More Than a Marriage of Convenience: Big South & OVC Football Media Day 2023
The conversations were as warm as the July weather in Nashville on July 25, as the Big South and Ohio Valley Conferences held their first joint media day. The overall mood was jovial, with many remarking that it didn’t feel like the first time they had done this at all. The participants included the four football members of the Big South (Bryant, Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb, and Robert Morris) and the six remaining football schools of the Ohio Valley (Eastern Illinois, Lindenwood, Southeastern Missouri State, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, and UT-Martin). Head coaches and players alike spoke to media about the new association, the excitement of playing new opponents, and the hunger that some felt after the 2022 season came to a close.
How did the association come about?
The college football landscape has been tumultuous in recent years, with many schools swapping conferences or switching subdivisions altogether. Some have come up to the FCS from D2, while others are moving on to the FBS. The Big South suffered particularly hard from these migrations, shrinking from 9 football-playing members to just four in just a couple of years. The recent departures of Campbell, Hampton, Monmouth, and North Carolina A&T for the CAA dropped the number to five schools. Associate football member Kennesaw State eventually elected to make the jump to the FBS, while North Alabama found a new home in the ASUN. In spite of so many schools moving out, Bryant opted in as a football-only member to settle the 2023 Big South count to four total football schools.
For the OVC, they saw some of their own migrations, starting with Austin Peay’s announcement to head to the newly-created ASUN. Murray State made their announcement not long after, moving on to the Missouri Valley Football conference starting in the 2023 season. Going the other way, Lindenwood made their own jump from D2 in to the FCS, landing in the OVC. But they would not be eligible for postseason play until the 2026-27 season. Their membership will not be counted for automatic qualifying purposes until then. Another light at the end of the migration tunnel is Western Illinois’ announcement that they would be leaving the Missouri Valley Football Conference to join the OVC in the 2024 season.
Because of all the moves, neither conference had the required six eligible schools needed to meet the NCAA standard for an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. Enter former Big South Commissioner Kyle Kallander and long-time OVC Commissioner Beth DeBauche. The two began conversations in earnest to create a proposal to the NCAA, laying out the new association that would allow both conferences access to the playoffs and the benefits that come with them. The result: a joint-effort that functions like a regular conference, seeing teams from both the OVC and the Big South playing one another in a balanced schedule that will crown an auto-bid champion and just maybe getting a few at-large playoff nods in the process.
New Foes and Old Friends
As we walked around the halls with a microphone and a pad of questions for coaches and players alike, everyone appeared to be very happy with the new arrangement. During his remarks to the gathering, Tennessee Tech Head Coach Dewayne Alexander noted that the group of schools felt like this was the 10th time they had done a media day together, not the first. The two conferences share a number of coaches who have left schools in one for the other, including Gardner-Webb Head Coach Tre Lamb.
Lamb, now in his 4th season at the helm of the Runnin’ Bulldogs, is no stranger to the haunts of the OVC. He began his career at Tennessee Tech, playing four seasons at quarterback for the Golden Eagles (three as a starter). He is fondly remembered in Cookeville for his 2011 performance, leading TTU to its first OVC conference championship in 36 years. Shortly after graduating, Lamb coached QBs at his alma mater, leaving for a short time to Mercer for the same role before coming back to Cookeville as OC. In 2020, Lamb got his chance to take over a head coaching position in Boiling Springs, NC for Gardner-Webb. Last season, he led the Runnin’ Bulldogs to their first Big South title since 2003 ahead of a second-round exit in the FCS playoffs at the hands of William & Mary.
This season, Lamb will return to Cookeville to face his alma mater in a conference matchup that would not have been possible just two short years ago. When FCS Nation Radio asked him about his emotions looking toward that game, he told us, “I’ve got to do a really good job that week of taking the focus off of me.” In spite of the focus on football and going through their normal, championship-level routine, Coach Lamb noted several times that the whole experience “…is gonna be different. It’s gonna be a weird week, for sure.”
Fates on the Flip of the Coin
Another storyline that was palpable throughout the day was the result of last year’s process to award the OVC playoff auto-bid. Both Southeastern Missouri State (SEMO) and UT-Martin had terrific campaigns, each ending with identical 5-0 records in conference play. Because the two schools did not cross paths in their 2022 schedules to play head-to-head, a tiebreaker was needed to determine who would be granted the OVC auto-bid. Based on the rule book, that tiebreaker would be a simple coin toss. Both schools would be noted as conference champions in the record books, a scenario common across the FCS. But only one could get the bid.
Two scenarios were possible, depending on how the coin landed. Should SEMO win the toss, they’d move on, leaving UT-Martin out in the cold for an unlikely at-large bid with a 7-4 overall record. Should UT-Martin win, the Skyhawks would get the auto-bid and leave SEMO for at-large consideration by the playoff committee. With a 9-2 overall record, many agreed that SEMO would get the nod.
RedHawks Head Coach Tom Matukewicz gets his boys geared up for their home opener in 2022 | PC:@SEMOfootball
After significant interest from media across the country, the OVC set up a livestream to bring all interested parties into the room as they carried out the flip. The results favored SEMO, sending the Redhawks to Missoula to face the Montana Grizzlies in the first round. This would be SEMO Head Coach Tom Matukewicz’s second bite at the playoff apple, his first playoff appearance as SEMO head coach coming back in 2018. Though the trip to snowy Wash-Griz Stadium would end in heartbreak and a first-round exit, Coach Tuke told us, “We’re a bunch of nobodies… In reality, we’ve only had one playoff win in school history. So, all these top-ten rankings are not based on what we’ve done, but what we could do.” The focus on the need to win and the desire to continue building the program permeated our conversation with him. The Redhawks very much expect to continue in that vein this season and return to the postseason.
On the other end of the coin flip, the UT-Martin Skyhawks were left on the outside of the playoff bracket looking in. A 7-4 record without a quality win would not be enough to earn an at-large berth in the eyes of the playoff committee. The Skyhawks would be staying in Martin, TN to prepare for the 2023 campaign. When UT-Martin Head Coach Jason Simpson took the stage for his turn at the mic on media day, his first joke was about the team working on their coin flip game during the offseason, just in case. When we asked Coach Simpson just how much coming up short on the postseason would be a motivating factor for this year’s group, he shared, “There’s multiple ways to look at it… It’s good to know that, for back-to-back years, our blueprint, recruiting, developing, how we practice gives us an opportunity to be the best in the conference.” Before the disappointment of last season, UT-Martin had gone to the playoffs in back-to-back years.
This season, the Skyhawks will get the opportunity to test that blueprint. They’ll face three conference champions, including Gardner-Webb, SEMO, and the SoCon’s Samford (in addition to facing FBS national champion Georgia in Athens). The Big South-OVC schedule makers seemed keen to ensure that the top of the conference would be playing each other this year to avoid the need for another twist of fate to decide.
The football marriage of the Big South and OVC will be in place for at least 4 years, through the 2026 season. But there is certainly the option to stay together longer should everything work out as planned. Both current Big South Commissioner Sherika Montgomery and OVC Commissioner DeBauche expressed their optimism for the future and the security it gives the two conferences to access the playoffs going forward. Commissioner Montgomery told us both conferences were, “…really being intentional about integrating and making sure that it was a true partnership from A to Z, and not just making it the Big South as part of the OVC…”. Commissioner DeBauche echoed those sentiments, telling us, “We knew that if we solidified and supported one another, we thought we could provide a broader sense of stability in the FCS and I think we’ve done that.” As the landscape of college football continues to move under our feet, the Big South-OVC model may indeed become the blueprint that more schools look to in order to forge a way forward for their programs.