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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

EWU’s athletic dominance builds statewide image

The Eastern Washington University Eagles rush onto Roos Field before playing Idaho State University last fall in Cheney. (File)

Success on the gridiron and hardwood appears to be giving Eastern Washington University a boost.

In a statewide survey of EWU’s reputation, athletics was what most came to mind when respondents were asked about the regional university. The quality and value of its educational opportunities were mentioned by some Spokane County respondents, but statewide most who were surveyed indicated they didn’t know enough about the university to form an overall opinion.

“Across all audiences, athletics was top of mind,” said Emily Easley, a senior account executive at Desautel Hege Communications, which conducted the survey. “We would expect to see this at any university that has a strong athletics program.”

But while perceptions were generally favorable, particularly among those within Spokane County, the polling showed most people statewide hadn’t given it much thought either way. “There’s no need to repair an image, just expand it,” said Easley.

The $47,000 survey included three polls conducted in January and March. Five hundred randomly selected residents from across Washington were interviewed by phone; for comparison purposes, another 400 were interviewed in Spokane County. The survey also included an online poll of randomly selected alumni, as well as university Cabinet members. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.

The results are intended to give the Cheney-based university a baseline measurement.

“We’re building on six years of increasing record enrollment,” said Michael Westfall, who serves as vice president for university advancement and executive director of the EWU Foundation. “We have a really strong foundation to build on.”

Eastern has sought to position itself as the best value in Washington by offering the lowest tuition of any of the state’s public universities and touting the region’s generally lower cost of living compared to the Puget Sound region. It also has beefed up its science and engineering programs, expanded operations within downtown Spokane’s growing University District and requires undergraduate students to complete research projects within their disciplines before graduating.

But the survey indicates that marketing campaign hasn’t quite caught on.

Barely 1 percent of those surveyed statewide cited affordability, while 5 percent listed quality of education when asked to name the first thing that comes to mind about EWU, according to the survey results. The single-largest response was football and athletics, drawing 14 percent of the statewide responses and twice that level within Spokane County.

Strong, successful athletics programs often are considered by educators as the “front door” that brings students and supporters to the university.

Eastern is the state’s only regional university with an NCAA Division I sports program. Two teams in particular, football and basketball, have captured a lot of attention lately.

The football team has won four Big Sky Conference titles in the past five years and in 2010 was the national FCS champion. This season, the program averaged nearly 9,500 fans at each home game and captured national attention behind the arm of record-setting quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., who drew even more notice when he decided to transfer to national powerhouse Oregon for his final year of NCAA eligibility. Over the years, 16 of the school’s players have been drafted by NFL teams.

The basketball team, meanwhile, has steadily been building, too, catching the sports world off guard in November with its 88-86 upset win at Indiana, ending a 43-game home win streak for one of college basketball’s most storied programs. The team went on to capture the Big Sky title and its second invitation to the NCAA tournament, where it became a popular Cinderella pick in March Madness brackets but fell in the second round. Junior guard Tyler Harvey, who led the nation in scoring last season, announced in April he would make himself available for the pro draft and try to become just the second Eagle to play in the NBA.