What we know, and don't know, about the OVC and Big South's new partnership
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On Tuesday afternoon, a major FCS football realignment bombshell dropped. The OVC and Big South announced they have "have signed a letter of intent to create an association of their football member institutions." In plain English, that means the two leagues will merge their FCS football membership, and compete for a single auto-bid for the FCS Playoffs.
As of this afternoon, the combined membership of this league would include UT Martin, Southeast Missouri, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, Eastern Illinois and Lindenwood from the OVC, and Charleston Southern, Campbell, Gardner-Webb and Robert Morris from the Big South. Lindenwood will announce they are reclassifying to D-I and joining the OVC later this afternoon.
Football membership in both leagues could potentially change before the 2023 season, when this partnership is expected to begin.
I hopped on a zoom with OVC Commissioner Beth DeBauche and Big South Commissioner Kyle Kallander shortly after the announcement.
Here's what else we know right now:
Back in October, the Southland and the OVC announced a new scheduling partnership, where their member schools would play each other in football in 2022 and 2023. A lot has obviously changed since then, but DeBauche told me that the OVC is "excited to honor" that agreement, and "that it's certainly our intention to keep that scheduling Alliance."
Kallander also specifically confirmed that the champion of the OVC-Big South group would earn an automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs.
Both leaders also see this as a more concrete and permanent relationship than, say, the WAC-ASUN auto-bid league that was quickly stapled together following the Texas defections from the Southland. "This is something I think that goes pretty deep" Kallander told me." We are committed to this relationship. Beth and I have a great working relationship, and our institutions, respectively, are very excited to work with the others."
DeBauche agreed. "If you're looking for a shorter term relationship, I think it would have a much different tone to it. This is really about an investment in our future and a realization that the landscape of FCS football has changed."
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
I asked if this new arrangement would include schedule agreements between league schools in other sports. Kallander told me that "it's really primarily a football agreement. At this point, we have not even had any conversations relative to other sports." He wasn't opposed to the idea, if member institutions had a need and in interest, but that isn't currently part of the agenda (as opposed to say, The Alliance).
Will the new league fall under the umbrella of the OVC? Will it be a Big South operation? Will it be like the MFVC, and work as a completely different entity? Who will be the commissioner?
Nobody knows yet!
"To be determined?", Kallader told me.
"I think, I mean, we've talked about all of the above. Obviously, we have our own interest in our brands, but we don't want something like a brand or a name to get in the way of what is a really good way to provide opportunities for our student athletes."
"There are a lot of details that still need to be worked out. But we have that trust in each other. There was enough mutual interest and desire to move forward with this, that we knew we could come to mutually satisfactory answers on all those issues."
This arrangement happened really quickly. And trust is a major reason why.
These sorts of collaborations have a ton of moving parts, which is why they usually take a lot of time to set up. But this agreement came together over a matter of days, not months.
"While we're long term friends that have had a great deal of respect, not only for one another, personally and professionally, but our leagues also respect one another. And that respect is absolutely key...we have to collaborate as commissioners, we have a responsibility to do so and to do the best for our student athletes." said DeBauche.
Kallander put it slightly differently. "Yeah, we could go out and say, oh, we need more football members, we got to go steal from somebody. And not to say there won't continue to be some movement. But we think it's much smarter to work together, and it's a much more stable way to move into the future."
Is this all actually a good idea? Given the circumstances, I think so.
Just a few days ago, Tennessee State football coach Eddie George called the OVC a "dying conference at this point and time", and indicated he wanted the school to find a different conference. While the league did just add reinforcements in Southern Indiana and Lindenwood, the threat of any other defections, particularly by Tennessee schools, is a significant concern. Thanks to conference realignment from the America East, CAA and elsewhere, the Big South finds itself in a membership bind as well.
Quite frankly, they're not alone, as several other FCS football leagues are straddling the membership minimums needed to retain automatic bids and league longevity. The musical chairs isn't likely to stop in the next few months, and both conferences could still see schools leave, or join, before this summer (in particular, watch to see if the Big South ends up with any other football-affiliate members from the Northeast, like Bryant).
Both leagues need the ability to project some stability, both to reassure their own members, and potentially attract new ones. Working together on a longer-term deal, in my view, is the best way to ensure their athletes aren't left without championship access should other movement happen outside their control.
How good a league this ends up being depends a bit on what membership looks like in 2023, not just here, but in the MEAC, the ASUN, the NEC, and other FCS football leagues. But if nothing else, this agreement should ensure that all the football players will have an honest shot at the postseason.
If you can say that, and you don't nuke the relationships with other leaders you still need to work with, I'd say you've done pretty well. There's plenty of time to figure out the other stuff.
Speaking of Other Stuff, we also have another episode of Going For Two, which you can download on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or anywhere else you get podcasts. You can also watch the episode on our Youtube Playlist.
In this episode, after I tell an extended story of me getting absolutely bodybagged by one of my 4th grade students in Tetherball (aka why I work as a journalist now), we also discuss why I was out at Grand Canyon University over the weekend, and provide extra context to this OVC/Big South story.
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