Eastern Washington athletic director Lynn Hickey has been working to carve out the positives amid a long stretch of turbulence.
Between her department’s well-documented financial woes, an outside firm’s evaluation of a $5.5 million deficit, a mass exodus of athletes and coaches, two recent firings of head coaches and grumblings from a group of professors on sports spending that has long predated the pandemic, Hickey’s third year at the Cheney school hasn’t been roses.
The prospect of the Eagles downgrading to NAIA or NCAA Division III as a money-saving measure – one of four options the EWU Board of Trustees will decide in June, albeit the most extreme – hasn’t helped her cause.
Hickey, who has spent her lengthy administrative, coaching and playing career at the NCAA Division I level at stops including Texas A&M and Kansas State, adamantly believes the Eagles should remain a member of the Big Sky Conference.
She voiced that sentiment to the board of trustees Thursday while aiming to be more mindful of spending with an emphasis on fundraising in the future.
The athletic department’s deficit is compounded by dipping enrollment numbers, but Hickey believes EWU’s athletic success and notoriety are substantial and worth considering.
“We were the only Division I school this year to have both a men’s basketball team in the NCAA Tournament and a football team in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs,” Hickey said. “Pretty good for a school in Cheney, Washington, to accomplish that.
“Financially, there are costs to be Division I, but we would lose a lot of revenue if we weren’t Division I.”
On Friday, interim EWU interim president David May lent credence to Hickey’s approach.
May told the board of trustees he believes EWU should remain a Division I school but will need to make major monetary adjustments.
“If we’re going to remain Division I Big Sky athletics, and I’m making an argument very publicly that this is important for the community and beyond, I hope that community will hear what I’m saying,” May said.
Following a financial review by the Nevada-based PICTOR Group, the trustees will vote on four recommended options by the firm: reinvest in athletics, potentially putting EWU in a deeper hole; allocate spending to benefit more high-profile, money-making sports within NCAA and Title IX regulations; cut football but remain Division I in a different conference; or make the drop to NAIA or NCAA Division III.
May appeared to favor the second option, which would take funds from low-revenue sports to help boost ticket-selling programs like annual top-25 FCS football program and men’s basketball that’s often competing for Big Sky championships.
He also referenced EWU’s recent NCAA Tournament appearance and near upset of national power Kansas in which the Eagles’ athletic website crashed due to the high-volume from curious basketball fans from around the country.
“If #Eastern is trending No. 1 on Twitter for well over an hour on a Saturday, that’s media value that you can’t buy even if you have money,” May said.
Hickey was happy with May’s comments.
“Really appreciate the show of support from the president and his thoughtful analysis,” Hickey said. “It was extremely gratifying and appreciated.
“He has spent months doing research and working hard on this, so for him to have confidence in (the athletic department) and being mindful for what’s best for the entire university, that meant a lot. We truly believe we belong where we’re at.”
EWU continues to forge ahead during the uncertainty, which has been harder on some programs than others.
Two days after its NCAA Tournament appearance, men’s basketball coach Shantay Legans left for the same job at the higher-paying University of Portland, taking three key players and multiple assistants with him.
Several other players and All-Big Sky selections entered the transfer and ultimately left Cheney for bigger schools, leaving new head coach and former Legans assistant David Riley to almost start from scratch this spring.
Hickey fired 20-year head women’s basketball coach Wendy Schuller on April 1 following a third straight losing season and 277-322 overall record. More than half of EWU’s roster hit the transfer portal, and many since have signed with new schools.
Seven weeks later, EWU announced the hire of former Seattle University assistant Joddie Gleason to replace Schuller.
On May 10, Hickey elected not to renew the contract of successful women’s soccer coach Chad Bodnar but did not specify why because she said couldn’t comment on personnel issues.
EWU’s football team also lost several assistant coaches over the course of pandemic due to resignation or finding a different job, and multiple defensive starters entered the transfer portal this spring, including standout linebacker Chris Ojoh, who signed with New Mexico State.
Coaches and administrators were forced to take a pay cut last year when the pandemic took a pound of flesh from the school’s budget.
Hickey hopes the board affirms EWU’s status as a future Division I member next month to help the department return to normalcy.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Hickey said. “We have to get better and raise more money, and if the board supports May’s recommendation (to remain Division I), we will make those improvements.”
Spokesman-Review reporter Greg Mason contributed to this report.
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