April 26, 2009
SPOKANE, Wash. -
By Steve Bergum, Spokane Spokesman-Review
Football has never been easy at Eastern Washington University.
But it has seldom, if ever, been this difficult.
From huge budget shortfalls to periods of administrative indifference
to fan apathy, Eastern's football program has struggled to stay
competitive -- at any level. For the most part, with the exception of
an ugly three-year stretch in the early 1960s when the Eagles went
2-24-1, it has.
But now comes another towering wave of financial woes, churned up by a
tanking economy and expected to crash down directly on top of a
further-restrictive set of sanctions handed down by the NCAA following
a mid-February investigation that uncovered numerous minor rules
Among those sanctions were three years of probation, the loss of a
full-time assistant coaching position and the reduction of two
scholarships a year through 2010.
The piling on has been enough to prompt some faculty and staff members
at the university to revisit the question of whether it is worth the
cost and effort to keep the football program afloat, especially at its
current NCAA Football Championship Subdivision level.
University president Rodolpho Arevalo admits he has heard such
rumblings around campus.
"But I don't hear, for lack of a better word, a groundswell for that,"
Arevalo said. "I'm not saying the question isn't asked. Yes, it is.
But in some cases, there are probably other programs on campus that
people wonder why we need them, as well."
One Eastern faculty member who has long-championed the idea of either
dropping football or moving back to the NCAA Division II level is
chemistry professor Jeff Corkill, who has taught at the university for
28 years. Corkill, a former president of EWU's faculty senate and
faculty union, spoke out about the school's decision to join the
Division I-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision) in 1984, and
was also against a decision to join the Big Sky Conference three years
"I just don't think it's appropriate for Eastern to be in (the FCS) or
the Big Sky," Corkill said, adding a more logical step would be to
join Central Washington and Western Washington at the NCAA Division II
level. "There are far more opportunities for students to represent
their universities in sports at Central and Western than at Eastern,
because they're competing at a different level."
Corkill backs his argument by noting his school has axed sports such
as baseball, wrestling, swimming, men's soccer and men's golf during
his tenure, basically for the sake of reducing expenditures.
"And they've done it in order to protect football and basketball and
the Big Sky Conference," he said. "I feel, in a way, that football
distorts the intercollegiate athletics program at Eastern, and given
the huge budget cuts we're facing, I just think that maybe it's time
to rethink whether we should be in the Big Sky -- or if we even need
EWU fields the NCAA Division I minimum of 14 athletic teams -- six of
which are track or cross country teams -- and administers and supports
311 student athletes on an annual budget of $7.5 million that is the
lowest in the Big Sky.
What makes football such an inviting target -- especially in the wake
of Western Washington's recent surprise decision to scrap its program
-- is the cost.
For the 2008 fiscal year, EWU's football expenditures of $1,569,278.76
accounted for more than 20 percent of the athletic department's budget
and greatly exceeded revenues directly linked to the program, which
Eastern's second-year athletic director Bill Chaves points out,
however, that those latest audited numbers are from the fiscal year
that ended last June and reflect on the 2007 football season that
included only one big-money guarantee game -- a road contest against
Utah, which netted the university $325,000. Last fall, the Eagles
played guarantee games at Texas Tech and Colorado that were worth
According to Chaves, those guarantees -- coupled with last fall's
ticket sales that included another huge gate for the home game against
Big Sky Conference rival Montana -- accounted for about $1.1 million
in revenues, which would leave the program just a little more than
$400,000 in arrears for this fiscal year.
That is still a huge deficit that must be made up through the use of
$3 million in state funds appropriated for EWU athletics and other
short-term budget-relief funds. But Chaves insists there is a value
inherent to playing football at the FCS level that does not show up in
the budget numbers the school submits annually to the U.S. Department
of Education, as required by the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act.
"You've got to look at it in a couple of different ways," Chaves said
of the costs associated with EWU's football program. "Can you afford
not to do it, considering the ability it gives you to connect with
your alumni and to connect with your student body?
"After all, there is probably no sporting event in the college realm
that galvanizes a university like a football Saturday."
Chaves is convinced there is also a great deal to be gained --
including increased ticket sales and additional revenue from corporate
sponsors and donors who want to be a part of the most popular and
visible sport on campus -- from the exposure Eastern receives because
of the FCS status of its football program and its affiliation with the
And he believes those benefits help set his university apart from
Western Washington, an NCAA Division II school in Bellingham that
abruptly cut its football program in early January, with its
president, Bruce Shepard, citing an inability to properly fund it as
one of the main reasons why.
"What you need to do is identify and put a value on what it means to
be connected and affiliated with the two Montana schools," Chaves
said, noting Western did not have the benefit of a home game and big
gate against either Montana or Montana State every year. "And I just
know that the opportunity for us to be on a stage where we play Texas
Tech and Colorado in front of 100,000 fans over the course of two
weeks, and get Eastern's name out there, has to have a great deal of
"Not to mention that the year before, when we played Appalachian State
(in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs) we penetrated 16 millions
homes through various television outlets."
Arevalo also sees many intangible benefits to playing Division I
football, and added there is no plan afoot to pull a Western-like
surprise on EWU fans. But he stressed that those benefits, and their
costs, are constantly being reassessed.
"You factor in a lot of things," he said. "You factor in the
visibility of the program and its ability to attract fans who are
willing to donate to the program, and I think ours does that. But
other than the major football programs you see on television every
Saturday, most football programs don't pay for themselves.
"At best, they break even, and Eastern is no exception to that."
Eastern has managed to stay competitive at the D-I level despite
operating on budget that is $1.1 million less the Big Sky's second
smallest -- that of Northern Colorado's -- and nearly $8 million less
than Montana's, which spends a league-high $15.2 million.
In addition, according to Chaves, the $3 million Eastern athletics
receives from state funding is only a little more than 3 percent of
the $95 million appropriated to the university. The payroll
expenditures for the six full-time coaches on the football staff --
including the $102,000 base salary of second-year head coach Beau
Baldwin -- is just $295,800.
"I would argue that we are competing at the highest level in a very
economic way," Chaves said.
The bang Eastern gets for its football buck, he added, is increased
immensely by the fact the university has produced, in the last four
years, both the FCS' top offensive player in quarterback Erik Meyer
(2005) and the FCS' top defensive player in end Greg Peach (2008),
along with NFL Pro Bowl offensive tackle Michael Roos of the Tennessee
"And we've had some other student athletes who have achieved at the
highest level in the NFL," Chaves said. "We've got kids playing in
(arena football) and CFL who have made the playoffs and done some
really good things, and who have done a phenomenal job of being able
to showcase Eastern, as well.
"So with that, I think the value of the football program itself is
tremendous -- much like I think the value of the athletic department,
as a whole, is tremendous."
But now comes the prospect of a massive cut in state funding that is
almost certain to top the 10-12 percent drop Eastern was bracing for
after Gov. Christine Gregoire announced her proposed budget recently.
Under the budget approved by state lawmakers over the weekend, the
cuts to state schools would total $800 million and could result in the
layoffs of 8,000 teachers, college employees and state workers.
The cuts will undoubtedly have a major effect on the athletic
departments at all of the state's institutions of higher learning. In
addition to a possible cut in the state money EWU already receives,
the athletics department will have to deal with the proposed tuition
increases that will affect the budget for scholarships. The cuts will
undoubtedly spark further and deeper discussions at EWU about what
Division I athletics -- and football, in particular -- mean to the
"We are always having discussions about looking at the sports that we
have and the overall support we provide to them," Arevalo said. "It's
tough to have those discussions, sometimes, but I think they're
important to consider what value an institution places on having
athletics. ... If we're clear on that, it makes it a lot easier to
make decisions on the level of support you're going to provide in the