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Eastern Washington opts against sabotaging its own athletics department

The only school to reach the FCS playoffs and March Madness in 2020-21 will not drop down to Division III.

Colleges and universities contemplate moving down the athletics totem pole all the time. Division I athletics aren't for everybody, especially when you're not cashing multi-million TV checks each year. Heck, even Jim Delany, the longtime Big Ten commissioner, threatened to take his entire behemoth of a conference to Division III if players ever started getting paid. (We all know how that bluff ended.) 

But it's not everyday a successful Division I program considers dropping down to D3.

Such was the case at Eastern Washington, where the school openly considered dropping down to Division II or III, or remaining a Division I institution -- but with no football program.

The same Eastern Washington that's in the FCS playoffs almost every year, that played for the national championship as recently as 2018, and that won the FCS title in 2010. The same Eastern Washington that was the only program in 2020-21 to reach the FCS playoffs and March Madness -- and not only that, the Eagles nearly beat mighty Kansas in the first round. 

That same EWU could've soon found itself in D2 or D3 but, after a 10-month back-and-forth, the Eastern Washington board has voted 8-1 to remain in FCS. That vote followed the recommendation of EWU president David May.

“Moving to a lower divisions or association or eliminated some sports does not align with the vision that EWU has created. That vision reads in part, ‘Eastern Washington university is a driving force for the culture, economy, workforce, and vitality of Washington state,'" May said in his presentation last month.

The thinking was similar to that of other universities that think about leaving D1 but ultimately stay: whatever savings the school would gain by cutting scholarships, travel and other D1-associated costs would be offset, and then some, by the drop in revenue the university as a whole would incur by moving to a lower level. The athletics department would lose ticket sales and sponsorship money, but the university as a whole would also lose by attracting a smaller, less diverse student body.

AD Lynn Hickey said her department, much like a married couple that renews their vows to each other, will come out stronger for having evaluated its options and ultimately deciding to press forward on its current path.

Still, there was a reason EWU went through this lengthy process in the first place, which began with hiring the PICTOR Group last year to evaluate Eagles athletics from top to bottom and spit out a recommendation. 

The reason Eastern Washington engaged in this family-wide come-to-Jesus meeting was that its current track is unsustainable. If EWU is to remain in FCS, it will have to generate more revenue and/or trim its budget. Probably both. PICTOR said Eastern Washington will need "millions" in additional investment to become a sustainable FCS program. 

For what it's worth, the reason the EWU board's 8-1 vote wasn't unanimous was because the student representative voted against remaining in FCS. And EWU faculty organization vice president David Syphers compared Eagle athletics to mistletoe -- pretty to look at but also a "parasitic" one that sucks nutrients from its host.

“If you decide Eastern should be a sports-first, academics-second university, that’s your call,” Syphers told the Spokane Spokesman-Review, “but that is not the kind of university I want to work at and it’s not the kind of university that most of our students want to attend.”

So, just because the matter is settled within the EWU power structure doesn't mean it's going away. Hickey said Eagle athletics will take its new lease on life seriously and make the most of this re-affirmation to remain in Division I. 

“We are so appreciative of the public support Eagle Athletics continues to receive, and that enthusiasm was reaffirmed today as our Board of Trustees voted to accept the recommendation from David May,” Hickey said. “This is also a call to action, and we are committed to continued improvement in being more efficient in operations and fundraising as well as working to strengthen our engagement with the whole campus.”

In the meantime, Aaron Best and his Eagle football program will likely remain in the FCS playoffs in 2021 and beyond.