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Sports >  EWU football

Eastern Washington overcomes challenges to keep game against Florida, $750,000 payout intact

Sept. 29, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 29, 2022 at 8:26 p.m.

EWU Director of Athletics Lynn Hickey.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
EWU Director of Athletics Lynn Hickey. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

It was apt, or perhaps just a little bit coincidental, that of all the weekends and of all the schedules and of all the teams in college football, it would be the game between Eastern Washington and the University of Florida most directly impacted by a hurricane.

It was a game already delayed by another “force majeure” when the COVID-19 pandemic knocked the game from its original scheduled date of Sept. 5, 2020.

But after days of pursuing a variety of scenarios and ensuring that the decision to play a football game was something all parties were comfortable with, the Eagles and Gators are on track to play at 9 a.m. Sunday in Gainesville.

Having been through such crises before, Eastern Washington athletic director Lynn Hickey was particularly sensitive to the University of Florida’s situation. Do they play a football game just a few days after a hurricane ripped across their state?

“(We wanted to) make sure we had the right level of empathy for our host institution,” Hickey said Thursday. “They’re the ones in the middle of this crisis.”

But she was assured by the Gators that they still wanted to play, so the Eagles mobilized to make it happen.

“Sometimes the best way to pull everybody out of situations is to continue to have some things to celebrate and to join in special events,” Hickey said. “You just don’t want to do anything that’s disrespectful to the situation.”

In 2017, Hickey was the athletic director at the University of Texas, San Antonio. That was the year Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 30 inches of rain on parts of Houston, and UTSA’s game against the Houston Cougars was postponed the week of the storm. That game was never rescheduled.

“I had been through all these conversations (before), so I think that helped,” Hickey said. “Coming from that part of the country, (I know) how things can change every 30 minutes, every few hours.”

The game first came into question Monday, as Hurricane Ian strengthened and made its way north through the Caribbean.

Moving the game to another location was never a serious consideration, Hickey said, but a delay made sense.

“The thing that came up really quickly was, can we move the game to Sunday?” she said. “From the get go, that was the best plan.”

That change was announced Tuesday, and Jake Rasmussen, EWU’s director of football operations, worked on the logistics of travel and lodging.

“Jake has been the workhorse,” Hickey said.

They set up scenarios about where to land a charter flight, considering at various times other Florida cities like Destin and Tallahassee, as well as Savannah, Georgia. Each of those options came with variables around busing and lodging, which compounded the list of possible outcomes.

It was important to the Eagles to arrive two days before the game, in large part because of the early kickoff and the way the time change worked against their sleep schedule. Destin became the primary focus, Hickey said, but a five-hour bus ride from there to Gainesville made that option less attractive.

All this was set against the backdrop of a massive hurricane with an uncertain path.

Yet if the Gators were still willing to play, the Eagles were incentivized to do so, for multiple reasons. One was certainly financial, as the $750,000 payout is among the most lucrative for a guarantee game between an FBS and FCS school.

That original contract – the one with a “force majeure” clause already invoked once – was signed in 2016 on the strength of the connection between Eastern Washington and then-Florida coach Jim McElwain, who played quarterback for the Eagles from 1980 to 1983 and worked on the team’s staff from 1985 to 1994.

Hickey wasn’t Eastern’s athletic director then, but she recognized the generosity of that deal.

“This is a great gift from (McElwain),” Hickey said. “That was a kind thing to do for Eastern.”

When the game was originally rescheduled for this weekend, it was the only option Florida had to offer, Hickey said.

Even though the Eagles were already scheduled to play Oregon in 2022, and it wasn’t ideal to play two FBS teams in one season – something about which Hickey said she consulted Eagles coach Aaron Best – there was too much upside to turn it down, and that upside wasn’t just the money, Hickey said.

“This is really giving those kids an experience that for the rest of their lives they’ll talk about: playing in ‘The Swamp,’ ” Hickey said.

Rasmussen and Hickey were still navigating various scenarios on Wednesday, but by Thursday morning the Eagles’ plans had come together: Friday morning, they will fly directly to Gainesville, arriving around dinner time. Buses will be there to greet them and take them to their hotel.

Barring any further – and unexpected – changes, the Eagles are on track to play the Gators on what is predicted to be a sunny, 85-degree day at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

It was a tense situation, Hickey said, but she felt good about proceeding with the game because those at the University of Florida did, too, and ultimately, plans worked out about as well as they could have, given the circumstances.

“Everything we wanted to have in place happened,” she said. “It was a lot of good people working together.”

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