Eastern leaves OVC to join Atlantic Sun Conference


Keith Taylor

Eastern Kentucky football coach Walt Wells discussed the Colonels’ move to the Atlantic Sun Conference Friday during a press conference at McBrayer Arena.

By Keith Taylor, Kentucky Today

RICHMOND (KT) — For the first time in 73 years, Eastern Kentucky University will be competing in a different conference.

The Colonels, one of the founding members of the Ohio Valley Conference, will join the Atlantic Sun Conference beginning July 1 and will immediately become eligible to compete in all conference championships in all sports and receive automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament.

Jacksonville State, also a member of the OVC, and Central Arkansas were part of the league’s expansion to 12 teams on Friday. The league plans to add football to its slate of sports offerings and provide more visibility for Eastern in the future. The league has two universities that are located in 11 of the fastest-growing states in the country. Bellarmine University in Louisville also competes in the conference.

“We have no doubt this move will help positively impact our collective future,” said Eastern Kentucky athletics director Matt Roan.  “With our students first in mind – as well as our coaches, staff, alumni, fans, supporters, partners, and prospective students and student-athletes – we are confident membership in the ASUN Conference will benefit all involved.

“We will create new and exciting rivalries while striving to protect existing ones, make ourselves more visible in a fertile recruiting footprint, connect as we travel to where many of our alumni are located, compete in destination locations, and introduce ourselves to future Colonels in a growing part of the country.”

Eastern’s football team won’t have a conference home next season, but coach Walt Wells welcomed the move to a different league going into his second season at the helm. Wells said playing in a different league will give the players “new excitement” with something “new and creative coming in.”

“It’s an exciting move,” he said. “We’re excited to go into the ASUN and new members that will be in the football conference and the ones we may be adding (in the future). It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us and we’re excited about that. We want to play teams that are consistently on the rise and consistently Top 25 in the FCS rankings and it’s going to give us that opportunity. … Iron sharpens iron and that’s what we look at, an opportunity to play against the best players we can play against.”

Wells is used to changing conferences and was part of Western Kentucky University’s football staff that made the transition from the FCS to the FBS. Although on a different level, Wells said past experiences will help him navigate the transition.

“We’ve been this before,” he said. “ When you change conferences, it does give me an advantage. (At Western) we went from the Gateway Conference (Missouri Valley Conference) to the Sun Belt (Conference). That was a move in the level of competition, but we’re just moving leagues. It still gives you an advantage because you understand the pitfalls you can have from just travel. … for me, it will be something I can look back on my time at Western.”

The Colonels didn’t play in a conference last season because of the pandemic, giving Wells and his squad an opportunity to branch out on their own.

“(Last) year was unique in the fact that we didn’t play any OVC teams and they had never done that,” Wells said. “They got to play teams from all over and got to go to places they have never been.”

Although new rivalries will be forged with the move, the Colonels plan on scheduling current OVC schools such as Morehead State on a non-conference basis. Eastern women’s coach Samantha Williams talks are already in the works to play the Lady Eagles at last twice next year.

“We’re definitely committed to that,” Williams said. “We’re already in talks with (Morehead State women’s basketball coach) Greg Todd. We’re probably looking at playing twice a year and keeping that same rivalry going. We’re going to try and schedule some of the same teams out of the OVC, because of proximity. We’ll definitely be looking to that in the future.”