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Before leaving, Bill Chaves reflects on positive times as Eastern Washington’s athletic director

Former Eastern Washington University football coach Beau Baldwin, left, and former EWU athletic director  Bill Chaves were a winning combination. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

For Bill Chaves, it’s never been about the trophies – even the one he passes several times a day outside his office.

Encased in glass and bathed in light, the 2010 Division I football championship trophy occupies a place of honor inside the athletic department building at Eastern Washington University.

The hardware was the product of hard work by many – not the least of whom was Chaves, who hired the coach who made it happen and later rolled out the signature red carpet that helped put Eastern on the map. Now, after more than a decade as Eastern’s athletic director, Chaves is moving to a different part of the map.

He’s giving up the West Plains for the Great Plains, but in the bargain will get a bigger budget and a powerhouse hockey program at North Dakota.

Eastern couldn’t give him that. But the Eagles provided Chaves with something else: his first chance to run the show, to be the engineer on the underfunded little train that could win championships.

And the Eagles gladly climbed aboard.

“It’s always about the people,” Chaves said this week from his office, now almost empty except for the memories pending his move next month to North Dakota. Wednesday will be his last day at Eastern.

“Everyone has their own style,” Chaves said. “I always put our student-athletes first. My filter is to ask that question: Is it good for the student-athlete, is it good for the department and is it good for the university?”

Mission accomplished: Eastern enjoyed an unprecedented run of success, on and off the field, during Chaves’ decade-plus tenure in Cheney.

The only exception was fundraising, and that may have proven pivotal in Chaves’ decision to seek the UND job. Several current EWU employees have told The Spokesman-Review that university president Mary Cullinan, frustrated with poor fundraising, determined last year that she wouldn’t renew Chaves’ contract when it was due to expire on June 30.

“The culture between the administration and athletics is strained,” one current employee said.

On-the-field, success was undeniable. In addition to the national title, the Eastern football team won five Big Sky titles, men’s basketball reached the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in school history and the women’s soccer team recently claimed back-to-back conference titles.

It’s the coaches who make that happen, but smart hires were no accident. Chaves didn’t see Eastern as a stepping stone, and he viewed job candidates through the same prism.

“Just wanting to be a head coach isn’t enough – you really want to be the head coach at that place,” said Chaves, who faced his first test only three months after taking over the department in 2007.

With football coach Paul Wulff moving to Washington State, Chaves eventually hired former EWU assistant Beau Baldwin, and the rest is record-breaking history.

In 2011 he plucked basketball coach Jim Hayford from Division III Whitworth, and the school was rewarded with a turnaround that was highlighted with an NCAA Tournament berth and three straight postseason appearances.

“I really appreciate that Bill gave me a chance to prove myself,” said Hayford, now at Seattle University. “He has a great ability to give people ideas of what will make them successful, and that also gives you more confidence.”

Perhaps his best hire was women’s soccer coach Chad Bodnar, who made the jump from the junior college ranks in sensational fashion. In four years, Bodnar turned a last-place program into back-to-back Big Sky tournament champs.

Never known as a micro-manager, Chaves said he “tried to give my opinion, not give advice.”

He also brought a sense of stability after Eastern had gone through four ADs, including two interims, in four years before Chaves arrived in 2007.

“I try to not have too many highs and lows,” Chaves said. “The next issue is coming, it never ends.”

Off the field, all of EWU’s athletic programs have an NCAA academic progress rate of 930 or better. They’ve also won a trio of President’s Cups, awarded for success in the classroom and on the playing field.

His peers noticed, twice naming Chaves as a national athletic director of the year.

He also was the only Division I AD to serve on the two-year NCAA Governance Working Group as requested by the NCAA’s Board of Directors.

While Chaves failed to deliver major renovations to Roos Field, he provided the initial idea and was a driving force in resurfacing the football field in red. Other improvements include videoboards at Roos Field and Reese Court, along with an enlarged parking lot for football.

Fundraising at Eastern has its challenges, Chaves said.

“The one thing that is challenging is that the (Spokane-area) marketplace is a bit cluttered,” Chaves said.

“EWU is not in the Pac-12 and it hasn’t gone to the NCAAs 20 times in a row – those are awesome achievements that should be celebrated, but you have to carve your own niche,” Chaves said.

Now Chaves will attempt to carve a new one at North Dakota, where he takes over on March 1.

The timing is good for Chaves, his wife Liz and their three children.

Daughter Erin will graduate from Lewis and Clark High School this spring and one of Chaves’ sons plays club hockey.

“He’ll be OK with the move – no doubt,” Chaves said.