Mark Story

Is it Morehead State’s destiny to be the last Kentucky school in the OVC?

Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried celebrated after leading the Eagles past Alabama State in the opening round of the 2009 men’s NCAA basketball tournament.
Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried celebrated after leading the Eagles past Alabama State in the opening round of the 2009 men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Herald-Leader file photo

In 2015, Eastern Kentucky University went all-in on an attempt to move from its historic home in the Ohio Valley Conference to the Sun Belt Conference.

Even after EKU was passed over by the Sun Belt in favor of Coastal Carolina, the school has spoken of its ambition to join a Football Bowl Sub-Division league. Eastern has continued to aggressively upgrade its athletics facilities to be ready should that invitation come.

This past spring, Murray State went all-in on an attempt to leave the OVC for a spot in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Even after Murray was passed over by the MVC in favor of Valparaiso, the school’s name has continued to surface in speculation the Missouri Valley may yet add two more schools to get to 12 members.

Watching from afar, it’s hard not to wonder if Morehead State, the third Kentucky university in the OVC, is fated to one day star in its own version of “left behind?”

“Certainly, that’s not a position we want to be in,” Morehead State Athletics Director Brian Hutchinson said last week. “For several reasons, I’m still optimistic that it won’t come to that.”

At the time of its formation in 1948, the OVC was a Kentucky-centric league. Morehead, Murray and Eastern were three of the six original members, joined by Louisville, Western Kentucky and Evansville.

Now, EKU, Murray and Morehead are the only three originals left. In a 12-team OVC, they are joined by five schools from Tennessee, two from Illinois and one each from Missouri and Alabama.

If Eastern were ever to leave the OVC, that would have the greatest impact on Morehead State. The two schools, separated by 67 miles of I-64, are OVC “travel partners” in scheduling. If EKU departs, “geographically, we would be out on an island all alone,” Hutchinson says.

Yet because an Eastern departure would presumably be contingent on the school moving up in football classification from the FCS to the FBS, it could be impacted by variables that would not affect a potential Murray State exit from the OVC.

There are reasons to think the wheel of college football conference realignment may not turn again for several years.

With the Big 12 bailing on expansion last fall, conventional wisdom is that the next round of league musical chairs at the power five conference level will likely not come before 2023. In that year, major TV contracts for the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 will all be either expiring or within a year of doing so.

Invitations from leagues like the Sun Belt or the Mid-American Conference - the two FBS leagues that appear most apt to invite an FCS program like EKU to join - would seem more likely to come after a chain reaction initiated by disruption at the power-five level.

The other issue that could complicate the path out of the OVC into an FBS football league for an in-state school came from the Kentucky General Assembly.

The commonwealth is moving its funding mechanism for its public universities to “performance-based financing.” State funds will soon be determined by metrics such as student success, course completion rates, square footage dedicated to learning etc. ...

Conceivably, that could make it more complex for schools who use tax money to subsidize athletics - as Kentucky’s regional universities do - to budget for a transition to the FBS.

The bottom line, though, is when schools start earnestly trying to leave a conference, eventually they are apt to succeed. Eastern and Murray have already crossed that threshold.

So while the day may not come imminently, it would behoove Morehead State to be thinking through the ramifications of a time when it may stand alone as the sole school from the commonwealth in what once was a Kentucky-dominated OVC.