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Eastern Washington faces tough choice in new head football coach

The big question is whether Eastern Washington selects a new head coach who will continue the passing tradition continued this season by  Gage Gubrud. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
The big question is whether Eastern Washington selects a new head coach who will continue the passing tradition continued this season by Gage Gubrud. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington just lost its head coach, but athletic director Bill Chaves said he hopes to preserve the program’s identity.

Which is what, exactly?

Is it the inherent culture of the program, or is it the highly successful passing offense implemented by Baldwin and a long line of assistants?

Lately, it’s been both. The Eagles have won five Big Sky Conference titles in the last seven years. They’ve also posted a combined 3.0 grade-point average and cultivated a family atmosphere that’s attracted recruits and kept them in Cheney.

And kept them out of trouble once they’ve arrived.

Now for the hard part: Can Chaves have it both ways as he looks for the “right fit for the university and the program?”

Chaves is under pressure to find a replacement before national signing day on Feb. 1. Otherwise, he jeopardizes what appears to be a strong recruiting class.

That implies the selection of an in-house successor, and the logical choice is offensive line coach Aaron Best. Last year, Baldwin paid Best the ultimate compliment by calling him “the face of Eastern football.”

A fixture at Eastern since his freshman year in 1996, Best also is the running game coordinator and the academic coordinator.

“You can see the teaching qualities,” Baldwin said of Best. “He has 16 to 20 guys, but he can engage them all.”

However, Best isn’t a passing guru in the mold of Baldwin or former offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. For almost two decades, Best has made it his business to protect Eastern’s quarterbacks. Their development has been left to others.

Moreover, he’s never been a head coach.

It’s the same story with another top candidate, defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding.

“His attention to detail is better than anyone I’ve ever been around,” Baldwin once said.

But Schmedding – who worked a small miracle last year – has devoted half a lifetime to defeating the passing game, not creating it.

The bottom line: If Chaves promotes from within, Best or Schmedding must find an offensive coordinator of the Baldwin-Taylor mold or risk the erosion of EWU’s identity on the field.

Even before Baldwin’s arrival, the EWU program has been pass-first. Last year, the Eagles threw 620 passes and ran the ball just 442 times – 134 by sensational sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud.

Gubrud has a solid group of receivers ready to take the field next year, arms outstretched.

The bottom line: Smash-mouth football isn’t in the Eagles’ DNA.

Chaves has another option: an outside hire. Perhaps he’ll seek a head coach from another school. Nine years ago, Chaves did just that and hired Baldwin from Central Washington.

In 2011, he did the same thing on the basketball court, plucking Jim Hayford from Division III Whitworth. Three years later, the Eagles were rewarded with only their second trip to the NCAA tournament.

Three years ago, Chaves reached even further down the ladder and hired Chad Bodnar from the juco soccer ranks. The payoff came with the program’s first NCAA appearance, clinched on EWU’s home turf.

After hitting a few home runs, Chaves may aim for the fences again. Certainly there will be no shortage of interest in a program that in the last two weeks has sent Baldwin and Taylor to coordinator jobs in the Pac-12.

But that choice is always fraught with risk, especially in football. An outsider might preserve the Xs and Os but irreparably damage the culture that Chaves has promised to preserve.

Asked about the coaching search Tuesday afternoon, Chaves declined comment.

“My next public comments will come when we introduce our next head coach at the press conference,” he said via text.

Chaves also said he was forsaking social media until announcement day.

But perhaps silence is golden. Certainly Chaves embraces the challenge.

“I tend to always think glass half full,” Chaves said. “That’s how we’re going to attack this. We’re excited about the opportunity.”

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