Eastern Kentucky University was one of the founding members of the Ohio Valley Conference — along with Western Kentucky University and Murray State — when the league was formed in 1948.
In every year since, the Colonels have competed for an OVC championship in football.
That streak is set to come to an end.
EKU officials announced on Friday morning the school would not play a conference football schedule during this academic year.
The Colonels will instead play at least eight non-conference games in the fall, beginning next month, including three home games.
“(EKU athletic director) Turkey Hughes came up with the idea for the OVC in 1941. It came into fruition a few years later. We love this league. We founded this league,” EKU Director of Athletics Matt Roan said on Friday. “We’ve been loyal for a long time, but no one has ever gone through a global pandemic. For us, we have to make the right decision for the institution, the student-athletes, the alumni and our campus community.”
The Colonels will open the season with three-straight road games (Sept. 5 at Marshall, Sept. 12 at West Virginia and Sept. 26 at The Citadel). The schedule also features a home-and-home series with Central Arkansas (Oct. 10 in Richmond, Oct. 31 in Conway, Ark.) as well as home games against Stephen F. Austin (Nov. 7) and Western Carolina (Nov. 21) and a trip to Troy (Oct. 17).
More games could also still be added, Roan confirmed on Friday morning.
“Everyone is trying to piece this together rapidly,” Roan said. “If we add one (more game) it will be a home game,” Roan said.
The OVC announced last Friday it would not play conference games in the fall, but would look to push league competition to the spring, depending of course, on conditions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Member schools were still allowed to play four non-conference games in the fall, though, under the league’s plan.
EKU officials, ultimately, decided to move forward on their own.
Roan stated two reasons for the bold decision — uncertainty about the spread of the pandemic in the future and player safety (teams would have to play two full seasons in one calendar year if the OVC returned to normal in the fall of 2021 after playing in the spring).
“It’s the unknown in the spring that gave us pause and concern,” Roan said.
EKU made its decision known to the OVC earlier this week.
“Thankfully, our conference has been supportive as we have navigated this together.”
The Register has made multiple efforts to reach out to OVC administrators, but have not been able to obtain a comment.
EKU will be one of just a handful of Football Championship Subdivision schools in the country — including Central Arkansas — to play an extended schedule this fall.
The Colonels will be back on the field, but they won’t be playing for titles — conference or national.
The schedule does feature match-ups with former I-AA foes (Marshall and Troy), but the Colonels won’t face in-state rival Murray State for the first time since 1944 or have a chance to add to their record total of 21 OVC championships.
“We might make some of those games trophy games. We are also looking at bowl opportunities,” Roan said of trying to bring a different significance to this unusual schedule. “We want to give them championship level opportunities. We are going to look for some creative ways to celebrate them.”
Those non-conference games won’t be meaningless, Roan insists, referring to a pair of slogans that have long been associated with the school.
“It is a matter of pride,” Roan said. “But, the mission of this institution is that it is a school of opportunity. This is a schedule of opportunity. There are at least eight opportunities on here and we will continue to look for more.”
Those opportunities also provide the university with a much-needed financial boost.
The three games the Colonels are scheduled to play against Football Bowl Subdivision teams (Marshall, WVU and Troy) this season will each come with a big payout.
“Our game guarantees just don’t go to support football,” Roan said. “They support all 16 teams. We will generate about a $1,000,000 for this, but in no way was that the driving force. There will be added expenses to host the games.”
All other fall sports at EKU, besides football, will not resume at this time.
School officials had released the dates for match-ups with Marshall and The Citadel earlier in the week. The decision to go beyond the four-game OVC suggestion was not officially announced until Friday morning.
The unprecedented decision to leave league play was embraced by one of the program’s biggest supporters — former player and head coach Danny Hope.
“Arguably no other team in the history of our program has ever been a more important torch bearer for EKU football than this year’s team,” Hope said in a statement released by the school. “I know there are many of us who can’t wait to watch you play. Best of luck, stay safe and know that we are already proud you!”