September 13, 2011 in Sports

Eastern’s title didn’t give it clout

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Could have sworn there was a national championship team around here someplace. Anyone seen it?

This isn’t a metaphorical rip. No commentary on last weekend’s toe-stub at South Dakota intended. Football happens.

It’s just that the college season makes its third lap this weekend, and even after that the only local profile of the Eastern Washington Eagles will have been on billboards and buses.

Butch and Sundance had it all wrong. It isn’t “Who are those guys?” It’s “Where are those guys?”

This Saturday, they’re in Missoula, where over the years the Eagles have done some of their best work, whether it’s shown up in the win column or not. But if it doesn’t result in victory this time, Eastern will show up in Cheney on Sept. 24 for its home opener against a team that figures to rank no worse than No. 5 nationally – with the Eags 0-3.

In which case the bounce the school so desperately needs from its 2010 Football Championship Subdivision title could resemble a bellyflop.

On top of which, there are only four home games this season. It might not be an upset if Eastern has its worst total attendance in 16 years despite coming off its greatest football achievement.

For clarification on this curious strategy, we sought out Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves, who understands that there might be some consternation out there – and that current circumstances make second-guessing easier.

“If we go out and play sound last weekend – and we’ve been a good road team in the past – things are different,” he said. “And if we make one more play at the end of the game at Washington, we might not be having this conversation.”

OK. But there’s a reason they call them worst-case scenarios.

Here was the palette Chaves brought to his scheduling canvas: Eight of the 11 dates were committed to Big Sky Conference games, he had a home-and-away series starting this season with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a big-money play-up game against the Huskies that would bring the program $400,000. Which left him one more game to book.

The choices: a drop-down game at home against an NCAA Division II or NAIA program or a no-return – either home or away – against another FCS school, as his 2012 dance card is already full.

Chaves took door No. 2 and a trip to South Dakota, which whacked the Eags 30-17 last weekend.

“In our conversations with South Dakota, they indicated to us they would pay for our trip,” Chaves reported. “Our September games without students have traditionally not been our best-attended games. It’s probably not how you would draw it up – we had no control over our first Big Sky game being on the road – but I thought it was in the best interests of the team we had coming back.”

It would be nice to think that a national championship would give a school all sorts of scheduling clout – and up in the Football Bowl Subdivision, it probably does.

Eastern is different. To lure a South Dakota to Cheney for a no-return date, Chaves estimates, would run $50,000-75,000.

“It would be easier if I paid teams to come, but I don’t have a lot of access to be able to do that,” he said. “On top of which, it’s not easy to get FCS teams to come to Cheney. That’s just the reality.”

So what about the drop-down route?

Chaves noted that non-FCS victories are not counted toward the seven generally required for playoff eligibility if you don’t earn the Big Sky’s automatic bid.

“Assuming you don’t beat your FBS opponent,” he said, “you’re only giving yourself nine shots at seven wins instead of 10.”

Well, yes, that’s a gamble. And every Big Sky team except Weber State and EWU is taking it. Eastern – which could have used such a game to hoist banners and celebrate – has played one every year since 1997. In essence, Chaves decided that the defending national champs, with 15 starters back, had less of a margin for error than previous Eastern teams. Heck, last year the Eagles played Central Washington on a neutral field in Seattle.

“That was something we wanted to try institutionally,” he said. “Sometimes you schedule for institutional reasons.”

Hmm. When you’re trying to grow a program – and championship or not, EWU athletics still struggles to grow – it’s always an institutional decision. EWU will have a good crowd next week – students back, Washington State on a bye – but it’ll be bigger if Eagles aren’t 0-3. Obviously, they can avoid that with a championship effort Saturday in Missoula.

But then, the possibility could have been avoided altogether.

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