A month ago, Mike Kramer probably figured he would spend this pre-Thanksgiving weekend devising a game plan for a first-round opponent in the NCAA Division I-AA football playoffs that start next Saturday.
That was back when his Eastern Washington team was 6-2 and ranked No. 19 in the country. Back before the Eagles closed the regular season with three consecutive losses to finish 6-5 and out of the playoff picture.
And now, rather than worrying about how to stop Northern Iowa or Stephen F. Austin, Kramer and his staff have turned their efforts toward recruiting and the next steps in their rebuilding process.
“We came up short (of the playoffs),” said Kramer, who is now 13-20 in three seasons as EWU’s head coach, “but there were indications that we’re going to be a top-flight football team in 1997.”
If that sounds like a classic “Wait until next year” spiel, so be it. Kramer finds no reason to hide his optimism over the future of his program.
Last Saturday’s 49-27 loss at Cal State Northridge is hard to write off. But Eastern’s other three Big Sky Conference defeats came to No. 2-ranked and unbeaten Montana, No. 6-ranked Northern Arizona and Weber State by a combined total of nine points.
And 15 starters off this year’s team - each a year older and a year stronger - will return next fall.
It’s a much better scenario than most EWU followers could have imagined 12 short months ago when their Eagles were coming off a dreadful 3-8 season that ended with humiliating losses to Boise State (63-44), Montana (63-7) and Cal Poly (52-35).
“I know there was a lot of panic by a lot of people last year regarding our situation,” Kramer said, “and it was all related to me. Here we had hired a young coach who was following a guy (Dick Zornes) who had finished with two successful years.
“A lot of people weren’t comfortable with that, but I’ve always said it isn’t coaching as much as it is players. We did the same things in ‘94 and ‘95 that we had done in ‘92 and ‘93, so why weren’t we as good? We didn’t have as good a players.”
Kramer said he expected to struggle in ‘95 because of the large number of sophomore starters on his defense. And those struggles became magnified when the injuries mounted.
“We were so decimated defensively at the end of the year that it looked like we had really fallen off the table,” Kramer explained. “But in reality, what we needed to do was just let those sophomores that were playing at the time regain their confidence in the weight room during the off-season - and that’s really what happened.
“They all got a year older and a year stronger.”
As a result, juniors like linebacker Derek Strey, defensive end Steve Mattson and free safety Maurice Perigo were able to step up with all-Big Sky-type of efforts.
An Eagle defense that had ranked last in the conference a year earlier gained enormous measures of respect. And along the way, Kramer also uncovered some offensive treasures like junior running back Rex Prescott, junior wide receiver Steve Correa and redshirt freshman quarterback Griffin Garske.
Prescott rushed for 717 yards and eight touchdowns as a backup to starter Joe Sewell. Correa, coming off a redshirt season, caught 31 passes for 706 yards - an average of 22.8 yards per catch - and five TDS. And Garske, who was pressed into service prematurely by a season-ending knee injury to junior starter Harry Leons, threw for 1,287 yards and nine touchdowns.
The Eagles, picked by coaches and media to finish sixth or seventh in the Big Sky standings, could still end up in a tie for fourth.
“It really hasn’t been that much of a surprise to me,” Kramer said. “I’d like to say that we’ve been vindicated and all that sort of stuff, but things have actually going pretty much according to plan.
“We’re never going to have a bunch of players that, as sophomores, are going to contend for national honors. But if we hold onto them, by the time they’re juniors they’re going to be pretty solid football players. And by they time they’re seniors, they should be able to contend.
“That’s been our history, and that’s about right where we’re at right now.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: EAGLES IN ‘96 Lost at Weber St., 22-20 Won at Boise St., 27-21 Defeated SW Texas St., 38-7 Defeated Portland St., 24-7 Defeated Montana St., 20-13 Won at Cal St. Sacramento, 51-34 Lost to Montana, 34-30 Won at Idaho State, 31-17 Lost at Idaho, 37-27 Lost to Northern Arizona, 13-10 Lost at Cal St. Northridge, 49-27