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Blanchette: Baldwin leaves behind blueprint for success

Jan. 16, 2017 Updated Mon., Jan. 16, 2017 at 11:06 p.m.

Through a lot of victories and a few defeats Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin remained a voice of reason for his players. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Through a lot of victories and a few defeats Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin remained a voice of reason for his players. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

With a date in the national championship game at stake in 2010, Beau Baldwin called a timeout and summoned quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell to his side. Just 91 seconds remained in the semifinal against Villanova, and five yards would get Eastern Washington and it’s slim three-point lead to kneel-down territory.

So naturally Baldwin told his quarterback to throw it over the top.

“Go to the end zone?” Mitchell stammered.

Of course go to the end zone. And of course the Villanova safety would jump the decoy short route, and of course Mitchell would put the ball where Greg Herd would make a play on it, and of course the Eagles would waltz to Texas.

And waltz home with the FCS title three weeks later.

This is the Beau Baldwin that became a minor legend here. Gambling Beau. Fourth-down-at-his-own-34-go-for-it Beau. Fake-field-goal-and-throw-a-touchdown Beau.

He was also candid Beau, accessible Beau, detailed Beau, compassionate Beau.

“And just … pleasant,” offered Jim Hayford, the basketball coach who works down the hall. “What a great thing to have – someone that successful be consistently pleasant.”

But risk tends to attract all the light.

On Monday, EWU’s ace actuary did a little dice rolling with his career. He accepted a job as offensive coordinator to new Cal coach Justin Wilcox, probably more than doubling his Eastern wage and launching himself into the Power 5 echelon, from where greater opportunity likely awaits.

Athletic directors are tasked with making home-run hires for their football programs; the head coach’s encores must at least be stand-up triples. Wilcox’s first recruit is that and a steal of home. He gets an OC who in the last four years has played four Pac-12 opponents – winning teams all – and averaged 47 points each outing, winning twice.

While he wasn’t making life hell on the Pac-12, Baldwin was winning 73 percent of his games, five Big Sky Conference titles and becoming an FCS playoff perennial. Saturdays at Roos Field became the party EWU’s football evangelists envisioned 35 years ago.

So the flock is likely forlorn. And yet …

“Even when something like this happens, they’re so darn positive,” Baldwin marveled. “I’m ready to be berated – and maybe I’ll get a few – but it’s just unbelievable the support.”

Hey, you like to see your own make good.

And things seem secure enough at Eastern after all this time to suggest the Eagles will stay good. This was Baldwin’s valedictory, at least.

“Whether a quarterback leaves, a receiver, a running back or whether a coach is gone, this place is much bigger than any one person,” Baldwin insisted. “Always has been, always will be. These guys will continue to roll.”

It’s true the Eags have thrived even through leadership change. From the bedrock foundation and early breakthroughs under the program’s godfather, Dick Zornes, the Eagles made incremental gains under Mike Kramer and Paul Wulff.

But Baldwin steered Eastern football to another strata, and it’s tough to stay comfortable on a cliff face. He unearthed those heroes of 2010 – Mitchell, Taiwan Jones, Brandon Kaufman – and continued with finds like the spectacularly overlooked Cooper Kupp, whose ridiculous achievements should have put the Pac-12 coaches who missed on him into new professions.

And while Baldwin can be as demanding as any football coach, there is also the air of “no biggie” about him.

“He’s very objective,” said offensive line coach Aaron Best, who along with defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding will oversee things for the moment. “And whether it’s Saturday when the score is tied and you’re at the 3-yard line with a play to go or at practice on a Tuesday, he’s the same guy.

“The moment doesn’t make him. He makes the moment.”

All kinds of moments. Hayford would climb on a bus after a tough loss on the road, click on his phone and find a text from Baldwin with a hang-in-there message – “respecting what it’s like to be in the middle of the fight,” he said, “but with always the right words to say.”

And he saw those words register with Baldwin’s teams.

“When you look at the first four games this year, they could have played great and gone 0-4,” Hayford said. “He didn’t downplay it or play it up. He said, ‘This is going to be fun.’ And his team followed his lead and embraced it.”

That attitude was apparent upon his hiring. It’s often forgotten that Baldwin was athletic director Bill Chaves’ second call – the first, properly, went to Eastern alum Jim McElwain, now head coach at Florida, whose career arc had already outstripped his alma mater’s budget.

That would have been a home run, too. It’s just that Plan B was a grand slam.

So is there life for the Eags after Beau?

Absolutely –but not without risk. Would Eastern want it any other way?

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