There is everything to like about a press conference at which a 3-year-old girl wiggles in her front-row chair, shucks off her shoes and puts a happy headlock on two cuddly stuffed Eagles – oblivious all the while to her daddy enjoying the biggest moment of his professional life.
Doesn’t happen at a Michigan or an Arkansas, but things don’t have to be quite so solemn at Eastern Washington.
Yet as good as the vibe was Friday that carried in Beau Baldwin as the 20th head football coach at Eastern, it was also another reminder of the unsteady timbers bracing the school’s athletic ambitions – and that the recent football successes, notable as they are, haven’t managed to spring the Eagles into the open field but simply brought them to another crossroads.
That much was made clear when athletic director Bill Chaves’ first choice for the job, Fresno State assistant Jim McElwain, decided he couldn’t make the money math – for himself, a staff and the program as a whole – work, and said no thanks.
Folks, at Eastern, that’s a first.
Here’s the good part: EWU had aimed high, and Chaves had excellent alternatives. Baldwin isn’t just a worthy dues-payer – and he is that – but energized, connected and more than comfortable with the no-frills scripture from the Eastern bible.
“I’m not going to look at what our limits are,” said Baldwin, fresh from a year as head coach at Central Washington, “as much as what we can get done. I strongly believe you can outwork people.”
That’s what the Eagles love to hear, because it allows the obvious to be left unsaid.
But this time it can’t be. McElwain himself is an EWU alum, a disciple of the program’s godfather, Dick Zornes, who pretty much invented the outwork-‘em mindset. McElwain coached as an assistant at Eastern at a time when the administration’s commitment could only aspire to ambivalence. And yet he came and took a look around and, much as he relished the idea of being his alma mater’s head coach, couldn’t reconcile the issues and the opportunity.
Which left it to Chaves.
“I go back to right place, right time, right fit,” he said. “Depending on where you are, you might have those (resource) concerns. I think it’s all relative.”
Translation: A coordinator at a FBS school looking at a pay cut will have reservations, while a Division II head coach probably won’t.
Still, that doesn’t make the, uh, challenges go away. There are still Eastern assistants who will make $15,000 this year. There is still half a football stadium on Washington Street. And there is still the yearly threat of having to play two FBS opponents in 2008 to pay some bills, even as it obliterates the margin for error in qualifying for the FCS playoffs.
“One thing I’ll say is that it’s tough to take a budget and compare apples to apples,” Chaves said. “There are innate strengths of being in the greater Spokane area and the state of Washington that you may not have somewhere else in the Big Sky. You may have a greater budget somewhere else because you have to, because you have to go elsewhere to get players. For us here, we don’t have to do that.”
Is that really a rationalization you want to sell to an assistant sleeping on a buddy’s couch on a recruiting trip?
Look, we all love the notion of the hard-working overachiever – in fact, we absolutely have to believe in it. But there are times when it must be conceded that you can bump your head on the ceiling of the concept.
Baldwin has not felt that bump yet, obviously.
“I always believe we’re going to find ways to make things work,” he said. “I’m used to that. I’ve been here before, and believe me we didn’t have a bigger budget at Central.
“I think it’s wrong – in any profession, not just coaching – if you’re thinking about the things you don’t have or you’re not getting. You focus on the positives, what you do have. And if there are areas you consider lacking, spend your energy on solutions.”
That’s a good all-purpose approach, of course, and good advice to the EWU hard core who tend to obsess on what they think Eastern doesn’t get – media attention – in a market more consumed with its neighbor schools’ teams. Better to devote their energies to bringing a fellow alum to the next game, and getting that alum to drag along another to the one after that. Wring your hands over the resource gap if you will, but it can’t be all about waiting for the A.D. and administration to do something about it.
Because the clock’s ticking. Your football team is on the most meaningful run of success in the school’s history. At Washington State, not getting the most out of that kind of bounce is why they just hired away your head coach.
“I think it’s important, no question, to capitalize on this now,” Baldwin acknowledged. “We’re in a great position to continue to have success – not just one year, but two, three, four years. But like I tell the players, it’s not just going to happen.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.