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EKU's Move To The ASUN Through Athletic And Administrator Eyes

Stu Johnson

At this point in the summer, there’s usually a lull in the world of collegiate sports.  At least, when it comes to high profile athletics like football, baseball, and basketball.  But, it’s a different kind of July for those involved in Eastern Kentucky University athletics. That was evidenced last week at a Colonel get-together.

Yes, chicken wings were on the menu at a Richmond eatery, but beyond food there was also a heavy portion of EKU fan excitement a week ago yesterday.  It marked the official Colonel entry into the ASUN Athletic Conference.  As Eastern General Manager Sean Hamilton said to those eating in the restaurant, “If you’re just a random person coming down the interstate, my bad, but we’re glad you’re here too.”  

Eastern Kentucky University was a charter member of the Ohio Valley Conference formed 73 years ago.  EKU President David McFaddin told the crowd it’s time to turn a page. “I want folks here to know we have a long and storied history as an institution.  Two hundred championships in the OVC.  We will never forget where we’ve come from.  But, we are gonna be unapologetic about where’s we’re going,” said McFaddin.  

And where the central Kentucky public university is going is to a conference rooted in the southeastern U.S.  EKU administrators are hoping to create a bigger impression in that market.  They say 100,000 EKU alumni live in the footprint of the ASUN Conference.  ASUN Commissioner Ted Gumbart said student recruitment is a pressing issue. “The university needs students and the next decade is going to be a challenge.  There’s not as many students applying for college.  So, what do you need to do.  You need to have a plan.  You need to differentiate yourself.  And you need to go out and execute,” said Gumbart. 

EKU President David McFaddin said currently about 90% of Eastern’s student body comes from the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  So, the southeast region of the country is not likely to be the sole solution.  In fact, McFaddin said with Bellarmine in the ASUN, that provides a better opportunity for EKU in Louisville. “We don’t currently compete in Jefferson County.  So, this is going to put us in Freedom Hall competing in every sport, but football.  We’ll have a chance to play Bellarmine there in Louisville.  So, that’s going to be a great opportunity for us to be recruiting in the largest city and the largest metro market in Kentucky,” explained McFaddin.

EKU will join eleven other schools in the ASUN.  Athletics Director Matt Roan says the soccer and volleyball teams will get the first shot at kicks and spikes in the ASUN. 

Making something attractive to coaches and athletes with a new conference to compete in is one thing, but making it work financially is another important factor.  Roan said there is a way to keep traveling costs in line. “It does provide our student athletes great opportunities to go into Naples and Deland, Florida and Jacksonville, Florida and Cobb County Georgia and Kennesaw, but every effort was made at our request to keep those schedules as regional as could be to keep those expenses down so we think the expense side will be minimal, but we think it’s going to be offset by an increase in revenue,”  said Roan.

EKU President McFaddin said the university is operating in the same number of sports and at the same level of competition. 

Matt Roan in athletics admitted it’s a new era in college athletics nationally with the onset of players being able to reap financial benefits from their name, image, and likeness.  Roan said the focus is on educating student-athletes and protecting their eligibility and helping them in the marketplace. “And what we see is just an opportunity for them to capitalize, to maximize the opportunities that are available to them whether that’s working with local regional businesses or whether that’s capitalizing on their social media presence, their network that they already have in place,” added Roan. 

EKU Head Football Coach Walt Wells sees it as a learning experience.  The way he puts it is, “as long as we don’t hurt the kid, I’m good. I think like anything that new starts out, there’s going to be some unknowns that you’re going to hit and we’re going to have to make some intelligent decisions when those unknowns hit, especially if it’s considering eligibility.  Because pay-for-play, you can’t do that, but they’re getting paid because they play.   So, I want to make sure we take care of the student athlete,” said Wells. 

It's a new beginning in more ways than one for Eastern. EKU comes into the ASUN with its football team in the inaugural year.  Looking at the competition, Wells said it will be playoff caliber virtually every week. 

EKU Men’s Basketball Coach A.W. Hamilton lost key players from last year’s successful team.  But, through the transfer portal, the Georgetown native, in his third year, has re-loaded with a number of players, including two from his alma mater Marshall University. 

Growing up in central Kentucky and playing his high school ball in Georgetown, Hamilton is well aware of Eastern’s place in OVC history.  The third-year coach said that still means a lot, but it’s time for this change. “We can’t look behind, we got to look forward and I think this is a proactive move and it’s an exciting move.  There’s gonna be new rivalries.  I think our fans are going to love this.  I’m looking forward to it.  Our players are excited about it.  The student athletes are excited about it.  So, I think it’s going to be a good move for us.  No, I think it’s gonna be a great move for us,” emphasized Hamilton. 

EKU men’s basketball brought home a 22-7 record last season and the 12 conference wins tied for the second most in program history.  Asked about winning more games in 2021-22, Hamilton responded, “That’s the plan, we got to keep getting better every year.” 

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