GREENVILLE, S.C.–With the Southern Conference meetings ready to commence in just a few weeks in the fallout of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern leaving for the Sun Belt Conference, fans and media alike continue to wrap their minds around what the best options are for the league moving forward.
While the usual suspects of Mercer, Kennesaw State, East Tennessee State, Coastal Carolina and VMI are mentioned as the potential additions, there is one program out there that just makes sense.
If football is important to the Southern Conference, it might want to look to a state that has claimed the last two national titles on the hardwood. That state is, of course, Kentucky
Hidden in a state known more for basketball, bluegrass and thoroughbreds is an discovered football gem waiting to be mined that currently calls the Ohio Valley Conference home. That school, located in Richmond, Ky., is Eastern Kentucky.
Eastern Kentucky Experience:
A trip down memory lane takes me to the first time I encountered the tradition of the Eastern Kentucky football program. At 10 years old, I made my first road trip to an FCS playoff game with family, as I traveled to see Furman face Eastern Kentucky and legendary head coach Roy Kidd in the opening round of the then-Division I-AA playoffs.
The Greenville News was filled with articles that particular week about the tradition of the program, and how if Georgia Southern was the team of the current in Division I-AA football, then it was only following the path of its predecessor, Eastern Kentucky. Though I was only 10 years of age, I understood enough about college football to know that the Colonels were one of the more reputable programs at the Division I-AA level.
Looking back at an old scrapbook I had — the best Christmas gift my grandmother ever game me, just three weeks before she passed away — I found articles throughout the 1990 Furman football season, including those articles I remembered from some 22 years ago covering the Paladins’ opening playoff game. One article in particular caught my attention and is one of the reasons I am writing this article. It is titled–“Two I-AA Powers Could Join Southern.”
The article mentioned that at the Southern Conference winter meeting, which was slated to take place in Cullowhee, N.C., in Jan. of 1991, mentioned one of the main topics would be expansion, and the two programs at the forefront of those discussions were Georgia Southern and Eastern Kentucky. The Eagles, who were just a few weeks away from a fourth national title, did in fact join the SoCon in 1993.
Former Furman Athletics Director Ray Parlier mentioned that the EKU school officials he had spoken with during Furman’s opening round win over the Colonels were intent on applying for membership to be a part of the Southern Conference. Richmond and Eastern Kentucky University was one of five destinations the league office visited two years earlier in 1988, when the idea of expansion first began to be tossed around. The other schools that were visited during that time-frame were Liberty, James Madison, Georgia Southern and William & Mary.
For whatever reason, whether it be travel or the league only looking to add one team instead of two, Eastern Kentucky was left out of the SoCon’s future plans then. However, now might be a good time to start thinking about re-opening the file on EKU.
In an ironic twist, Georgia Southern and Eastern Kentucky met in the opening round of the Division I-AA football playoffs during the 1993 season, with the Eagles claiming a narrow 14-12 win at Paulson Stadium in Statesboro. It was a match-up between programs, that at the time, had a combined six national titles.
Eastern Kentucky’s Football Tradition: Perhaps ironicaly, it was Jerry Moore that commented back in 2005 that Eastern Kentucky was a program much like those the Mountaineers would face in the Southern Conference in the upcoming campaign.
Appalachian State developed a solid rivalry with the Colonels, and it was that game — a game the Mountaineers would have to come from behind in order to get the eventual 24-16 win — that would ultimately help be a rallying cry for the rest of the season for the Mountaineers in wining to the first of three national titles.
But before there was Georgia Southern, Youngstown State, Marshall or Appalachian State at the Division I-AA pinnacle, there was Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels became the dominant force in the early days of the sub-classification under the direction of Kidd, as the Colonels became the first I-AA school to win multiple national titles, claiming crowns in 1979 and ’82.
The Colonels have made 20 appearances in the Division I-AA postseason, and enjoy one of the richest traditions of any program in Division I college football, carving out their own niche in the basketball-crazed state. The 20 postseason appearances are tied with Appalachian State for the second most, trailing only Montana. The Grizzlies have reached the postseason on 21 occasions.
Just as Colonel Sanders had his secret recipe for his world famous “Kentucky Fried Chicken”, the winning recipe and tradition for Eastern Kentucky can be traced back to one man: Kidd.
Kidd is one of the names most don’t consider when thinking about the truly great coaches in the history of college football. Yet the fact is, he remains one of the game’s all-time winningest coaches.
Kidd’s career as a head coach, which spanned 39 years and all as the head coach at EKU, saw him amass an astonishing 315 wins during his tenure, while finishing with just 123 losses–a remarkable .716 winning percentage.
Kidd returned to become the head coach of his alma mater in 1963, and 10 years earlier, he was garnered All-America honors as a quarterback for the Colonels. Kidd retired as the head coach after the 2002 season.
The EKU football program christened its new football venue, Hangar Field, in 1969. A little over two decades later with the same coach at the helm, the EKU football family honored the legendary coach, naming the facility Roy Kidd Stadium.
Kidd was named Division I-AA National Coach of the Year twice and is now as a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
He led the program to 16 of its 21 Ohio Valley Conference championships, and helped it to 17 of its 20 postseason appearances. The 17 consecutive playoff qualifications was a Division I-AA record when Kidd retired in ’02.
Most importantly, the legendary head coach helped the EKU program to four consecutive national title game appearances.
Eastern Kentucky has recently revived some of that traditional success, with playoff appearances in 2007, 2008 and 2011, while just missing out on the postseason in 2012, finishing with an 8-3 mark.
For a program that began its great football tradition back in 1909, it would seem Eastern Kentucky would be a natural fit for the Southern Conference, and it would be a move that would benefit Eastern Kentucky, as well as the SoCon. The move would help the league maintain its football integrity and with the tradition that the Colonels have, which also includes producing next level talents such as Yeremiah Bell (New York Jets) and Derek Hardman (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). I know that adding members is more about looking at a program’s other sports as well as its academic standing, but certainly Colonels pass the football test with high marks.
If you measure success by winning, EKU has done a lot of that. It was often mentioned that Appalachian State has only had one losing season under the direction of Jerry Moore, which was the 1994 season. Consider this, the only losing season since 1972 for the Colonels’ football program was the 2009 season, which saw the Colonels post a 5-6 mark. That is a run of 36 straight winning seasons, and all told, have posted winning campaigns in 39 of the past 40 campaigns.