On Saturday at 11 a.m., in Frisco, Texas, the Eastern Washington Eagles will play the North Dakota State Bison for the NCAA Division I (Football Championship Subdivision – FCS) title. Eastern, from the Big Sky Conference, and North Dakota State, from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, are no strangers to Frisco and the championship game, the Eagles winning it all in 2010 and the Bison in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017.
If it seems, dear reader, that North Dakota State has dominated the NCAA Football subdivision for much of the last decade, you have it right. And the Bison are favored to best our Eagles on Saturday by a touchdown and a field goal – about 10 points. The Bison practice and play indoors like the Idaho Vandals. It is called the Fargodome. Garth Brooks may be singing about “friends in low places” on Friday night in the Fargodome and the Bison playing football on Saturday afternoon. Anyway, the man who invented basketball, James Naismith, teaches us that basketball and guitars are to be played indoors and football is to be played outdoors, especially in bad weather.
Enough of this executive level trash talk; let’s get serious.
Eastern Washington finds itself either the best or next-best football team of all of the football teams of all the 124 universities, 14 college athletic conferences and over 2 million students in the FCS of the NCAA. That is astonishing and deserves thought and consideration.
First is the matter of place – Cheney, Spokane, the Inland Empire, the state of Washington, and the great Northwest. Eastern is of this place, nested in its diverse cultures and values, its politics, its industry and commerce. Seventy percent of Eastern football players are from the state of Washington. Eastern shares its excellence in athletics with Gonzaga, now ranked 7th nationally in Division 1 basketball, with a large and passionate following. This year Washington State University had a wonderful football season, finishing with two losses and 10 victories, one over Eastern, and a victory in the Alamo Bowl against Iowa State. Eastern beat WSU in 2016 and Oregon State in 2012. This year the University of Washington won the Pac-12 and lost to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl game. Putting these points all together indicates that Washington is a hotbed of college football excellence and that EWU is a vital part of that excellence.
Second is the matter of prestige, of status, and of equality of opportunity.
Forty-two years ago, almost to the day, I walked through the doors of Showalter Hall as the new president of Eastern Washington State College in Cheney. The trustees and I agreed that Eastern was in the business of delivering democratically accessible higher education that was responsive to the needs of the people of the Inland Northwest. Educational quality was not improved, we believed, by making it available to fewer applicants. Eastern seemed the embodiment of these values. But first Eastern must achieve university status. With the leadership of Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, the support of many legislators, and a good bit of shoe leather, what was Eastern Washington State College became Eastern Washington University (as did Central and Western) within the year.
We then got to work on several initiatives – setting up the EWU Foundation, getting better facilities in Spokane, etc. Among these initiatives was deciding what to do with intercollegiate athletics. Not being sure, I bravely appointed a committee chaired by Fred Johns, the vice president for finance and included a member of the board of trustees, Bruce McPhaden. The committee recommended that Eastern emphasize women’s sports, join the NCAA as a Division I-AA member, and seek membership in the Big Sky Athletic Conference. It took nine years.
After 10 1/2 years as president, I left Eastern to my new job as the Edwin O. Stene Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Kansas. One of my most vivid memories as I prepared to leave is seeing the Eagles’s first Big Sky Conference football game, Eastern versus Nevada. Coach Dick Zorn later gave me the ball used in the opening kickoff.
Little could I have imagined then that I would someday see the Eagles win the national championship, and then have a chance to see them again this Saturday. Go Eagles.
H. George Frederickson is a president emeritus of Eastern Washington University and emeritus distinguished professor of public affairs at the University of Kansas.
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