FARGO — Eastern Washington's football team has been one of the best in the Football Championship Subdivision for the past decade. The Eagles won the national championship in 2010 and played in the title game again following the 2018 season.
The program has crossed paths with North Dakota State four times — including a playoff game in 2010 and the championship tilt in January 2019 — and will do so again Saturday at the Fargodome. NDSU and Eastern Washington will play in an FCS first-round playoff game as the COVID-crippled spring season begins its playdown to Frisco, Texas, and the national title game.
Combine Eastern Washington's success and its trademark red turf at the Eagles' home stadium in Cheney, Wash., and EWU is one of the top brands in the FCS.
As good as the Eagles have been on the field, though, there are large questions looming over the football program and athletic department.
Large, such as:
Will Eastern Washington drop football?
If not, will the Eagles remain in the FCS or drop to a lower division?
Strapped by financial deficits and faculty pressure to make cuts to the athletic department, EWU interim president David May will make a recommendation to the school's Board of Trustees later this month that could include eliminating football or dropping to Division II or Division III. The board is expected to make a final decision by June.
"It would be very difficult," EWU athletic director Lynn Hickey told the Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper. "But, that's not my decision. That's for our president and board of trustees to make that decision. We have a great history. We have some wonderful alumni.
"To destroy that tradition and history would be very hurtful."
May's recommendation will be aided by a consultant's report that was released in February. The PICTOR Group of Reno, Nev., issued a 75-page "assessment and analysis" of EWU's athletic department and concluded there are four viable options:
- Remain an NCAA Division I-FCS program
- Remain an NCAA Division I program without football
- Reclassify to NCAA Division II
- Reclassify to NCAA Division III
"The university is at a crossroad with respect to determining the value and role of its athletics program and how it fits within the university," the report said.
A faculty report in 2020, before the pandemic hit, blasted the athletic department for draining university resources in a time of declining enrollment and budgets.
EWU's financials are not pretty. The athletic department has racked up an accumulated budget deficit of about $5.5 million since 2014. The PICTOR report said that in 2019, approximately $9.8 million (53%) of the department's total revenues came from direct university subsidies and another $2.25 million (12%) came from student fees.
(By comparison, NDSU gets $6.76 million of a $24.5 million budget [27%] from institutional support and student fees).
- Looking Back: NDSU's 2016 overtime thriller versus Eastern Washington
- Eastern Washington QB Barriere has 'grown a lot' since his last playoff matchup against the Bison
- WATCH: Bison Media Zone FCS roundtable with Eastern Washington beat writer Ryan Collingwood
- McFeely: Bison defense needs to be more disruptive, force turnovers
- Hot Mic with Dom Izzo: Will the FCS Playoffs make this spring season normal? Nope
By fiscal year 2022, however, the EWU athletic department will see a $5 million reduction in support from the university and student fees. That's a 44% drop.
"Eastern Washington University is currently facing significant financial challenges," the report said. "Eastern’s funding for the athletics program has fallen well-below the median for Division I-FCS and Eastern’s peer institutions in the Big Sky Conference."
While PICTOR's analysis lays out several reasons why a vibrant athletic department is seen as crucial to a university, surveys the group sent to EWU stakeholders also told an interesting story. PICTOR sent out 14,000 surveys to gauge interest in EWU sports and only about 2,800 responded.
Of the 266 regional businesses who received a survey, a total of 18 responded.
"... it’s (hard) to believe that losing EWU sports represents an existential business threat across the whole community," Matt Brown of the Extra Points newsletter that follows the business of athletics wrote.
While it's hard to figure EWU will drop its football program, or even drop to Division II, the university is going to have to make some hard decisions. If it's going to remain Division I, then the school must commit to funding its athletics at a competitive level. That's a tough lift in the post-pandemic era of higher education.
That'll also be a difficult sell to the faculty group that is most vocal about trimming athletics. Raising more money for sports won't stave off academic cuts.
Kicking the can down the road isn't an option. Doing so in past budget cycles is partially why EWU finds itself in a pickle.
NDSU 54% Eastern Washington 46%
Who will win Saturday's playoff game between NDSU and Eastern Washington?
Thank you for voting!
"In spite of the facts, common sense, and what's fair to the students, and in violation of good financial stewardship, the EWU Board of Trustees will still surely vote to keep Eastern in Division I," EWU English professor emeritus Anthony Flynn told the Spokane newspaper. "All those in the community wanting to keep the Eagles in Division I, however few in number, are so committed, so quick to take offense, so dismissively indifferent to real data that they make too formidable a group for the Board to dare cross. Not even moving from NCAA to NAIA – a legitimate compromise ignored, of course, by the PICTOR report – would satisfy them."
Bottom line: Enjoy the Eagles on the field Saturday at the Fargodome because there's no guarantee what they'll look like in the future.
Oh, and one more interesting nugget. NDSU and EWU are working on a game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for 2023.