Football has never been easy at Eastern Washington University.
But it has seldom, if ever, been this difficult.
From huge budget shortfalls to periods of administrative indifference to fan apathy, Eastern’s football program has struggled to stay competitive – at any level. For the most part, with the exception of an ugly three-year stretch in the early 1960s when the Eagles went 2-24-1, it has.
But now comes another towering wave of financial woes, churned up by a tanking economy and expected to crash down directly on top of a further-restrictive set of sanctions handed down by the NCAA following a mid-February investigation that uncovered numerous minor rules violations.
Among those sanctions were three years of probation, the loss of a full-time assistant coaching position and the reduction of two scholarships a year through 2010.
The piling on has been enough to prompt some faculty and staff members at the university to revisit the question of whether it is worth the cost and effort to keep the football program afloat, especially at its current NCAA Football Championship Subdivision level.
University president Rodolpho Arévalo admits he has heard such rumblings around campus.
“But I don’t hear, for lack of a better word, a groundswell for that,” Arévalo said. “I’m not saying the question isn’t asked. Yes, it is. But in some cases, there are probably other programs on campus that people wonder why we need them, as well.”
One Eastern faculty member who has long-championed the idea of either dropping football or moving back to the NCAA Division II level is chemistry professor Jeff Corkill, who has taught at the university for 28 years. Corkill, a former president of EWU’s faculty senate and faculty union, spoke out about the school’s decision to join the Division I-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision) in 1984, and was also against a decision to join the Big Sky Conference three years later.
“I just don’t think it’s appropriate for Eastern to be in (the FCS) or the Big Sky,” Corkill said, adding a more logical step would be to join Central Washington and Western Washington at the NCAA Division II level. “There are far more opportunities for students to represent their universities in sports at Central and Western than at Eastern, because they’re competing at a different level.”
Corkill backs his argument by noting his school has axed sports such as baseball, wrestling, swimming, men’s soccer and men’s golf during his tenure, basically for the sake of reducing expenditures.
“And they’ve done it in order to protect football and basketball and the Big Sky Conference,” he said. “I feel, in a way, that football distorts the intercollegiate athletics program at Eastern, and given the huge budget cuts we’re facing, I just think that maybe it’s time to rethink whether we should be in the Big Sky – or if we even need football.”
EWU fields the NCAA Division I minimum of 14 athletic teams – six of which are track or cross country teams – and administers and supports 311 student athletes on an annual budget of $7.5 million that is the lowest in the Big Sky.
What makes football such an inviting target – especially in the wake of Western Washington’s recent surprise decision to scrap its program – is the cost.
For the 2008 fiscal year, EWU’s football expenditures of $1,569,278.76 accounted for more than 20 percent of the athletic department’s budget and greatly exceeded revenues directly linked to the program, which were $875,200.
Eastern’s second-year athletic director Bill Chaves points out, however, that those latest audited numbers are from the fiscal year that ended last June and reflect on the 2007 football season that included only one big-money guarantee game – a road contest against Utah, which netted the university $325,000. Last fall, the Eagles played guarantee games at Texas Tech and Colorado that were worth $450,000 each.
According to Chaves, those guarantees – coupled with last fall’s ticket sales that included another huge gate for the home game against Big Sky Conference rival Montana – accounted for about $1.1 million in revenues, which would leave the program just a little more than $400,000 in arrears for this fiscal year.
That is still a huge deficit that must be made up through the use of $3 million in state funds appropriated for EWU athletics and other short-term budget-relief funds. But Chaves insists there is a value inherent to playing football at the FCS level that does not show up in the budget numbers the school submits annually to the U.S. Department of Education, as required by the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act.
“You’ve got to look at it in a couple of different ways,” Chaves said of the costs associated with EWU’s football program. “Can you afford not to do it, considering the ability it gives you to connect with your alumni and to connect with your student body?
“After all, there is probably no sporting event in the college realm that galvanizes a university like a football Saturday.”
Chaves is convinced there is also a great deal to be gained – including increased ticket sales and additional revenue from corporate sponsors and donors who want to be a part of the most popular and visible sport on campus – from the exposure Eastern receives because of the FCS status of its football program and its affiliation with the Big Sky.
And he believes those benefits help set his university apart from Western Washington, an NCAA Division II school in Bellingham that abruptly cut its football program in early January, with its president, Bruce Shepard, citing an inability to properly fund it as one of the main reasons why.
“What you need to do is identify and put a value on what it means to be connected and affiliated with the two Montana schools,” Chaves said, noting Western did not have the benefit of a home game and big gate against either Montana or Montana State every year. “And I just know that the opportunity for us to be on a stage where we play Texas Tech and Colorado in front of 100,000 fans over the course of two weeks, and get Eastern’s name out there, has to have a great deal of value.
“Not to mention that the year before, when we played Appalachian State (in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs) we penetrated 16 millions homes through various television outlets.”
Arévalo also sees many intangible benefits to playing Division I football, and added there is no plan afoot to pull a Western-like surprise on EWU fans. But he stressed that those benefits, and their costs, are constantly being reassessed.
“You factor in a lot of things,” he said. “You factor in the visibility of the program and its ability to attract fans who are willing to donate to the program, and I think ours does that. But other than the major football programs you see on television every Saturday, most football programs don’t pay for themselves.
“At best, they break even, and Eastern is no exception to that.”
Eastern has managed to stay competitive at the D-I level despite operating on budget that is $1.1 million less the Big Sky’s second smallest – that of Northern Colorado’s – and nearly $8 million less than Montana’s, which spends a league-high $15.2 million.
In addition, according to Chaves, the $3 million Eastern athletics receives from state funding is only a little more than 3 percent of the $95 million appropriated to the university. The payroll expenditures for the six full-time coaches on the football staff – including the $102,000 base salary of second-year head coach Beau Baldwin – is just $295,800.
“I would argue that we are competing at the highest level in a very economic way,” Chaves said.
The bang Eastern gets for its football buck, he added, is increased immensely by the fact the university has produced, in the last four years, both the FCS’ top offensive player in quarterback Erik Meyer (2005) and the FCS’ top defensive player in end Greg Peach (2008), along with NFL Pro Bowl offensive tackle Michael Roos of the Tennessee Titans.
“And we’ve had some other student athletes who have achieved at the highest level in the NFL,” Chaves said. “We’ve got kids playing in (arena football) and CFL who have made the playoffs and done some really good things, and who have done a phenomenal job of being able to showcase Eastern, as well.
“So with that, I think the value of the football program itself is tremendous – much like I think the value of the athletic department, as a whole, is tremendous.”
But now comes the prospect of a massive cut in state funding that is almost certain to top the 10-12 percent drop Eastern was bracing for after Gov. Christine Gregoire announced her proposed budget recently. Under the budget approved by state lawmakers over the weekend, the cuts to state schools would total $800 million and could result in the layoffs of 8,000 teachers, college employees and state workers.
The cuts will undoubtedly have a major effect on the athletic departments at all of the state’s institutions of higher learning. In addition to a possible cut in the state money EWU already receives, the athletics department will have to deal with the proposed tuition increases that will affect the budget for scholarships. The cuts will undoubtedly spark further and deeper discussions at EWU about what Division I athletics – and football, in particular – mean to the university.
“We are always having discussions about looking at the sports that we have and the overall support we provide to them,” Arévalo said. “It’s tough to have those discussions, sometimes, but I think they’re important to consider what value an institution places on having athletics. … If we’re clear on that, it makes it a lot easier to make decisions on the level of support you’re going to provide in the future.”