Belmont wasted little time.
One day after the Bruins officially joined the Ohio Valley Conference, the hardwood floor at the Curb Event Center already was in the midst of an alteration. The OVC logo was added.
“I don’t know why you have to do the whole court to just put a new logo on,” Belmont president Bob Fisher said laughing. “The people that do hardwood floors that’s their thing: ‘No, it won’t look right if you don’t do the whole floor.’ ... It’s a new day for us and the Ohio Valley.”
A large crowd filled the Vince Gill Room on Monday morning to welcome Belmont as the 12th member of the OVC, which is headquartered in Brentwood. In addition to conference commissioner Beth DeBauche, also on hand were presidents from member institutions Murray State, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech and athletic directors from Austin Peay, Murray State and TSU.
Sixteen of Belmont's 17 teams will compete in the OVC, with men’s soccer the lone exception. Since the OVC does not hold competition in that sport, Belmont's program will play the 2012 season as independent as it continues to search for a new conference. The school’s first regular-season contest as an OVC member is on Aug. 19 when the women’s soccer team plays at Toledo.
Belmont can compete for conference championships immediately this upcoming season.
Sunday ended 14 months of anticipation after the university announced it would be leaving the Atlantic Sun Conference for the OVC. The A-Sun provided the Bruins their first Division I home. After moving up from the NAIA in 1997, Belmont spent four years roaming as a NCAA Division I independent before joining the A-Sun in 2001.
In 11 seasons, BU won 36 conference championships and reached the NCAA Tournament 12 times. Last Thursday, it won the A-Sun All-Academic Trophy for an unprecedented ninth time.
“Certainly we’re glad the last 14 months are over. Farewell tours aren’t all they're cracked up to be some times,” Fisher said. “I would be remiss to not express my gratitude to the Atlantic Sun Conference for being our home for 11 years. There are first-class institutions and a first-class leadership team in the Atlantic Sun.”
Fisher and DeBauche reiterated that proximity played a huge role in the marriage. In fact, Belmont officials even included a worksheet that listed the mileage to member schools in the A-Sun and OVC.
In the OVC, three schools (TSU, Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech) are within 100 miles. Only Lipscomb — just two miles down Belmont Boulevard — was less than 200 miles away in the A-Sun.
All 11 OVC institutions are fewer than 500 miles away — Southern Illinois-Edwardsville is the furthest away (321 miles). In the A-Sun, four schools (Jacksonville, North Florida, Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast) were more than 500 miles away. The total mileage to OVC institutions is 1,962, compared to 4,137 miles to A-Sun schools.
“This is a move that just makes sense,” DeBauche said. “We’re in a good spot. Belmont’s in a good spot. We’re going to make one another better as a result of this. The fact that geographically Belmont is in the center of our footprint certainly adds to who we are. We’re not causing our students additional travel. We’ll heighten the level of awareness for the league and we’ll make easy trips for our fans.”
In men’s basketball, the move is especially enticing for coaches, players and fans.
Within 120 miles are instant rivalries with TSU, Austin Peay Tennessee Tech and Murray State. Plus, Belmont has had the most success in men’s basketball. The Bruins reached the NCAA Tournament five of the last seven years and expect to challenge reigning champ Murray State for the conference title.
“If you look at the last seven or eight years, to be fair, the Atlantic Sun has held its own when you compare RPIs and other things,” Belmont men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd said. “It’s not like we’re moving into the SEC or the Atlantic 10 ... [but] it’s a very good league.”
The Bruins join the East Division with Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State, Morehead State, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech. The West Division features Austin Peay, Eastern Illinois, Murray State, Southeast Missouri State, SIUE and Tennessee-Martin.
With a 16-game conference schedule, divisional opponents will play each other twice (home and way) and opponents from the other division once. Belmont games of note for the 2012-13 season include road trips to Austin Peay (Feb. 7), Murray State (Feb. 9) and Tennessee State (Feb. 16), along with a home game against TSU on Jan. 19.
Twelve schools is the most ever in the OVC, which was founded in 1948 and is the eighth-oldest Division I conference. DeBauche said the league is “absolutely set” with 12 members and doesn’t plan to expand.
Fisher squashed any possible questions about adding football, saying the Bruins would instead cheer for their league counterparts on the gridiron. When Belmont first pursued the OVC more than 10 years ago, having a football team was a requirement to join the league.
“Eleven years ago if the OVC had been ready, it would have made sense then,” Byrd said. “It’s where Belmont needs to be and we’re glad they feel the same way.”