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Mark Story: New coach Mark Elder all-in on helping EKU move up to FBS

Mark Elder was introduced as Eastern Kentucky’s new head football coach on Dec. 10, 2015.
Mark Elder was introduced as Eastern Kentucky’s new head football coach on Dec. 10, 2015. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

When Mark Elder landed a college football head coaching job at Eastern Kentucky, he knew his lifestyle was going to change.

It has — just not in the way one would expect.

Until the former Tennessee assistant buys a new house in Richmond and wife, Lindsey, and infant son, Owen, move from Knoxville, the new EKU head man is living in the on-campus Brockton Family Housing facility, a part of Eastern’s dormitory system.

Adding to Elder’s Old School experience, all eight of his newly hired EKU assistants are living there, too.

“I just thought we have X amount of money in the budget here, we didn’t need to be spending it on (temporary) places to live,” Elder said Wednesday in his new EKU office. “We were lucky the university was able to find housing for us here on campus. I kind of like being able to work late, then just walk across the parking lot to get a few hours of sleep, then walk back across the parking lot in the morning to get back to it.”

Elder, 38, comes to Eastern at a potentially pivotal time in the school’s athletics history. The administration of EKU President Michael T. Benson openly states it aspires for Eastern football to move from its longtime perch in the FCS up to the top-level FBS.

To make that move, EKU must receive an invitation from an FBS conference. Last year, the Sun Belt Conference chose Coastal Carolina over Eastern. However, if the Big 12 were to expand from 10 schools back to 12, it could set off realignment dominoes that could lead to another chance for EKU to move up.

Elder, a product of Sycamore, Ohio, who spent the past nine years as an assistant under Butch Jones at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Tennessee, said he is all-in on the idea of EKU in the FBS.

“I am 100 percent fully backing that and doing everything in my power to help us move up,” Elder said.

What, you ask, can Elder do to help Eastern climb the ladder?

“I am going to help us win more ball games. That is my number one thing,” he said. “Us being successful on the football field is absolutely going to be a piece of (the FBS invitation) puzzle. So my job, my job in the big picture of this, is win. That’s how I can help us move up.”

If you have paid close attention to Kentucky college sports, you know that being the head coach that leads a program into the transition to the top level of the NCAA has been a risky proposition.

Western Kentucky’s move from FCS to FBS football has been a tremendous success. But the coach in place when that process began, David Elson, got fired amidst struggles early in the transition.

Northern Kentucky’s move from NCAA Division II men’s basketball into Division I has already claimed the coaching job of Dave Bezold — and the transition period is still underway.

Yet Elder said he has no trepidation about potentially being the head man tasked with leading Eastern to a higher level.

“No, I’m not worried about that in any shape or form,” he said. “I feel very confident in the commitment of the (EKU) administration to me and my commitment to them.”

Another thing that gives him comfort is the success of longtime FCS powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern since they moved up to the FBS.

This year, each team’s second season in the Sun Belt, Appalachian State went 11-2 and defeated Ohio in the Camellia Bowl; Georgia Southern went 9-4 and whipped Bowling Green in the GoDaddy Bowl.

“The gap between a very, very successful FCS team and a good, successful Sun Belt-level team is not that huge,” Elder said. “So I do not think it is going to take a decade to (transition). It’s not a five-year transition. ... I can’t put a number on it but, obviously, you are seeing programs that have been able to do it and transition in a timely manner.”

In the heyday of iconic football coach Roy Kidd, EKU was “a very, very successful” program. The Colonels won two national championships and were twice national runners-up from 1979 through 1982.

However, Eastern has not won a playoff game since 1994. Elder said his first goal is to restore the Colonels to their former place among the FCS elite.

“Our goal is to win the national championship here at the FCS level,” Elder said, “and then our goal is to move up to the FBS level.”