MURRAY – Ever since several fellow members of the Ohio Valley Conference announced their intentions to leave that league in the past year, attention has been on Murray State as to what it might do.
The answer became official on Friday morning.Two days after CBS Sports and other media establishments reported that the Missouri Valley Conference had extended an invitation to Murray State to join that league, the university’s Board of Regents unanimously approved the move, making Murray State the 11th member of the MVC and beginning the process to depart the OVC, of which it is an original member, after almost 75 years.
Murray State will officially join the MVC on July 1. Its football program is slated to join the Missouri Valley Football Conference, a separate entity that includes schools in North and South Dakota, on July 1, 2023. Murray State’s rifle program will remain in the OVC because that sport is not included at most MVC schools.
“This is going to be a great change for Murray State University athletics,” said Murray State University President Dr. Bob Jackson. “It’s going to be one of the two or three biggest historic points in Racer athletics history.”
Murray State joins a fellow original member of the OVC — Eastern Kentucky — in announcing its intention to leave the conference. Eastern, along with former OVC member Jacksonville State, were the first two conference members to leave, opting for the ASUN (formerly known as the Atlantic Sun Conference).
Shortly after those two schools’ departures became final in the summer, the word came that Murray State’s biggest historical rival in the OVC — Austin Peay — was also leaving for the ASUN. Then, in September, Belmont, which came to the OVC in the mid-2010s after leaving the Atlantic Sun, announced that it would be heading to the MVC.
Publicly, Murray State officials remained quiet on the subject of a possible move to a new conference. However, on Friday, Jackson and Director of Athletics Kevin Saal indicated that, behind the scenes, activity was heavy as the departures of four fellow OVC members weighed heavily on Murray State officials.
CBS Sports reported Wednesday night that a key point in this process occurred on Dec. 19. That was when Murray State joined the University of Texas-Arlington and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in pitching to MVC brass as to why the conference should accept them as new members. CBS Sports said that only one invitation was extended after those pitches were made, and it went to Murray State after a vote of the MVC’s member institutions’ presidents.
“Conference realignments are kind of like a wedding, where you have to have two parties involved, but there are a lot of factors that go into that,” said Regents Chairman Eric Crigler, who has been a past chairman of the Regents’ Athletic Committee and has a vested interest in the athletics exploits of the university, being he was a former football standout at Murray State in the late 1980s-early 1990s.
“There are the academics of the institution, the competitiveness in the athletics programs, the geography of the conference, plus are they looking to expand? Are they looking to expand with your type of institution or not? So, over the course of the last several months there have been a number of discussions with all kinds of folks to see what kind of opportunities were out there.”
The MVC is one of the premier conferences for what are considered on the college athletics landscape to be “mid-major” programs, which have proven capable of defeating major programs in certain sports. Jackson said the MVC is ranked 10th out of 82 conferences that play at the Division 1 level.
Both Jackson and Crigler remarked how the MVC offers more opportunities for receiving NCAA postseason bids. Where, most seasons, the OVC is able to receive two bids, at the most, to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the MVC has garnered three or more in several years. Also, the MVC Football Conference accounted for six of the 24 teams that were in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly NCAA Division 1-AA) Playoffs this past season. Those bids mean valuable dollars to the programs.
Murray State seems to fit the bill, especially in men’s basketball, for which it is most known. The past four years have been particularly impressive. In that time, the Racers have gone to the NCAA Tournament twice, winning a first-round game in 2019.The Racers’ main weapon on that team was guard Ja Morant, who became the program’s highest-ever NBA draft pick later that year when he was selected second overall by Memphis, where he is now being seen as a probable All-Star selection this season.
However, the NBA train has not stopped with Morant. Former Racer star Cameron Payne is in his third season with Phoenix, where his play was instrumental in the Suns winning the Western Conference last year and coming within two wins of a world title.
That is the kind of star power that helped make Murray State attractive to the MVC, which has sent numerous teams to the Sweet 16 and beyond. Just in 2018, MVC member Loyola-Chicago made a dramatic run to the Final Four. Former MVC members Wichita State and Creighton routinely are in the top-20 with Wichita having made the Final Four twice when it was still in the MVC.
However, as Saal told the Regents Friday, it is not just basketball that made Murray State attractive to the MVC. Murray State, he said, is a multi-prong program that does many things well.
“Going back to 2018-19, the last year before COVID, Murray State, for comprehensive excellence, was 100th in the country out of 352 Division 1 programs. Murray State also won seven (OVC) championships and won the Commissioner’s Cup with the highest score ever,” Saal said. “With our academic profile at the time we were making this presentation to the Missouri Valley Conference, we’d had 34 consecutive semesters with a cumulative GPA of 3.00 or higher (for the entire athletics program). I’m proud to say that we now have had run that to 35 consecutive semesters, which is very rare in our industry. Over that time, our average GPA has been 3.08 and 17 of our individual teams’ (academic progress rate) scores were 1,000, which is perfect.”
Another area Saal said seem to make a strong impression on the MVC representatives was how Murray State is watched on the current ESPN and ESPN+ packages. He said men’s basketball has 7,000 unique viewers per contest, women’s basketball has 2,300 and football has 5,000. In addition, the university’s athletics website, GoRacers.com., is averaging 30 million visitors per year.
“The last three months or so have been a real pleasure,” Saal said. “I have learned a tremendous amount about Murray State University but, most importantly, tradition and excellence, that’s been part of this institution the last 100 years is well revered nationally. It brings a lot of respect, so I think it’s important to keep that in mind. We have a great story to tell.”
Murray State has played several current MVC members in numerous sports over the years. Belmont, of course, will be a natural rivalry that will carry over from the OVC. However, Racer teams will now be able to become better acquainted with nearby Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, now as conference opponents, and with the University of Evansville, also within a short drive of Murray.
On top of that, though, Jackson also noted how the “footprint” of the MVC seems to perfectly match Murray State.
“Most importantly, the footprint (the conference’s geographical map) of the Missouri Valley Conference is where 91% of our students come from and 80% of our alumni live in that footprint,” he said. “This is going to be good for our students, our fans, our supporters and our donor base.”
Missouri Valley Conference Commissioner Jeff Jackson welcomed Murray State as a new member.
“Excited for Murray State, and excited for the Missouri Valley Conference,” said MVC Commissioner Jeff Jackson. “Everyone is aware of the tremendous success Murray has had, especially in the sport of basketball. The Racers will be a fantastic addition to our conference.”
OVC Commissioner Beth DeBauche issued a statement.
“While a conference member, the OVC is committed to providing Racer student-athletes with exemplary championships experiences. Additionally, moving forward, we look to continue our mutually beneficial relationship through affiliate memberships in some sports,” DeBauche said.
“The OVC has a rich history, and memories and friendships developed over the years are not forgotten, yet the focus of our unified membership is on the OVC’s future.
“As all of us have seen this past year, the landscape of Intercollegiate athletics continues to change, and the Ohio Valley Conference has not stood still. In the last two months, the OVC has added a member (the University of Arkansas-Little Rock), has created a new partnership (in football with the Southland Conference), and has continued its focus on membership growth.”
President Jackson said Murray State owes much to the OVC.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the Ohio Valley Conference, which we founded, starting in 1941 and which was finalized in 1948. We have been there ever since and it has served us well and we would not have had the success we have had at Racer Athletics without the participation and support of the OVC,” he said. “We thank them for that work. They deserve public recognition.”
The president also said that relationship is a big reason it was decided that the football team would not leave the OVC until 2023. With Murray State’s pending departure, it will leave the OVC with five football schools and one shy of the conference receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs.
“We could not do that to them,” Jackson said of how the OVC now has a year to find a team to fill that void. “We had to do right by them.”
Murray State will host what is being referred to as a community celebration to acknowledge the school’s move to the MVC at noon today at the CFSB Center.