The constantly changing landscape of college sports is affecting both big and small schools, but none are facing a more uncertain future than HBCUs. They are largely being ignored by the major sporting publications in terms of assessing how the various mainstream conference realignments might affect them, but the handful of HBCUs who are not in the SWAC, MEAC or SIAC have to consider how the ongoing reshuffling of college alliances and conferences will affect their future.
Most prominent on that list is Tennessee State University, currently a member of the Ohio Valley Conference. Last weekend two of TSU’s most prominent rivals departed the OVC. Austin Peay, a team with whom they’ve enjoyed a spirited football rivalry for years and played twice this past season, switched to the Atlantic Sun. Belmont, the team that dominated the OVC in basketball and was also a title contender in baseball, moved to the Missouri Valley Conference.
For Belmont, it was primarily an issue of being able to make the NCAA basketball tournament as an at-large team. They have seen some otherwise sparkling seasons blow up in smoke due to not winning the OVC Tournament. The OVC is almost locked in every year as a one-bid conference. No matter how many wins a school might have going into the postseason, if they don’t win the tournament, they don’t make the NCAAs. Belmont simply was tired of that scenario, and opted for the Missouri Valley Conference, which might not be as great as it once was, but still has a higher profile than the OVC, and provides more of a chance for an at-large team to reach the NCAAs.
Austin Peay made the football playoffs a couple of years ago, but was unsatisfied with the OVC in terms of both football and basketball opportunities. They will be an immediate title contender in the Atlantic Sun, and it’s once again a question of league prestige. In their eyes, the Atlantic Sun has more cache with the NCAA tournament selection committee than the OVC, which is debatable, but they’ve made the decision to switch anyway.
So TSU now must consider its future, both in terms of scheduling and its general posture and image Athletic director Dr. Mikki Allen has publicly talked about his desire to see TSU become a top tier football school. That will most likely NOT happen so long as they remain in the OVC. They’ve been a conference member since 1988.
There are also those who want to see TSU return to its days exclusively playing other HBCU teams. Even though it’s been decades since TSU was battling the likes of Grambling and FAMU for national Black champion honors, there are HBCU fans who want to see those days return, and those rivalries rekindled.
Earlier this year Dr. Allen reiterated his goal of TSU eventually becoming an FBS school, and while not officially saying they would depart the OVC, the implication was certainly there. “I have a goal for the program to essentially become an FBS program and to do that we have to make the enhancements in terms of our facility profile and our competition venues,” Allen told USA Today Tennessee,
What that means for the future, no one knows at present. But it’s clear that one way or another, TSU’s athletic profile will change at some point. How and when remain the unanswered questions.