EKU's intercollegiate athletics teams are nicknamed the Colonels with the exception of the women's basketball Lady Colonels. Maroon has been the official color of Eastern athletics since the school was begun as the Eastern Kentucky State Normal School in 1906, and the school's official team nickname was the "Maroons" from the start of intercollegiate competition in 1909–10 until 1963, when then-president Robert Martin changed the nickname to the "Colonels".
Eastern has traditionally been quite successful on the football field, having won 20 OVC conference titles and two Division I-AA National Championships in 1979 and 1982. Much of the success came during the long tenure of head coach Roy Kidd from 1964 to 2002. In 1990, Eastern honored Kidd by naming the school's football stadium Roy Kidd Stadium. With their win over Southeast Missouri State University in 2008, Eastern's football team secured their 31st consecutive winning season. The team is currently coached by Dean Hood, a former defensive coordinator for Wake Forest.
In September 2013, the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper of nearby Lexington, reported that EKU was considering moving its program to the top-level Football Bowl Subdivision. However, under NCAA rules, such a move would require that EKU receive an all-sports invitation from an existing FBS conference.
Historically, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers served as the primary rival to EKU, especially in Football. Their matchups; known as the "Battle of the Bluegrass" date back to 1914, with Western leading the overall series 34-47-3. With WKU's recent move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, any future games between the two teams are uncertain.