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Scoop Exclusive: Inside the new Big South-OVC FCS football association & what it means

Why commissioners Beth DeBauche, Kyle Kallander avoided the 'piranha pool' of conference realignment to enhance their leagues' futures

The seismic shifts last summer across the collegiate athletics landscape, nudged forward with College Football Playoff committee members who brashly proclaimed what was supposed to be an expansion up to 12 teams in the CFP and then cascaded with the Southeastern Conference’s plundering of the Big 12, was not without nationwide trickle-down effects.

Yet as the inevitable fallout – see the CFP’s stalled expansion; Conference USA has dug in against members who have declared their imminent departures -- unfolded across the collegiate landscape, Ohio Valley Conference Commissioner Beth DeBauche and her Big South counterpart, Kyle Kallander, explored the purview of the situation from a macro perspective.

They did not rush in the aftermath of a conference-realignment-free-for-all that more closely resembled a cash booth at a carnival.

They talked with their member institutions’ leaders – the two leagues have a combined 15 football-playing programs moving forward – and discussed their future visions; ones, it turned out, were rather closely aligned to help preserve a vibrant future for their Football Championship Subdivision resident programs.

After that gradual build-up and exploratory phase, DeBauche, Kallander and both leagues on Tuesday announced a first-of-its-kind new association for the football programs of both the Big South and OVC, of which Kennesaw State and UT-Martin exited 2021 as their respective conference champions.

The two leagues have agreed to implement the new, yet-to-be-named arrangement to begin with their 2023 football schedules with crossover games, new rivalries and fortified schedules.

A methodical, systematic exploratory phase ratcheted into an actualization process in recent weeks.

“There are times for student-athletes to compete with one another, but it’s not our role to compete with one another,” DeBauche told FootballScoop Tuesday in an exclusive interview. “Our role as commissioners is to present some level of vision and, again, looking at where the NCAA is going, how more responsibility is coming back to the conferences, or we anticipate that, and understanding that there were more FCS football conferences, it makes sense to be stronger together and to present that vision and to make sure that we can let our members know as they’re talking to student-athletes, to their families, to their fan base, it’s going to look different but it’s a new future, it’s an exciting future and our membership is really excited.

“We just finished a presidents’ meeting (Monday), and the enthusiasm in the room amongst our presidents that this is going to happen, you could just feel. They led the way; this doesn’t happen, commissioners can talk, but without presidential leadership that supports this, this doesn’t happen. Our presidents were enthusiastically in both conferences behind this alliance.”

The veteran head of the Big South for more than a quarter century, Kallander emphasized the conferences’ symbiotic approach rather than the predatory nature that pervaded collegiate athletics last summer.

“As we began talking about this, it became very clear we were coming from the same place in what our goals and desires from a collaboration relationship,” Kallander exclusively told FootballScoop. “And that is to provide opportunities for our student-athletes, first and foremost. It’s really important that our football members have a home, that our student-athletes have opportunities to excel, to be recognized, to play for championships. And we were looking at this as ways to work together and not to enter the piranha pool and try to tear each other apart.

“We believe that from a collaborative standpoint, that’s going to be really important. Not just for this relationship but for other relationships moving forward in this changing world of college athletics.”

Both leaders emphasized that this arrangement delved deeper than the “ACC-Big-10-Pac-12 Alliance” hastily unfurled last August and already teetered on the precipice.

“We’re approaching this as something more than just an alliance,” said DeBauche, who has guided the OVC since 2009. “We do have also a scheduling alliance with the Southland (Conference), which is a terrific benefit for us, and we’ll maintain that for ’22 and ’23, but this is really an intention to come together, to grab ahold of hands and say we’re going to be better together than we are separately and we’re going to build structures that support that.

“While understanding what an alliance is, this is intended to be something more. We said at least four years; it could be longer if it makes sense, but a sincere desire to say that we’re going to respect that we’re coming from two different multi-sport conferences but collectively come together for the betterment of FCS football, for our student-athletes and build this structure that supports that and promotes that. Our intention, our heartfelt intention, is really to build something that has more substance behind than an alliance.”

With that approach at the forefront, an initial four-year term has been agreed upon by all parties, with the general framework to have the ‘Big South Valley’ partnership scheduled from 2023-26.

Headquartered in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood, the OVC has football participants in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. The Big South, anchored in Charlotte, has football programs housed in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, 

“There’s work to be done,” DeBauche said. “We need to roll up our sleeves and fill in some of the details, but that will be a project not only for us but for our members to be a part of that in trying to shape the future. We’ll really embrace that and allow our members to feel ownership in this moving forward.

“We’re open to talking to others as well; we’re excited about what we’re trying to do and certainly welcome other conferences or institutions that may want to be a part of this type of model, to talk with us and engage in dialogue.”

Historical rivalries in both conferences have been prioritized for preservation, both commissioners said, and the geographical commonalities likewise factored heavily into the arrangement.

“The one thing I would say up front from a scheduling standpoint is that we both feel we would want to try to have our original conference members playing each other; I think that makes sense,” Kallander explained. “And then some form of crossover. We haven’t determined how many games is a conference schedule, and all those things will be determined. Part of the beauty of this is to provide answers from a regional perspective. Everybody’s concerned about travel expenses, that’s a really important part of this as we look at the schedule.”

The move also was made with an open mindset as it related to expansions and realignments, which have unfolded throughout the FCS landscape in the past year.

“The history of the original conference is also important, so certainly we want to play to existing rivalries and the relationships that we have, but create new rivalries in the process,” DeBauche said. “There is a level, though, between our two conferences. Not only do we like the schools but we also like the geographic footprint that this now provides us together.

“We understand that there may be some membership fluidity to this as well. The OVC and Big South may look to add members and grow as membership needs demand, so if that’s the case, we’ll be willing to add new members to this. There’s an already understanding that this group may get bigger. It doesn’t have to, but it may.”

With momentum prevalent from this week’s public revelation about the partnership, Kallander acknowledged that timing remained a key component in order to begin to foster new rivalries throughout the shared geographic footprint that should spring from the association.

“If you’ve seen the movement that’s taking place recently in other conferences, what are they most concerned about? Outside of maybe the Power 5, everybody else is concerned about getting on airplanes,” Kallander said. “I think the regional aspect, the geographic aspect is really important, and I think that that does bring rivalries, does bring the opportunity for fans to travel to the other games and really develop exciting matchups.

“We’ve had experiences in the past with institutions that may not have been as close geographically, and sometimes that’s a challenge.”