These are exciting times for sports fans at Eastern Washington University.
Anxious ones, too, for Eagles supporters who’ve grown accustomed to winning, especially in football.
In the next few days, either interim athletic director Lynn Hickey or Utah Valley’s Vince Otoupal will take over Eastern’s overachieving athletic department, which has defied the odds for better than a decade.
In the Big Sky Conference, on the field and in the classroom, Eastern has been the little engine that could. The Eagles are making the most of a meager supply of the only fossil fuel that matters these days: money.
“They’ve done a lot without a lot of resources,” Hickey said earlier this month.
Indeed, despite a budget that’s the second-smallest in the conference, the Eagles have won four of the last six league titles in football, three of them outright.
The question on everyone’s mind as EWU president Mary Cullinan prepares to decide on Bill Chaves’ successor: Who is the right person to keep this thing going?
As Hickey put it Thursday during a public forum, “This is an athletic department that in some ways has hit a ceiling.”
For that, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Fans haven’t given, but in some cases they haven’t been asked.
The department is at a crossroads, leaving fans and student-athletes alternately full of hope and fear. They hope for a renovation to 50-year-old Roos Field while dreading possible cuts in the face of a cumulative $5.8 million athletic department deficit.
Those fears are fed by the limited information emanating from the administration.
Despite several requests from The Spokesman-Review during the last three weeks, the administration at the publicly-supported university has offered no information on how the athletic department came to find itself $5.8 million in the red – or what that number means for the future.
At the same time, Chaves’ expiring contract wasn’t renewed; insiders say Cullinan wasn’t satisfied with the level of fundraising under his watch.
With the handwriting on the wall, Chaves looked elsewhere before landing in January at a bigger department at North Dakota.
Now it’s up to his successor to help rekindle the philanthropic fires at Eastern. If it’s Hickey, she chose the right words during a public forum on Thursday.
“We’ve got to find a way to get the infrastructure and give (student-athletes) the things they need,” said Hickey, whom Cullinan appointed as interim A.D. in late January.
“The operating budget needs to go up by $4-5 million,” added Hickey, who would dedicate most of those funds to “student-athlete welfare and being at a competitive level in the Big Sky.”
Fans have reason to be optimistic.
Implementing the findings of a consulting firm, the Phoenix Philanthropy Group, the university has moved forward with a comprehensive, campus-wide fundraising effort that promises to include athletics.
Certainly the athletic director will be a key part of those efforts. Fortunately, both candidates have strong backgrounds in fundraising.
A dozen years ago, Otoupal was the associate athletic director at San Jose State, where he oversaw the major gift program and annual fundraising group.
In 2006 and 2007, the Spartan Foundation set records for dollars raised and number of donors.
Later, Otoupal shrugged off the congratulations of donors, who basically said, “You don’t need us anymore.”
Otoupal’s reply was revealing and rewarding.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Otoupal said. “Things are better, but we’re not at the top of the mountain.”
In 1999, Hickey couldn’t even see the mountain – literally or figuratively. She was in Texas, after all, as the newly hired athletic director at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
A commuter school of 16,000 – sound familiar? – UTSA had little campus life, tepid fundraising and no football program. Now the Roadrunners are playing at the FBS level and drawing as many as 57,000 fans at the Alamodome.
Spearheading fundraising efforts that netted tens of millions of dollar, Hickey also raised the profile of the institution. Enrollment now stands at 29,000.
However, this isn’t Silicon Valley or football-obsessed Texas. But the dreams are just as big.
Last week in Cheney, an EWU student-athlete told Otoupal that “I’m tired of being the guy who does more with less. I want to be the guy who does more with more.”
To realize that goal, Otoupal said that fundraising efforts must be bold.
“We are going to do some crazy things. Half of them aren’t going to work, but half of them are going to work,” Otoupal said.
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