Saal: Missouri Valley Football league differs from actual MVC setup | Murray State

MURRAY — When the Murray State University Board of Regents formally accepted an invitation earlier this month to join the Missouri Valley Conference, it actually did not affect every sport on the campus.

Football and rifle, in fact, were not included. Rifle is actually easy to understand in that many schools across the country do not have teams and its present home, the Ohio Valley Conference, is one of the few leagues that has several teams.

However, the football side could be a bit confusing, being that what is known as the Missouri Valley Football Conference is actually separate from the MVC.

“It’s a different legal and financial entity. It has its own commissioner and staff,” said Murray State Director of Athletics Kevin Saal as he explained the football conference’s setup. “The Missouri Valley Football Conference is comprised of five Summit League institutions, five Missouri Valley Conference institutions and one Horizon League institutions, so it is a collection of institutions that play all of their other sports in other leagues.

“But it’s a one-sport league.”

It’s also a monster. The league comprises of six current members that have either played for or won the FCS (formerly NCAA Division 1-AA) national championship. One of those — North Dakota State — has become the premier program in the FCS, having won nine national titles since 2011 and the Bison are a perfect 9-0 in those title games.

Since 1997, when former OVC member Youngstown State won its last of three national championships, the MVFC is 11-5 when its teams reach the title game.

“It’s where we want to be. It’s the best conference in the country,” Saal said, delving into the process that is being undertaken for the Racers to begin play in the MVFC by the 2023 season.

“So as we entered into conversations with the Missouri Valley Conference, we talked about the parallel track for application into both (the MVC and the MVFC) and what became clear to us is that parallel was going to be more linear and serial in that the Missouri Valley Football Conference certainly has great interest but wanted to make sure that there was an invitation extended from the Missouri Valley Conference before we entered into the process in earnest with the Missouri Valley Football Conference. As soon as we got the invitation (from the MVC) we applied for the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

“To match the vision and expectations for what we want, it’s the perfect environment to do that, so yes, that was the desire and we’ve been in that process and there will be a presentation at some point down the road. We absolutely are taking nothing for granted but we’ll walk through the elements and tell a great story about our football program and work for that.”

It appears that process already has a positive development for Murray State. Saal said that the MVFC’s board of presidents unanimously directed Commissioner Patty Viverito to enter into engaging with Murray State. Viverito has been an associate director for the MVC the past 25 years and has directed the MVFC the past 32 years.

“And Commissioner Viverito has been incredibly positive with us in the process,” he said, emphasizing that when the time does come for Murray State to make its presentation, there will be a lot of things for the board of presidents to hear.

“We’ve got an incredible history in our program. We’ve got incredible support. It is a championship-level program and it has shown that when you match resources to expectations, you can be successful here. I think the resurgence here in the last two years and hiring Coach Dean Hood and his staff, the strategic investments we have made with the Clear the Track campaign that has raised over $800,000 in support of our football program says a lot about where we’re going.

“The Racer Football Alumni Association has been awesome in terms of their support of our young men. We’ve made strategic investments in different areas and we’re getting better. I think the results show that as well.”

Saal said season ticket sales jumped 22% from Hood’s first season with the Racers to his second season, helping account for a 40% increase in revenue over that span. He said the product on the field is driving that.

“We’ve had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 21 years. They’re doing a great job, so all signs are positive in that direction,” he said.

Saal said he expects the chance to make the presentation to the MVFC board will probably come over the next few weeks and months.

Should the MVFC approve of Murray State joining that league, Hood, who has compiled an 11-7 record since arriving in Murray, said this would be a major step up in competition. This is a league that produced six of the 24 FCS playoff teams this past season and that has been close to the norm for the MVFC for several years.

“It’s pretty common knowledge that the Missouri Valley Football Conference is the SEC of FCS football,” Hood said. “It’s exciting because we’ve regional opponents from within our footprint, like SIU (Carbondale), Indiana State, Western Illinois and Missouri State, where our students are coming from and we’re recruiting from that and our alumni are from that, so it’s very exciting from that standpoint, but it’s also exciting to have a challenge.

“I think every human being wants the opportunity to be the best and certainly to play the best.”

Hood said, within his program, the prospect of Murray State playing in the “SEC of the FCS” is not being widely discussed, mainly because it still has yet to happen. However, he admits that he can sense a buzz about this opportunity becoming reality.

“And that’s what you want. It’s kind of like (Murray State President Dr. Bob) Jackson said earlier,, ‘Make no little plans … they don’t have the ability to stir a man’s blood.’ Well, when you make big plans, people get excited and we’re going to need people to get excited if we’re able to get in and we’re going to need people from the donor side to help us build facilities and we need to get excited as a staff to make sure that we’re recruiting the right guys that can win in this conference.”

There also appears to be a blueprint for Murray State to follow, once in the MVFC. Two nearby programs that happen to also be former OVC members — Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky — also took significant steps up in competition several years ago when they both went from Division 1-AA to the top level of Division 1.

Both schools had been very successful in 1-AA, with Western winning a national championship in 2002, as a member of the MVFC. However, many observers believed going to 1-A would be too high of a climb.

Now, all those years later, both MTSU and Western have gone to several bowl games between them.

“They’ve done great,” Hood said. “Now, it wasn’t an immediate thing but they resourced it to give it a chance to be competitive. That’s what we’re going to need to do.”

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