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Don Owen: NBA draftee from Murray State jogs painful memory of NKU’s attempt to join OVC

I don’t really follow the NBA, though I do peek at highlights during the playoffs and enjoy the yearly drama involving free agents. The NBA’s free-agency system — a fascinating combination of league-authorized chaos and player-driven hyperbole — provides must-read material in the summertime, even if you’re not a big fan of the pro game.

But every college basketball fan in Kentucky probably noticed when Murray State’s Ja Morant was selected No. 2 overall in the recent NBA Draft. Yes, an Ohio Valley Conference school produced the NBA’s second selection. If not for Duke superstar Zion Williamson’s presence in the draft, Morant might have been the No. 1 pick.

Murray State’s Ja Morant (right) was selected No. 2 overall in the recent NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. Morant is pictured with NBA commissioner Adam Silver. (NBA photo)

Later in the first round, another OVC player was drafted — Dylan Windler from Belmont. I marveled at the fact two players from the OVC were NBA first-round selections. Those slots are normally reserved for players from the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 10, Southeastern Conference, Big East, Pac-12, Big 12, etc.

Mid-major conferences such as the OVC aren’t supposed to produce two first-round NBA picks in the same draft. In fact, it’s a rarity to find any first-round NBA talent in mid-major conferences these days, perhaps a residual effect of the one-and-done era of college basketball.

Then I recalled the success that Murray State and Belmont have enjoyed for many years. Both are outstanding OVC basketball programs and constantly produce big-time results in the win column.

That’s when it hit me: Northern Kentucky University nearly became a member of the Ohio Valley Conference in 2011 after deciding to reclassify its athletics program to NCAA Division I.

NKU appeared to be an ideal choice for the OVC in terms of location, facilities, financial resources and history of success in Division II sports. The potential in-state rivalries with Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State and Murray State seemed like a perfect fit as the OVC presidents prepared for an expansion vote in 2011.

Metaphorically speaking and borrowing a term from draft night in the NBA, NKU was in the green room waiting to hear its name called by the OVC.

But unlike Ja Morant in this year’s NBA Draft, NKU mysteriously didn’t measure up in the eyes of three OVC presidents. NKU — perhaps viewed as a threat to dominate the OVC in multiple sports because of its facilities and location, among other things — didn’t receive the necessary support during the presidential vote to gain membership.

Beth DeBauche

Instead of OVC commissioner Beth DeBauche presenting a ceremonial cap to then-NKU President James Votruba as the conference’s newest member, a stunning rejection was delivered via an afternoon phone call. The jaw-dropping news later floored NKU’s entire athletics department, not to mention the 7th and 8th floors of the Lucas Administrative Center.

Can you imagine Ja Morant sitting at the NBA Draft, only to go unselected? That’s a similar feeling to what NKU endured on Nov. 17, 2011, following the OVC’s expansion vote.


After the OVC office informed Votruba that NKU didn’t receive the necessary support from the 11 presidents, a temporary panic gripped the Norse athletics department. After all, every coach and staffer — including me, at that time NKU’s sports information director — had been assured the OVC’s vote on membership was a mere formality. We assumed the 11 eligible-voting schools (Belmont had already been accepted as the 12th member but was not official until 2012) would make NKU a unanimous choice.

Instead, only eight of the 11 schools (72.7 percent) supported extending an invitation to NKU. According to the OVC bylaws, 75 percent of the schools needed to vote yes in order to add a new member.

Why didn’t NKU receive the needed support in the OVC’s expansion vote?

“Concerns of competitive balance were cited as the reason, with some institutions feeling that NKU’s facilities, geographic recruiting advantages and competitive funding model could result in our dominating the conference,” Votruba shared with the NKU community by email after the OVC’s decision, somewhat sugarcoating what he was probably thinking that afternoon.

James Votruba

“We were excited about much of what the OVC had to offer — especially the possibility for exciting in-state rivalries,” he added. “Over the coming days and weeks, the university will continue to explore our options and determine which league makes the most sense for us.”

Was the fact NKU didn’t field football a factor in the OVC snub? That’s what some suggested. But the OVC had added non-football schools such as SIUE and Belmont, so why would that have been an issue with NKU? That theory made little sense.

Who were the three schools that didn’t support NKU’s membership? Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State and Murray State were supposedly in favor of adding NKU to the OVC and apparently voted yes. At least, that’s what we were told. But rumors quickly surfaced that three Tennessee schools — allegedly at the request of Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State and/or Murray State — voted against extending an invitation to NKU. Lots of stories circulated, but no indisputable facts ever surfaced.

To this day, I still don’t know what to believe as far as the 2011 OVC expansion vote is concerned.

At that point, it didn’t matter. NKU needed conference affiliation to make the jump to Division I. And in a hurry. Votruba and athletic director Scott Eaton were scrambling. So was consultant Carl McAloose, who had been hired to help NKU with the transition to Division I.

The Atlantic Sun was one viable option. The Summit League was another possibility. And if one of those two didn’t materialize, the now-defunct Great West Conference — which included Houston Baptist, Utah Valley State, Chicago State and New Jersey Institute of Technology, to name a few of its nomadic members — was a potential long-shot Division I safety net for NKU.

The dream of membership in the Ohio Valley Conference had disintegrated into a nightmarish situation for NKU — something no one could have visualized three months earlier.


Scott Eaton is remembered by many for the ethical violations/felony theft scandal that led to his dismissal as NKU’s athletic director in 2013. But two years earlier, Eaton played a huge role in securing a campus visit from the OVC expansion committee after convincing DeBauche that NKU would enhance the conference.

Scott Eaton played a huge role in securing a campus visit from the OVC expansion committee in 2011. Eaton served as NKU’s athletic director from 2009-13.

Eaton put together countless reports detailing why NKU would be a perfect fit in the OVC. He said all the right things to on-campus administrators and faculty groups regarding a possible jump to Division I. He convinced boosters, students and staff that it was time to begin the transition from Division II to Division I, and the move would benefit NKU in countless ways.

Everything seemed fine.

Based on Eaton’s conversations with Votruba and DeBauche, it appeared NKU would receive an invitation from the OVC. In fact, Eaton asked NKU media relations director Chris Cole and me to join him for lunch in September of 2011 to discuss a potential press conference on the NKU campus as well as other publicity items for the OVC announcement.

An invitation for membership was expected sometime in late October or early November. We even targeted several dates for both the announcement and press conference, pending approval by the NKU Board of Regents.

Cole and I were tasked with putting together media releases, fact sheets, a press conference itinerary and every imaginable piece of information in preparation for the expected OVC invitation. I even assembled a publication with information on each OVC school that included logos and photos. I still have the preliminary release that had been drafted for the expected announcement.

Cole — who’s the best public relations guru on the planet — and I assumed the vote would be unanimous. We never gave any thought to possible rejection, especially after the OVC’s expansion committee was obviously impressed by their visit to NKU’s campus. Several of the administrators from various OVC schools even seemed awestruck by The Bank of Kentucky Center (now BB&T Arena) and the NKU Soccer Stadium.

The compliments about NKU were numerous. So were the smiles as they toured NKU’s state-of-the-art basketball facility. I wondered if they were already visualizing The Bank of Kentucky Center as a neutral site for the OVC Tournament, since NKU wouldn’t be eligible for the postseason for four years.

As it turned out, the warm smiles that were flashed by the OVC’s expansion committee during the visit were apparently nothing more than phony grins.


Fortunately for NKU, the Atlantic Sun Conference stepped in and quickly planned a campus visit. No small feat, given it was November and basketball — the A-Sun’s most visible sport — had already tipped off.

A-Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart and the other administrators were impressed by the facilities at NKU as well as the funding model for the athletics program. No warm smiles from the A-Sun administrators, but plenty of business-like attention to detail. Gumbart even met with the entire NKU athletics staff to field questions about his conference — a courtesy DeBauche had not offered during the OVC’s campus visit.

When the A-Sun presidents voted on extending an invitation for membership, NKU received unanimous support. The NKU Board of Regents then approved the reclassification of the athletics program to NCAA Division I, and a press conference was held immediately afterward on Dec. 8, 2011, to announce NKU was joining the Atlantic Sun Conference.

Dr. James Votruba (left) and Atlantic Sun Conference commissioner Ted Gumbart pose for photographs at the 2011 press conference. Votruba was NKU’s president from 1997 until 2012.

“NKU is a sleeping giant,” McAloose said afterward. “I think they’re going to be a powerhouse in Division I, to be honest with you. They’re in a great area, and their facilities are remarkable. The administration is outstanding, and they’re really established at the top of Division II.

“It’s not that big of a jump, to be honest with you. You can see that from Florida Gulf Coast’s success. Very similar programs, the difference being NKU is established, where FGCU was not.”

Tell that to the three OVC presidents who voted against adding NKU just three weeks earlier.

No one was more pleased than Votruba, who enthusiastically told a large gathering inside The Bank of Kentucky Center that NKU would compete in a hurry.

“We’ve said for several years that we would make this move when we could field competitive Division I teams without compromising other critical university priorities,” Votruba said. “The other important component was to find a group of peer institutions that share our aspirations. The A-Sun is a great fit for us.”

Votruba received a cap from Gumbart at the press conference, commemorating NKU’s membership in the A-Sun. The two posed for photographs, almost like Ja Morant — wearing a Memphis Grizzlies cap — did with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected second in the draft. Though not a lottery pick in the eyes of the OVC, NKU had found a home in the Atlantic Sun Conference.


But didn’t NKU really prefer the Ohio Valley Conference? After all, at that time the Atlantic Sun Conference featured four members in Florida, two in Georgia, another in South Carolina and two in Tennessee. The OVC made more sense in terms of travel and rivalries, correct?

As the sports information director, my response to those questions wasn’t complicated.

“We’re not looking back,” I said. “The correct path is in front of us. NKU is grateful to the A-Sun for providing the directions.”

Given an integrity-filled map from the Atlantic Sun Conference, Votruba guided the Norse athletics program out of Division II to the starting point of the next level. NKU had taken the first step of a long journey into Division I — despite a temporary roadblock and painful detour caused by three Ohio Valley Conference presidents.

Ja Morant should be grateful those three presidents don’t scout OVC basketball talent for the NBA. He might still be in the green room at the draft waiting to hear his name called by the commissioner.

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

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One Comment

  1. Rick Schuler says:

    Great article. Love the insight into the OVC shenanigans. ASUN’s role as the white night was not reciprocated when NKU left for the Horizon league, but the fit for NKU was exponentially better.

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