Trojans' Transition: UA Little Rock set to join Ohio Valley Conference
February 21-27, 2022
By Angelita Faller
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock Athletics Program will begin a new chapter this summer as it ends a 30-plus-year affiliation with the Sun Belt Conference to join the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC). UA Little Rock will be the first university in Arkansas to join the OVC.
For Little Rock Athletics Director George Lee, the move boils down to two things – what’s best for student-athletes and what’s best for the budget. “The Sun Belt Conference is spread out, and it’s a detriment to be in the Sun Belt from a travel perspective,” Lee said. “We can travel everywhere in the OVC, except for one school, in less than six hours.”
With less travel time, student-athletes can spend more time in the classroom and are less exhausted when they travel for away games. Reducing travel expenses also adds more money to the budget that can be used for services and equipment that will help student-athletes and coaching staff.
“Our student athletes’ education is the priority, first and foremost,” said UA Little Rock Chancellor Christina Drale. “When examining what any conference brings to the table, we consider what resources can be applied, then determine if our values align – academic excellence being chief among them. The Ohio Valley Conference demonstrated a shared commitment to that end.”
For a league that has enjoyed a very stable membership base over its long history, the OVC is seeing some big changes in 2022. Austin Peay State University, Belmont University, and Murray State University are all departing the OVC this year for other conferences.
In addition to UA Little Rock, the University of Southern Indiana (USI) in Evansville, Indiana, announced on Feb. 9 that they will also be joining the OVC on July 1. UA Little Rock and USI will become the 22nd and 23rd full-time members in the OVC’s 74-year history. Founded in 1948, the Ohio Valley Conference is the eighth-oldest Division 1 conference.
The universities will join Eastern Illinois University, Morehead State University, Southeast Missouri State University, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University, and the University of Tennessee at Martin as OVC full member institutions. The OVC is looking to add at least one more new member by July 1.
“We are contemplating membership expansion, but we want to do so in a contemplative way,” OVC Commissioner Beth DeBauche said. “As we look at membership additions, we want to be mindful of the things that make us strong. If an institution has value and meets that structure, we intend to add additional members. By July, I hope that we will have added a member or two. I think it’s a fun time for the OVC, and it’s given us an opportunity for our current members to reflect on what they love and value about our conference. It brings a smile to my face as I think about what the changes will bring, and I am glad the leaders from Little Rock will be a part of that conversation.”
The move to the Ohio Valley Conference brings a new conference affiliation for 13 of UA Little Rock’s 15 intercollegiate athletic programs, each of which will begin competing in the new league during the 2022-23 academic year. Little Rock’s wrestling program will remain in the Pac-12 Conference, while swimming and diving will continue in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Little Rock Athletics first competitions as a member of the OVC will begin with women’s soccer followed by women’s volleyball in September. Lee said Trojan fans should be on the lookout for men’s golf and women’s basketball to be top competitors.
“Our highest-ranked team last year was our men’s golf team,” Lee said. “They made the NCAA finals, which is really the top 30 teams in the country. I would say they will be one our strongest competitors along with women’s basketball. Their record over the past decade has been the most consistent with the most NCAA visits. We should be able to go in and compete in all sports.”
Glenn Beasley, a longtime supporter of Trojan Athletics, said Trojan fans are thrilled with the move since it will give them the chance to see more student-athletes in action. Beasley and his wife, Monica, have been attending Trojan games for more than 40 years and have been basketball season ticket holders for 22 years.
“We are looking forward to attending more away games in the OVC,” Beasley said. “The member schools are geographically closer than they were in the Sun Belt and some of them are in gorgeous locales. In addition, OVC teams play double headers, so they provide an opportunity to see both the men’s and women’s teams play on the same trip.”
As a basketball driven-school playing in a conference that prioritizes football, another consideration for a conference move was the Sun Belt’s focus on football.
“We’ve been looking at other conference affiliations over the past 10 years,” Lee said. “ I met with the Sun Belt last fall, and they talked about wanting to be a conference that only has universities with football programs. When we joined the Sun Belt back in 1991-92, no one had football. Around 2001 or 2002, they started getting serious about creating a Sun Belt football league. It’s really the conference itself and their priorities that have changed. I think we needed to take this opportunity.”
UA Little Rock was one of only two universities in the Sun Belt without a football team. With the departure of the University of Texas at Arlington this summer to join the Western Athletic Conference, all of Sun Belt’s remaining members have football programs.
UA Little Rock has been in talks with the OVC since September 2021. In addition to the OVC, UA Little Rock also considered the Missouri Valley Conference, the Southland Conference, and the Summit League. Outside the OVC, the Missouri Valley Conference was the biggest contender. However, DeBauche and Lee quickly discovered that they shared many of the same values, cementing the new partnership.
“Little Rock favors the existing OVC schools in so many ways,” DeBauche said. “Schools come together because it adds value. As we look toward membership growth, we want to add members that will stay in the OVC for a long time, and that appears to be the case with Little Rock. The ties that bind beyond athletics are critical to the long-term success of intercollegiate athletics. We are focused on communities, on giving back to our communities, and making sure we provide our student-athletes a community to be a part of. That’s not typical of an athletics conference, but it speaks volumes of who we are as a league.”
1. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock Board of Trustees in December approved the transition to the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Trojans will begin competing in the expanded conference on July 1, 2022.
2. UA Little Rock to make the jump to Ohio Valley Conference, prioritizing student success.
3. UA Little Rock Athletic Director George Lee (left) and Chancellor Christina Drale (right) trade Trojans' apparel with Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) Commissioner Beth Debauche (center) during a Dec. 9 press conference. UA Little will be the first university in Arkansas to join the OVC.
4. UA Little Rock Athletic Director George Lee shows off a new branded Trojans' basketball top after the local university ended its 30-plus-year affiliation with the Sun Belt Conference to join the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC).