Eastern Washington navigating mass exodus of athletes, coaches in ‘new culture’
April 20, 2021 Updated Tue., April 20, 2021 at 10:08 p.m.
Eastern Washington guard Casson Rouse, background, is one of the Eagles’ few returning players next season. Most of the team entered the NCAA transfer portal following last month’s NCAA Tournament appearance. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-RE)
If Vernon Adams had made the decision to transfer from Eastern Washington to Oregon in recent months, it probably wouldn’t send shock waves through the college football world like it did six years ago.
Adams, who starred at quarterback for three seasons at EWU before making the leap to the Pac-12 Conference, made the rare, upward move as a graduate transfer in 2015, a rule that was relatively new at the time.
Some lauded his decision to play in Eugene, where he earned Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year. Others groused about his disloyalty to the Eagles, who were left without their primary playmaker and ultimately missed the playoffs.
But since Adams’ polarizing decision, hundreds of prominent college athletes have taken the graduate transfer route to a new destination, which doesn’t come with the penalty of a redshirt season.
Since the implementation of the NCAA transfer portal in 2018, thousands of athletes have looked to greener pastures in what’s essentially turned into a free-agent market.
Now, with the NCAA briefly granting athletes the freedom to transfer out of their respective schools and have immediately eligibility – degree, hardship waiver or not – because of the coronavirus, there’s been a mass exodus at universities around the country.
Small Division I schools like EWU are feeling the extremes of this particular climate.
Dozens of departures have appeared to compound EWU’s well-documented financial issues that have led to talk of the Eagles potentially making crippling cost-cutting measures throughout the entire athletic department.
“We’re a program that’s been under a very public (financial) review all year, and we’re also dealing with a pandemic that’s caused a lot of angst for everyone,” EWU athletic director Lynn Hickey said. “It’s the perfect storm.”
It’s not just athletes who have been leaving Cheney since the height of the pandemic.
After leading EWU to the NCAA Tournament last month, head men’s basketball coach Shantay Legans accepted the same job at the University of Portland, opening the floodgates.
Legans took three of his better players from EWU – Jack Perry, Mike Meadows and Tyler Robertson – assistant coaches Bobby Suarez, T.J. Lipold, and multiple Eastern recruits with him.
Legans pointed to EWU’s lack of resources and management for the recent departures.
“Not knowing what you’re going to get day in and day out, that’s hard,” Legans said. “This ain’t Forrest Gump. It ain’t like a box of chocolates.”
Big Sky Conference Most Valuable Player and Shadle Park High School graduate Tanner Groves and his younger brother, All-Big Sky Tournament selection Jacob Groves, went the Power 5 route after choosing Oklahoma on Sunday.
EWU’s roster got thinner when two-time All-Big Sky wing Kim Aiken Jr. chose Arizona and two-time All-Big Sky guard Jacob Davison headed back home to California to play at Cal Poly.
This has left new EWU head coach David Riley, who was Legans’ top assistant, to pick up the pieces.
The Eagles return a pair of guards who had regularly started games in previous seasons in Ellis Magnuson and Casson Rouse and an up-and-coming talent in guard Steele Venters, but EWU will likely rely heavily on transfers until things become more steady next season.
Riley said he believes he still has the pieces to compete in 2021-22 and understands why most of the team left.
“The players and the coaches that left worked their ways into great opportunities,” said Riley, who is still searching for assistant coaches. “I am excited for them, but right now we have everything at EWU to keep our winning culture and to have a great time doing it.”
Tanner Groves said his move to the Big 12 Conference was similar to his former coach, Legans, in chasing his dream of a bigger job at a West Coast Conference school.
“I would have loved to play for (Riley) or Legans, both are incredible guys and mentors,” Groves said.
“Legans got the job he wanted. Dave got his dream job at EWU. And, for my personal goals, Oklahoma offered the best opportunity for me.”
Groves is among several midmajor conference MVPs recently to enter the transfer portal in pursuit of high-major basketball.
“It’s always disappointing,” Hickey said of the transfers. “You want to make a commitment to them, and their commitment to you changes.
“It’s hard. But just as we have students leaving, we have kids in the portal that can fill those roles.”
The Eagles have been the beneficiary of one key transfer portal addition so far in senior guard Rylan Bergersen, who averaged 17 points at Central Arkansas last season.
EWU women’s basketball players were regularly entering the transfer portal before the firing of longtime coach Wendy Schuller last month following a third consecutive losing season. It ramped up after.
Eastern, which is seeking Schuller’s replacement, had eight players enter the transfer portal, including Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year and former Liberty High standout Maisie Burnham. She has since signed with Portland.
The Eagles’ football team, which went 5-1 in its rare winter/spring season and travels to North Dakota State (6-2) in the first round of the truncated Football Championship Subdivision playoffs on Saturday, had several departures, too.
Just before the start of spring practices, veteran EWU assistant coaches Josh Fetter (linebackers), Brian Strandley (defensive line) and Health Pulver (special teams) resigned.
Three defensive starters from EWU’s 2019 team – defensive lineman Kieth Moore, linebacker Chris Ojoh and cornerback Ira Branch – have since entered the transfer portal.
Kevin Maurice, EWU’s running backs coach the past four seasons, resigned last week to accept an assistant coaching job at New Mexico State, which plays a rung above the Eagles in Football Bowl Subdivision.
EWU head coach Aaron Best appeared to have referred to some of the recent departures following the Eagles’ 28-21 win over Idaho last week.
“We want players who want to be here, and through thick and thin they’ve done a great job from the start to where we are now,” Best said.
Even low-revenue sports at EWU have recently seen stars leave the program. Eagles record-breaking jumper Keshun McGee opted to complete his senior season on a much grander track and field stage at the University of Alabama.
“It’s a new culture for us,” Hickey said. “For years and years, there’s been a penalty (sitting out a season) for someone who transfers out, but now that penalty has been taken away.”
Losing coaches and players at a high clip is also the result of winning, Hickey said, but warned that the “grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”
“We’re a victim of our own success,” Hickey said.
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