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Sports >  EWU football

John Blanchette: Eastern Washington hoping to make Frisco a home away from The Inferno

Jan. 4, 2019 Updated Fri., Jan. 4, 2019 at 10:58 p.m.

FRISCO, Texas – Nobody could have envisioned the stupefying way they won their 2010 national championship – unless, of course, they’d reviewed the tapes of all the other games Eastern Washington’s Eagles won that season. It was, in fact, the only way they could win it.

So what truly wasn’t envisioned was this:

That it would take the Eagles eight long years to return to the scene of the sublime.

Now, here they are at last, back for a stab at a second Football Championship Subdivision championship, a bit of redundancy that shows why Roman numerals and capital letters were the best way to distinguish college football’s weight classes all along.

And while there’s no shortage of anticipation in the opportunity dead ahead Saturday morning when it takes on North Dakota State on the grass of Toyota Stadium, surely it wouldn’t hurt to wonder if Eastern could start making a habit of this.

Nothing Bisonian, mind you. Not raking nearly every pot.

But just enough for the traveling fans to get familiar with a few of the hot spots around town so maybe the bartenders will recognize them the next time they walk through the door.

“I’d love,” EWU coach Aaron Best said, “for this to be the standard.”

Naturally, there were caveats. That it starts with winning the Big Sky Conference and building a resume. And that’s done “one game at a time. We’re going to approach this game no different,” Best said.

Phew. Be terrible if the Eags were caught looking ahead to the 2019 season opener.

Just kidding. The point is taken. Whatever Eastern has achieved on a national scale in football has to start with the building blocks of August, September and October.

Question is, is that enough for the Eagles anymore?

Maybe the answer is, you don’t ever get full say.

As noted, when the Eagles floated out of what was then called Pizza Hut Park on a gust of euphoria eight years ago, they were too jazzed to think much beyond the victory party. But on reflection, a repeat seemed thoroughly plausible. Yes, they would graduate their Buchanan Award linebacker, J.C. Sherritt, but most of the rest of the marquee names were underclassmen – including quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who indeed would win the Walter Payton Award the next season.

But then running back Taiwan Jones turned pro and injuries took down receiver Brandon Kaufman and linebacker Zach Johnson. And there was that criminally front-loaded schedule – road games at Washington, South Dakota and Montana – that sent Eastern reeling to a 0-4 start.

Lots of tough breaks. But the Eags were back in the playoff mix the next year and three of four thereafter. Three times they were derailed in the semis on their home red. If you’re looking for a connecting thread, consider that they gave up an average of a 45 points a game in their season-ending playoff losses.

It was during this time, of course, that North Dakota State was laying waste to any notion of parity or sharing – winning six FCS titles in seven years.

Best is more impressed than jealous.

“It’s harder to stay on top when you are the top dog than it is to get to the top,” he said.

And the Eagles themselves proved it.

But this is also an institutional matter.

Best noted that Eastern’s perch amid the best FCS teams nationally now dates more than 20 years – he was a lineman on the 1997 semifinal team. The Eagles have been a model of continuity from the top – from godfather Dick Zornes to Mike Kramer to Paul Wulff to Beau Baldwin and now Best, all groomed in the program.

“They set the standard,” Best said. “It’s our job to continue the standard and push the standard.”

But there has not been much in the way of a complementary push. Despite all the success, there’s been no momentum on stadium improvements – or a replacement – and the school’s athletic budget remains roughly half of what they spend at NDSU and Big Sky rival Montana, with more than double the allocated money those programs collect. In that light, what Eastern’s been doing the last eight years is remarkable. Former EWU quarterback and assistant coach Jim McElwain had that perspective back in 2011, talking about that signature championship victory.

“When you think about it,” he said, “it was a microcosm of Eastern itself: People want to count you out, and they just kind of hang in there.”

Maybe that’s exactly where Eastern should be. Maybe the constituency is speaking.

Maybe it’s proper that the participants have the greater ambitions. They certainly have them this weekend, underdogs or not.

“We’re not (just) OK to be here,” Best insisted.

Bet they’d be OK coming back more often. You can’t win it if you don’t get here.

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