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Eastern Washington University Basketball
Sports >  EWU basketball

John Blanchette: Eastern Washington athletics learning the price of ambition with limited resources

UPDATED: Fri., May 21, 2021

Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere has given Eagles fans many reasons to cheer during Saturday games at Roos Field.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere has given Eagles fans many reasons to cheer during Saturday games at Roos Field. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Football. Even at budget-squeezed, donor-challenged, far-from-the-Power-5 Eastern Washington University, it’s still too big to fail.

Tennis and track? Better watch your back.

But then, there’s been a lot of that going around campus. Perhaps the folks in music and journalism who took a whack Friday can suggest some coping mechanisms for any disenfranchised pole vaulters.

The big rec that came down from on high at the May meeting of EWU’s Board of Trustees was not the big wreck friends of football might have feared – though they never really had reason to. However earnest the board was in commissioning a study of Eastern’s money-strained marriage with NCAA athletics, the notion that the school’s best shot at budget and branding nirvana would be to drop football or retrench to nonscholarship Division III was going to need a champion with real clout to have any legs.

The issue will forever be eye-of-the-beholder stuff, sides chosen well before any report – as has been the case for 45 years – even if EWU’s interim president, David May, did insist that in his evaluation, “I had the advantage of not knowing what I wanted the answer to be.”

Still, it was no surprise when May came down firmly on the side of Eastern remaining in the Big Sky Conference and playing in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. Sometime in June, the BoT will put its stamp to it, possibly with some muffled misgivings.

And everyone can go back to tailgating.

Wait, sorry. “Creating community connection points,” is the preferred language.

Of course, before then there could be yet another no-confidence vote by the Faculty Senate, countered by another huffy rebuke from the board. If educratic discord was an NCAA sport, the Eags could be a top seed.

But from their remarks Friday, the trustees did betray a desire to settle the matter, even at the expense of a despairing faculty and more budgetary pain. And that’s a little naïve. Versions of this argument have sparked every five to 10 years at Eastern, with varying degrees of affirmation of the athletic program’s worth and direction coming from the deciders.

If academic programs come under regular review, so should athletics – even, yes, if it creates the kind of uncertainty and heartburn that has led to an exodus of coaches and athletes this spring. It’s the price of ambition with limited resources.

It’s also why, in his recommendation, May took pains to tie those ambitions to something more than a bottom line.

“If we can make a decision based on mission and then use budget as a means to achieve that mission component,” he said, “we can get ourselves out of this endless loop … The error we have had is to try and create a budgetary answer to a mission-based question.”

High-minded as that sounds, it also leaves a lingering justification for not living within your means, even when told you should. Of course, college athletics transcended such pedantry long ago.

In our current case, May chose to recommend Door No. 2 from the PICTOR Group’s report options – a “tiered” athletics program in which football and basketball and a few other programs are funded at Big Sky-commensurate levels and other sports … not so much. There would be NCAA minimums and Title IX obligations to meet, but scholarships and support would be slashed.

For those sports, D-I maintenance with a D-III approach.

But in reality, that’s not going to save enough to balance a budget. Even the PICTOR report maintained that another $4 million a year in institutional support – on top of the regular $5 million – will be needed for Eastern to function at Big Sky levels.

Never mind the faculty. Can the trustees and administration look students in the eye and tell them another $4 million is being siphoned out of the classroom?

May’s recommendation suggests he can. He insisted that he doesn’t accept “that there’s a dichotomy between athletics and academics.” And, no, dropping football didn’t turn Western Washington into Harvard.

It’s a killjoy’s errand to reduce Eastern’s athletic highs to dollars and cents. Red turf Saturdays, the March Madness scare of Kansas, the national championship of 2010 – whether they drive enrollment or not, they’re of real value. The Barrieres and Groveses and Kupps are far more widely identified with Eastern than the school’s other exceptional achievers.

But from the day Eastern went D-I, its athletic constituency has been unable or unwilling to shoulder enough of the cost of these delights. May took some pains to make that appeal, too, but in the end it seemed an afterthought. It’s time to see more announcements from the athletic director’s office about major gifts and not so many about coaches being shown the door.

Like it or not, someone has to pay for fulfilling the mission statement. Looks like we know who that is, for now.

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