As Cooper Kupp considered his future last winter, he felt pulled by the chance for pro football fame and fortune. And yes, the glory.
But what about the guts?
Like many other Eastern Washington football players, Kupp’s competitive fire was stoked in Cheney. That meant a lot to the All-American wide receiver even as the Eagles were coming off a disappointing 6-5 season. Said Kupp: “We knew we had guys and coaches who were going to put everything they had into making sure that we were better this year and that we weren’t going to take a step backwards.”
Call it high expectations, something Kupp shares with the entire Eastern program. Four years ago, the lightly recruited kid from Yakima joined a program that was coming off another disappointing 6-5 season in 2011.
Three Big Sky Conference titles later, expectations haven’t changed. Deep playoff runs are the norm, not 6-5. Those lofty goals have become second nature at Eastern, which has made a habit of exceeding them for as long as most fans can remember.
- SEE ALSO: Eastern Washington Eagles timeline
Barely four decades ago, the Eastern Washington College Savages were playing NAIA ball and losing to Whitworth. By five touchdowns. A decade later, the Eastern Washington University Eagles had jumped two classifications and made the second round of the NCAA I-AA playoffs.
That could have happened only with a persistent – and controversial – push from then EWU President H. George Frederickson.
The Eagles have always done it their own way, overcoming tiny budgets as well the region’s long-held perception of EWU as a commuter school. They’ve done it with some gimmickry – rivals see red at Roos Field in more ways than one – but mostly with innovative coaching that goes back long before current boss Beau Baldwin.
Baldwin says it all the time – the 2010 national title was won on the backs of those who came before. There was Dick Zornes, who guided the Eagles through the warp-speed transition from NAIA to Division II to I-AA.
It was a place many felt the Eagles didn’t belong, but they fit right in. Mike Kramer followed with more success, including a 1-AA semifinal appearance in 1997. His successor, Paul Wulff, led three more postseason runs before leaving for Washington State and leaving a winning tradition for Baldwin.
Kupp may be the current poster boy for high expectations at Eastern, but Baldwin provided the canvas.
“Not a day goes by that I’m not thankful to have him working for us,” said athletic director Bill Chaves, who was on the job for only a few months when Wulff departed for Pullman.
“I thought Beau was the right person at the right time, and he loves the Spokane area and the state of Washington,” Chaves said.
Baldwin also loves to recruit in-state kids. More than half the roster consists of Evergreen State kids who didn’t measure up to Pac-12 standards – until they arrived in Cheney.
In the last four years, Eastern has played all four Pac-12 programs in the Northwest, getting outscored by an average of only 47-40 and beating Oregon State in the 2013 season opener.
“It’s a tribute to our players and coaches, they way they approach the season – we have as good a chance to win as anyone,” Chaves said.
It’s the same story in the Big Sky Conference, where Montana and Montana State once stood a shoulder above the crowd; both schools are 1-4 in their last five meetings with the Eagles despite the advantages of tradition, fan base and facilities.
Eastern is still chasing excellence in the latter. With 8,600 seats, Roos Field is among the smallest stadiums in the conference, and is showing its age at 49.
But Chaves has great expectations, too, as he works to replace or improve the stadium.
“Not a day goes by when I’m not working on it,” Chaves said.
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