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Murray will be Valley football's 12th member, but league will not go to two divisions

Conference makes it official with Racers; Viverito says school committed to investing in football.

NCAA Football: Murray State at Cincinnati
Murray State Racers linebacker Eric Samuta reacts after a missed field goal attempt by the Cincinnati Bearcats in the first half at Nippert Stadium last fall. The Bearcats won 42-7.
Katie Stratman/USA TODAY Sports

FARGO — North Dakota State football fans, meet Murray State. At least four out of every six years anyway.

The Missouri Valley Football Conference on Monday announced the addition of the Murray, Ky., school that will make the Valley a 12-team football league beginning in 2023. In doing so, the conference clarified its scheduling model that calls for all schools to play each other every four of six years.

The conference will not go to two divisions.

“We looked at a lot of other models,” said MVFC commissioner Patty Viverito, “and none of those achieved that goal. When we have student-athletes on campus, they’re there for four years and they’ll see everybody in the league more than once.”

It took a 2/3rds majority approval of schools, meaning at least eight of 11 needed to be in favor of Murray. Viverito declined to reveal the results but it appears the fact Murray was already admitted into the Missouri Valley Conference for all other sports was a driving force.

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Viverito said the five Missouri Valley members that play football — Missouri State, Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Northern Iowa and Indiana State — asked to consider adding Murray. NDSU, North Dakota, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois play most of their other sports in the Summit League. Youngstown State is a member of the Horizon League.

NDSU president Dean Bresciani told Forum Communications he voted no on Murray.

Murray is a public liberal arts university in the city of Murray (population 19,171) with an enrollment of almost 9,500 students. It’s best known for its men’s basketball program that has reached the NCAA tournament 22 times and lately winning first round games in 2019 and again this year when the Racers beat San Francisco.

In football, they won eight Ohio Valley Conference titles, although the last one was in 2002. They reached the FCS playoffs five times claiming one victory in the 1996 first round over Western Illinois.

Still, some notable coaches have gone through the Murray system. Mike Gottfried, the head coach from 1978-80, went on to stints at Cincinnati, Kansas at Pittsburgh. Former assistant coach Ron Zook later took head coaching jobs at Florida and Illinois and Frank Beamer, the head coach at Murray from 1981-86, became an institution at Virginia Tech.

Houston Nutt, the Racers’ head coach from 1993-96, went on to similar positions at Arkansas and Mississippi.

The Racers went 6-5 last year, and discounting the interrupted 2020 pandemic year, was their first above .500 season since going 7-4 in 2011. Their best years were consecutive 11-1 and 11-2 seasons in 1995 and 1996 under Nutt.

Viverito said Murray president Robert Jackson and athletic director Kevin Saal gave Valley football a commitment to improving its football program and that included investing at a level that would allow them to be successful.

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“We met with the leadership of Murray State and tried to get a really good understanding quite frankly that they knew what they were getting into,” Viverito said. “That they knew what this league represented in terms of strength, that they knew what it would take to be successful.”

That commitment includes the Murray Board of Regents, whose chair Eric Crigler was an All-American football player at Murray and spent two years in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals.

“He wants this to be a football school every bit as much as a basketball school,” Viverito said. “We think they are willing to devote the resources to make that happen.”

Viverito said the Valley was not looking to expand and hasn’t since the days of adding independent Youngstown State in the 1990s. Plus, a 12-team scheduling model is preferential to an 11-team one.

“An 11-team scheduling model is tough,” she said. “It creates those crazy byes that are hard to fill with non-conference opponents. Going to 12 has a lot of benefits to scheduling so yes it did accommodate the needs of the Missouri Valley Conference but if that’s all it achieved, we wouldn’t be here today.”

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