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Eastern Washington University Football
Sports >  EWU football

John Blanchette: Eastern Washington’s biggest donor ‘ask’ in history comes with some odd optics

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 6, 2019

Television’s surviving game shows are mostly about cash these days – and cash is great – but the enduring ones were all about the prizes.

State-of-the-art appliances. Tahitian vacations. A new car.

What you never saw behind Door No. 3 was model Carol Merrill holding a stamped invoice and announcer Jay Stewart gushing, “All your credit card debt’s been paid off!”

Because while that’s something of genuine worth, it’s also kind of an adrenaline killer. No prize. Nothing new and shiny.

Which all came to mind Friday as Eastern Washington University gifted itself the prize of a $25 million Roos Field re-do – or at least announced the vision and a determination to make it a reality – all the while the athletic department continues to lug around a cumulative debt pushing $6 million.

Just another reminder that the old-school household economics learned as mom and dad balanced the checkbook at the kitchen table just don’t have much application in today’s world of college athletics.

But this is how you do it, optics notwithstanding.

And make no mistake, insisted EWU president Mary Cullinan.

“We are going to get this done,” she said.

With “pre-design” renderings and an enthusiastic pitch from Rustin Hall of ALSC Architects, the project task force assembled by Cullinan made its recommendation Friday afternoon and the board of regents passed it without dissent or so much as a question. Also without a projected date for shoveling dirt or a ribbon cutting, although a new swatch of red turf will go down before the 2020 season as the first piece of the puzzle.

So apparently some of the money is already pledged.

The balance Eastern plans to hustle up in the next 18 to 24 months, an aggressive timetable that the school’s new vice president of advancement, Barb Richey, called “reasonable, responsible and reachable.”

And contrary to the school’s entire history.

From the scramble after the fact to pay for the press box and suites that went up in 2004 to the grandiose Gateway Project that fizzled out over four fitful years, raising dough for a new facility remake at Eastern has suggested a crew team in facing seats using screen doors for oars.

Which may have made the resolute and united front the school presented Friday the most remarkable part of this endeavor.

“Good, bad or indifferent, everything done in the past led us to where we are right now,” said Devon Thomas, EWU’s senior associate athletics director.

But the school has never made – or at least fulfilled – such a steep funding ask for athletics.

What’s going to work this time?

EWU athletic director Lynn Hickey wasn’t on board for previous whiffs, but offered that “maybe in the past they were at a point where they had to just put out fires and never had a chance to lay a foundation to build a resource program so that you could go forward on major projects.

“We have a lot of people on board now who see the value in this. The president initiated this; the board of trustees was in with it the whole time.”

So reputations are on the line, at least.

But the fact is, Eastern is going to have to reach an entirely new sort of athletic benefactor. Hickey notes with justifiable pride that in the past year the Eagle Athletic Fund more than doubled its revenue intake – and yet that new high is just $650,000. Thomas recounted delivering season tickets to an Eagle donor this week who, upon hearing the stadium plans, said, “I want to help.”

Well, he’d better bring 20 friends, preferably a few them CEOs.

But those are the people – if there are enough of them – who buy the front-porch-to- the-university argument, and the reasonable conclusion that it’s important to continue the momentum the Eagles have generated on the field. As for priorities, well, Cullinan stressed that it’s a totally fund-raised project – an “additive that isn’t taking away from anything (else) we’re doing.”

Still, there’s that cumulative deficit and the notion that it seems impossible to reconcile panhandling for a shiny new home with bills owing – even with so much institutional support directed to athletics.

“You should go to Washington State and ask how they’re reconciling it,” Hickey said.

Yeah, that’s just not the right answer. Wazzu going into even deeper debt is neither justification nor a good punch line.

“We balanced our budget this year for the first time in five years,” said Hickey, trying again. “And anytime you’re in a deficit and you have to produce revenue, you don’t go hide and do nothing. This is a time you have to invest in things that bring you (return on investment), so you can have a chance to start putting reserves together and someday pay back that deficit.”

Besides, people will donate to put their name on a club seat, but not debt relief.

It’s how the game is played.

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