Eastern Washington University’s well-documented financial woes have been severely compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced belt-tightening measures across the college athletics landscape.
When the Big Sky Conference opted Friday to pursue a spring football season, it presented more financial uncertainty and logistical hurdles.
Small NCAA Division I schools like EWU – an athletics department $5 million in the red before the virus halted sports in March – are feeling the crunch.
“There have truly been some frustrating moments, but think about what these kids are going through,” EWU athletic director Lynn Hickey said. “For a senior to know you have to wait to play in the spring now, you worry about their mental health.
“Handling the fears and angst of athletes, coaches and administration has been the toughest thing these past few months.”
Before the pandemic, though, there was a sense of excitement at EWU.
Good things were on deck, the kind that may have charged up the Eagles’ fan base, brought in money and helped chip away at its debt.
Unfortunately for the Cheney school, the pandemic threw a wrench into those program-boosting pursuits.
Eleven months ago, EWU president Mary Cullinan stood at a lectern along with Hickey, announcing the EWU Board of Regents’ approval to renovate Roos Field with private funds, a project with an estimated $25 million price tag.
A $5 million donation last summer by local business owner and Cheney resident Jack Gillingham gave the stadium project a major shot in the arm.
Stadium renderings of the proposal pumped life into a football fan base craving for a bigger, better Roos Field, a facility to keep up with Big Sky programs already pumping millions into their athletic departments.
EWU said during the proposal last September that the next 18 to 24 months of fundraising would be crucial in reaching the goal.
The EWU football team, picked to win the Big Sky Conference in 2019 after reaching the 2018 national title game, went on to miss the postseason. A playoff run that would have likely helped boost fundraising dollars.
Roughly four months after the Eagles’ football season, the coronavirus outbreak shut down much of the U.S. and disrupted fundraising efforts.
Last week, Cullinan stepped down after recently receiving a vote of no confidence from EWU faculty.
A new and improved stadium has been one of Hickey’s primary goals since she was hired in 2018, but her athletic department now faces more pressing matters.
Some visible progress has been made, though.
EWU was able to lay down its new red turf this summer, a $1 million project from private funds. The old, aging red turf was cut up and sold to fans for fundraising purposes.
No NCAA tournament
The EWU men’s basketball team claimed an outright Big Sky regular-season title in March, the fourth crown in the program’s Division I history.
Major college basketball experts around the country prognosticated the Eagles’ appearance in the 2020 NCAA tournament, their seed ranging from 13 to 15.
About two hours before EWU’s Big Sky Tournament quarterfinal game against Sacramento State in Boise, the conference canceled the tournament due to growing coronavirus concerns.
Hours later, the NCAA tournament was canceled, and Division I athletic departments around the country paid a big price.
The NCAA distributes big NCAA tournament money to all 32 conferences every year, but it slashed $225 million from a budgeted $600 million because of the tournament cancellation, according to reports.
This also affected EWU, which may have made millions more if the Eagles won the Big Sky Tournament and qualified for the Big Dance, something they did in 2004 and 2015.
Small-school brand recognition often reaches its apex during the NCAA tournament, and the free marketing and local excitement in hoops-crazed Spokane would have likely been a financial boon for EWU.
No Florida game
EWU’s football team has never played a member of the tradition-rich Southeastern Conference, but that was supposed to change when the Eagles agreed to face the national power Florida Gators in Gainesville, Florida, on Sept. 5, 2020.
Former EWU quarterback Jim McElwain was the head coach at Florida in 2016 when the guarantee game was scheduled, throwing his alma mater a $750,000 bone to make the trip to “The Swamp.”
The game lost some intrigue when McElwain was fired in 2017, but EWU was counting on the big payday and national exposure that comes with facing one of college football’s blue bloods.
The game was called off last month, though, when the SEC opted to play a conference-only schedule as a coronavirus precaution, leading to Florida canceling its three 2020 guarantee games against EWU, South Alabama and New Mexico State.
It doesn’t appear EWU will be seeing any of that money.
According to the EWU-Florida game contract obtained by the Spokesman-Review, a contract breach would result in a $750,000 payout, but both teams signed a “force majeure” clause that protects Florida from extenuating circumstances.
“In the event of fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, war, invasion, hostilities, labor dispute, rebellion, insurrection, confiscation by order of the government, military or public authority or prohibitory or governmental authority, including that of the Southeastern Conference or the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or any circumstance making it impossible or impractical to play the game, both parties shall be relieved of any and all obligations of this agreement,” the clause states.
Big Sky teams will play an eight-game conference schedule in the spring, but the spring schedule could be much different than the 13 members’ recent fall schedules.
EWU’s fall schedule was a good one.
The Eagles, ranked in several preseason Top 25 polls and led by Big Sky Conference, were slated to open the season with two nonconference home games against Western Illinois and Northern Arizona, teams that combined for a 5-19 record in 2019.
NAU is a member of the Big Sky, but the game wouldn’t have counted in conference due to the conference’s unbalanced scheduling.
The conference’s top three teams according to preseason polls – Weber State, Montana and Montana State – were all scheduled to play in Cheney this year, where EWU has a school- record 14-game home winning streak.
Those home games would have been great for EWU competitively and financially.
EWU likely would have brought in big ticket money for those three home games. Idaho was also on EWU’s home schedule, another game that likely would have brought a throng of paying fans to Roos Field.
The Eagles were picked fourth in Big Sky preseason coaches and media polls, led by preseason offensive MVP and senior quarterback Eric Barriere.
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