Tonight in a place called Frisco in suburban Dallas, student athletes representing the University of Delaware and Eastern Washington University will play for the NCAA Division I football championship. Eastern, of the Big Sky Conference, and Delaware, of the Colonial League, represent the best of the 14 athletic conferences, 124 universities and more than 2 million students that comprise the Championship Subdivision.
Both Eastern and Delaware reached this championship game by winning three postseason games against highly ranked opponents. Eastern won three thrilling games in their home stadium, their opponents having experienced firsthand the “curse of the red turf.” Unlike the conclusion of the football season for the universities in the NCAA Bowl Subdivision, with its rather ambiguous results, after the Eastern-Delaware game there will be no question as to which university is the champion.
Tonight’s game will be an exciting football battle. Many true Easterners, including myself, will be in Texas to cheer for our Eagles. Others will watch on television, particularly many of the estimated 35,000 Eastern alumni living in Spokane and the Inland Northwest. Of course many Delaware alumni and fans will be at the game or watching on television, cheering for their Blue Hens. And there will be tens of thousands of college football fans around the country watching the game on television, very likely the greatest level of national exposure that Eastern will ever have received.
Tonight will be a crowning moment for coach Beau Baldwin and his staff, for the Eastern football players, for President Rodolfo Arevalo and for the faculty and staff of the university. One could not imagine a more exciting start for the new year.
All of this was made possible by an earlier struggle that is worth remembering.
Well before Eastern’s present student athletes were born, Eastern was a state college. After it gained university designation in 1978, intercollegiate athletics was one of the next big challenges that faced the university. Over the years, sports at Eastern had received little attention and had been allowed to drift, so a blue-ribbon panel was appointed to study the problem, consider alternatives and make recommendations. After a thorough study, the panel made a bold set of recommendations for action, including seeking status in Division IAA of the NCAA (the previous designation for what is now the Division I Football Championship Subdivision) and seeking membership in the Big Sky Conference. The reasoning of the panel was that in athletics as well as in academics Eastern was like universities in Montana, Idaho, Utah and Arizona. The Eastern board of trustees endorsed these objectives, and the university set about attempting to achieve them.
To say that the initial response to these plans was mostly critical would be an understatement. The media suggested that Eastern “did not know its place.” Some alumni rather strongly preferred the status quo. Some faculty and students were concerned about a possible overemphasis on sports and were worried about the costs. Nevertheless, the university began the step-by-step implementation of the plan. Eastern got on the football and basketball schedules of all the Big Sky universities. Eastern embraced Title IX, which called for equal status for women’s athletics. The politics of getting the support of the Big Sky universities was afoot.
Acceptance in NCAA Division IAA came quickly. But year after year Eastern’s application for membership in the Big Sky conference was rejected. Each time Eastern was knocked down, those opposed to the plan called for it to be abandoned. Yet each time Eastern picked itself up, dusted itself off, prepared a new application and returned to the politics of Big Sky membership. Finally in 1986, after a seven-year struggle, Eastern was accepted, effective in 1987. In the 25 years that have followed, Eastern has proved to be a steadfast, reliable and trusted member of the Big Sky Conference. More important, Eastern has grown from strength to strength in the breadth and quality of its academic programs.
And now, because of that struggle of long ago, Eastern is in another kind of struggle, playing for the national football championship. Go Eagles.