MACOMB, Ill. — The map in the corner of the Hall of Fame Room at Western Hall was a visual explanation of why Western Illinois University is moving to the Ohio Valley Conference.
The change in NCAA Division I conferences for the Leathernecks on July 1 is part of WIU’s strategic plan for the future of the athletic department.
Moving to a conference of schools in the same geographic footprint and with similar enrollments only made sense, WIU athletic director Paul Bubb said in Thursday’s press conference.
The conference includes two Illinois schools in Eastern Illinois and SIU-Edwardsville, Missouri schools Lindenwood and Southeast Missouri State, Little Rock in Arkansas, Morehead State in Kentucky, Southern Indiana, and three Tennessee schools in Tennessee State, UT-Martin and Tennessee Tech.
Four of those schools are within a driving radius of 4 ½ hours. In the end, it’s that proximity that makes the difference as the Leathernecks move from the Summit League, a conference where there was only one trip on 4 ½ hours, and a league that had moved increasingly north and west over the years.
“When you just look at that map, it just makes tons of sense,” men’s basketball coach Chad Boudreau said. “I felt like, from a basketball standpoint — and I know other sports felt the same way, too — travel was not advantageous for us. People would charter in here, and we’re taking long bus trips or having to fly commercial.”
“When I see the footprint of the OVC, I see universities like us,” women’s basketball coach JD Gravina said. “And that’s what a conference is about. It’s about playing more schools like you.”
The decision to move from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and the Summit League for all other sports, was completed last Friday. WIU’s football program will play one more season in the Valley, while the school’s other sports join the OVC on July 1.
“I hesitate to say there was one factor,” Bubb said. “I think we looked at it from a travel standpoint, an athletic budget standpoint.”
The move ends a significant era for WIU athletics. The school was one of the original members of the Mid-Continent Conference, the predecessor to the Summit League, and one of the original members of the Gateway Football Conference, the predecessor to the Valley.
“Leaving as a founding member isn’t never an easy thing to do,” Bubb said. “There’s something that goes with being a part of the original package.”
Along with the move, WIU is adding three new women’s sports — bowling, beach volleyball, and STUNT, a sport that combines elements of competitive cheerleading and tumbling. Bubb said adding those sports brings WIU into compliance with Title IX.
The OVC had reached out to Western Illinois two years ago, Bubb said, but the decision to explore a move came as the athletic department was working this winter on its strategic and facilities master plan.
“Without going into detail, the programs in the Summit League have seen their athletic budgets and resources grow significantly, while ours have remained constant, or in some cases, dropped because of a loss of enrollment and, honestly, the support of higher education in the state of Illinois,” Bubb said. “We simply must do more if we want to be competitive in any league.”
Bubb pointed to the travel issues teams face going to Summit League events.
“Frequently, our students are on bus trips that are seven hours, 9 ½ hours long,” Bubb said. “When we do fly, sometimes we drive to Chicago, we wait at O’Hare an hour and a half to get on a flight. We fly to a location, get off, get on another bus, and either go to the competition or to the hotel.
“Our student-athletes made it clear that those trips impacted their competitions and the ability to compete, but also the missed time for academics.”
Western Illinois, which has an enrollment of 7,490, is entering a league with an average enrollment of almost 8,500. The Summit League’s average enrollment was almost 12,000.
“Budgets are part of it, but it’s also the type of institutions,” Bubb said. “I think the academic profile, the enrollments, the location, all of those things were equally important to us.”
Bubb said there will be no exit fee for leaving the Valley, but the university could face a $1,000,000 exit fee from the Summit League because the exit is considered “untimely.”