August 29, 2013 in Sports

Playing catch-up

EWU has built a solid program, but has a ways to go off the field
By The Spokesman-Review

Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin has a national championship at EWU and a solid national reputation for helping to build a strong football program.
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The tailgating scene has come of age in the parking lot above Roos Field.

Country music blares over hundreds of cars, campers and motor homes while kids throw footballs and parents toss burgers on the barbecue.

Still, football at Eastern Washington University is more steak than sizzle. Most of the bells and whistles are down on the field, where head coach Beau Baldwin and his staff and players offer an exciting product that is still a secret to many in Spokane’s fractured sports market.

The product on the field is top-10; the rest of the program is still unranked, but finally – through a lot of hard work and a little edginess – “also receiving votes” from local fans.

To get their attention, EWU has been forced to yell a little louder, through their signature red turf field – hard on the eyes but an easy sell to recruits – the tailgating scene and finally, last year, a video scoreboard.

This year it’s linebacker Ronnie Hamlin shouting “Hello, Spokane,” on billboards.

“We needed to catch up off the field,” Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves said. “We’re a top-10 program nationally (on the field), and I feel like it’s my job to make sure that we’re doing everything else in a top-10 fashion.

“And although we may not be there right now, we have a vision to be top 10 in everything we do,” said Chaves, who foresees a red soccer field and a red basketball court, too.

“That’s on the radar screen,” Chaves said. “I’m not kidding.”

More than Xs and Os

EWU’s program has grown mostly through a succession of strong head coaches dating back to 1979. Dick Zornes took the Eagles from Division II to immediate success in the Big Sky Conference during a 16-year tenure; Mike Kramer led Eastern to an FCS semifinal appearance in 1997; Paul Wulff raised the bar before going to Washington State; and Baldwin reached the summit with a national title in 2010.

Says Baldwin, “The foundation that was set … has allowed us to keep making those strides. It was the work of a lot of years.”

Chaves had barely warmed his seat as athletic director in the fall of 2007 when Wulff was hired away by his alma mater, Washington State. A year earlier, Baldwin, the offensive coordinator under Wulff from 2003-06, became the head coach at his old school, Central Washington, where he played quarterback.

“We had never met – he had left and then I came,” said the methodical Chaves, who performed his due diligence, “leaned on a few folks I knew in the industry,” and interviewed eight other candidates before hiring the then-35-year-old Baldwin.

“He was the right person at the right time, and he had a great perspective on where Eastern had been, was then and where it could go,” Chaves said.

Baldwin, now 40, a Tacoma native and high school star, also had a reputation as an imaginative play-caller and as a player’s coach.

Says senior safety Allen Brown, Baldwin is “the best coach I’ve ever had. He’s a calm guy, laid back … all practice, the guys are laughing, but at the same time we’re all serious.”

They’re serious in the classroom as well, collectively earning above a 3.0 grade-point average. “He just has that certain ‘it,’ ” Chaves said.

It doesn’t hurt that Baldwin, recruiting mainly in the state of Washington, is 44-19 overall and 30-10 in the Big Sky Conference with two conference coach of the year awards. In the last two years, his teams have taken Washington and Washington State to the final play of the game.

“His guys, they never want him to be disappointed,” Chaves said. “He demands accountability, and we also play with a little bit of swagger.”

Gateway to the future

Winning will put only so many fans in the seats. The facilities have come a long way, but have further to go to catch up with Big Sky rivals Montana and Montana State.

The south entrance to Roos Field is marked – marred, rather – by a rundown snack bar. The visitors’ bleachers look high-schoolish, and even at 8,600 seats, Roos Field lacks intimacy because the football field is surrounded by a track.

All that and more would be swept away if Eastern can find the funds to build the Gateway Project, a 346,000-square-foot, $60 million multi-use facility that Chaves believes would “make us a national player at the FCS level.”

“That’s the one thing we need to keep our eyes on,” said Chaves, who won a national athletic directors’ award this year.

The Gateway Project envisions several thousand seats at Roos Field, boosting seating capacity beyond 18,000. Other amenities include athletic facilities, band locker rooms, offices, and retail space. The latter is expected to generate revenue once the project becomes a reality.

That depends on financing. According to Mike Westfall, Eastern’s Vice-President for University Advancement and Executive Director of the EWU Foundation, the Gateway project won’t move forward “until we know we can fund the entire project.”

Chaves is optimistic. “People do have the capability to fund things they are interested in,” he said. “With that funding, we’d be off and running pretty quickly.”

Getting out the word

The Gateway Project presents a bit of chicken-and-egg dilemma for Eastern, which last year averaged 8,089 fans – less than half the Gateway’s projected capacity. In other words, if they build it, will the fans come?

Until donors step up to fund the Gateway, Eastern has an opportunity to increase attendance and at the same time build greater demand for expansion. Boosting attendance to 10,000 would stabilize the athletic department budget, leaving it less dependent on payday games such as this year’s road trips to Oregon State and Toledo and thus affording the Eagles a chance to play more home games.

That would also put the program on more equal footing with the larger facilities at Big Sky rivals Montana (stadium capacity 25,203) and Montana State (17,777). Both are the only game in town, in contrast to Eastern’s position in the fractured Spokane sports market.

In the Big Sky, the facilties arms race is waged with flintlocks instead of howitzers, but it’s a war nonetheless, aimed at recruits.

Eastern has worked tirelessly to improve that position while dispelling a few stereotypes in the process. One is Eastern’s reputation as a commuter school. “That’s changed,” Chaves said. “We’re a residential school, a four-year university where students get the full-meal deal of a college education and a college experience.”

Student attendance at home games has tripled in recent years, Chaves said, to almost 3,000 per game. To encourage the rest, Eastern has boosted its marketing efforts with a variety of advertising media. “We are using any and all platforms for different areas,” Chaves said.

The local sports media is another matter. Chaves concedes that Washington State football “plays in a bigger sandbox,” and that Gonzaga basketball has earned its notoriety. “But if we’re relevant,” Chaves said, “the media will respond.”

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