in 2010 and 2012, won the Tournament in 2014 and reached the quarterfinals of the NIT last season.

“With what our men’s basketball program, and our women’s, too, means to our school and to this community, we did not want to put our coaches at any possible recruiting disadvantages,” Ward said.

When the NCAA passed legislation allowing its Division I schools to pay COA stipends — the difference between the value of one’s athletic scholarship and the actual yearly cost to attend the school — it was seen as the college sports power structure finally cutting the players in on the money-machine that is big-time college sports.

At cash-rich Power Five conference schools such as Kentucky (2014-15 athletics budget of almost $110 million) and Louisville (over $104 million), you can pay all scholarship athletes an additional cash stipend and it is relative pocket change.

However, at schools down the college sports food chain, paying cost-of-attendance to athletes creates a significant budget impact — even if it is only done in basketball.

Division I scholarship limits are 15 in women’s hoops and 13 in men’s. So if our state’s OVC schools were at maximum scholarship levels, that could mean additional expenditures of around $100,000.

For 2014-15, Eastern Kentucky’s athletics budget was $14.9 million, while Murray State’s was almost $13.4 million. Morehead State, which unlike EKU and Murray, does not play scholarship football, spent just more than $9.4 million.

The cost of attendance payments, “for us this year, I think it’s about $60,000,” Morehead State AD Brian Hutchinson said. “We knew this was coming, and made it a budget priority.”

At Eastern, “this particular funding (for COA stipends) came from the university,” Lochmueller said. “We were very fortunate that (EKU) President (Michael) Benson helped us get the funding available that we did, somewhere around $100,000, $110,000.”

Ward said Murray expects to spend “less than $100,000” on basketball cost-of-attendance this year.

The Murray State AD says he has delivered a message to his school’s coaches in sports other than basketball. If they start losing players in recruiting because schools they compete against can pay cost-of-attendance, “I’ve told them to come see me and we’ll try to work something out,” Ward said.

Should EKU prove successful in its goal of moving up to an FBS football conference, then the school likely would expand the number of sports whose athletes get COA payments, Lochmueller said.

For now, there is a cost/benefit logic for schools at the OVC level to singling out basketball players as the athletes whose scholarships pay the most. The primary chance to command national sports attention is to pull a dramatic upset in the men’s NCAA Tournament — as Murray State did when it beat Vanderbilt (2010) and Morehead State did when it vanquished Louisville (2011).

In FCS football, even if you win the national championship, you do not get the level of coast-to-coast acclaim that becoming a March Madness Cinderella provides.

Still, it must be hard to explain to, say, EKU running back Dy’Shawn Mobley — last season’s OVC Offensive Player of the Year — why his scholarship is worth less than the least productive player on the Colonels’ men’s or women’s basketball teams.

“I haven’t talked to him about that,” Lochmueller said. “But the fact is, there’s going to be those of us in the FCS or the (lower rungs of the) FBS level who are not going to be able to do the same things that all the major schools are.”