A red blazer-clad Lynn Hickey strolled through Eastern Washington’s athletic offices Tuesday, proceeding to make the short walk around the parking lot toward Reese Court.
Moments later, Hickey, EWU’s athletic director, was greeted by a student whose hair matched Hickey’s attire and the Roos Field turf behind them.
“Hey, Lynn. Go Eags!” said a young woman with dyed-red hair.
“That’s a great color,” Hickey replied in her thick Texas accent.
A year after being named the leader of the school’s athletic department, Hickey has become both a recognizable and approachable figure.
She’s settled into her new home in Airway Heights. The chilly temperatures she rarely experienced in San Antonio don’t bother her as much.
The former longtime athletic director at Texas-San Antonio, former senior athletic director at Texas A&M, and former head women’s basketball coach at Texas A&M and Kansas State is enjoying her late-career move to Cheney.
Hickey is tasked with keeping one of the winningest athletic departments in the Big Sky Conference at the top despite having fewer resources than some of its fiercest rivals.
She’s spearheading a proposal for a revamped football stadium – a project funded solely by private donors – to help elevate an EWU football program that’s already among the best in the country.
But Hickey, like many other collegiate athletic directors, is also trying to get her department out of the red, fiscally. It’s more than $5 million in the hole, a deficit she aims to erase over the next few years.
You’ve been EWU’s AD for a year, officially, this week. How’s this experience been? What improvements are you noticing?
Being a part of the football team going to the national championship game was huge, as well as both men’s and women’s basketball teams advancing to the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game. And, right after I was named AD, we were awarded the President’s Cup (awarded to the Big Sky Conference school with the best combined and athletic and academic success) for the third time in four years. Not many new athletic directors get to walk into a situation like that. And, now, this spring, the women’s tennis and women’s golf teasms are at the top of the conference.
When I came here, I was surprised at the culture and how strong this Eagle grit is. We don’t have all the resources we’d like to have in place, but it doesn’t really hold a lot of our programs back. Our coaches and kids really believe in our mission.
What needs improvement?
What I saw missing was some programming and resources for the students in their day-to-day lives. Being a little more holistic and giving them an experience that is more well-rounded. I’ve seen some standards that need to be set with fundraising and ticket sales, and just looking at policies and procedures of how we were operating as a business unit.
I also stepped in during a new Washington law about the need for transparency for athletic departments and the board of trustees, so since, last summer, we’ve been working to handle that.
We have good people. And if there’s one thing that money can’t buy, it’s good people. And there’s a foundation and mindset here that Eastern Washington should win. When have those two intangible things, then there’s a really strong foundation to keep growing.
When the football team advanced to FCS national title game earlier this year, we had a lot of support from Cheney, the city of Spokane and Spokane County. The banners, the signs and celebrations, that gave me a really strong indication that there is an opportunity to build strong relationships with the whole region. So when people think EWU, they think of a Division I team that offers a lot back to the community.
How are the steps toward a new-look Roos Field coming?
On May 10, we’re going to present a plan to the Board of Trustees. We looked at the final renderings yesterday that we’re going to present. The board and president are going to have the final say if it’s a go. It’s really exciting, and I think there’s some things there we can start fairly quickly so that people see progress. I think our fans can see some progress. Granted, I have to do a good job presenting it on May 10. We have to go through the proper process. We need to communicate this appropriately, get the approvals and not get ahead of that, so we can have success this time around. This is a great opportunity.
What can you say about the new renderings before they’re presented?
What’s been developed by the architects is absolutely beautiful. We’re fortunate in that we have a site. We don’t have to relocate the field or anything. They’ve found a way to save some costs there. What we have to determine is what component we’ll start with and how quickly can we get all the components in place. We have to make sure we’re fiscally responsible, that we don’t put ourselves in debt.
This is a fundraising project that our athletic department needs to take ownership of to move forward. I think it’s possible; we just have to go through the appropriate channels. I think everyone will be really pleased with what we’ll show publicly on May 10.
Some Division I schools have more deep-pocketed donors than others, as you know having worked in the Big 12 Conference and throughout Texas. Is it tougher raising big money at a school like EWU? A lot of alums want a renovated stadium, but getting a lot of them to cut a check seems to be the challenge.
I think they’re going to respond extremely well. Our fundraising right now, from this time a year ago – and without having the final project in front of them – is up around 125% to 150%. That’s how much better we’re doing right now. We’ve raised ticket prices for next year, we’ve raised the donation level in the Eagle Athletic Fund for next year, and people have responded extremely well.
We’ve gotten some pretty good midlevel gifts in the last month-and-a-half with the new initiative we’ve started with the EAF. People are stepping up. I think the response will be good and strong, and it may be something we have to do with a bigger number of donors verses a few big donors. I think people care and I think they’re ready to commit. I am very positive we’re going to move this forward.
When you were the AD at Texas-San Antonio, your athletic department was able to privately fund a new FBS football program, which started play in 2011 (reportedly a $15 million fundraising campaign) after a 2008 proposal. That was in a football-crazed, metropolitan area, though. Now you’re trying to raise millions for an improved football facility for a smaller school in a rural area, but one that had a successful track record. Can you compare these two challenges?
It was a startup in San Antonio. We hadn’t played a single down of football, so how do you convince people to buy tickets? But we had a vision, we had a great story, and we had a dream that really had a niche – there was a need for a college football team in San Antonio. They had an empty dome.
We were in a city – a little like Spokane, in where WSU is really entrenched and Gonzaga is certainly entrenched –where we had the Spurs, and the University of Texas and hour and a half away. There’s some similarities there.
Here, we’re Spokane’s Division I football team. Because of that, being able to put together our story with a good business plan, I think the people in this area really care about us. They see the importance of this program, not only to our campus and to our community as a whole. I think the response will be great.
Just think about what we did at the end of the football season. We had those three home football playoff games, and previously had not done well in selling tickets for those playoff games. We met our mark in all those games. Three cold Saturdays in a row and people came out and supported us. I thought that was a great indication that there’s great support and belief.
Our fans know that we’re not in this just to have a winning season, we’re in it go to the national championship. We’re national champions (in 2010). So we want to have the facilities in place and experience for the kids, and our fans want that too. This isn’t just something (EWU head football coach) Aaron Best and I are dreaming up.
We’ve more aggressive in asking. We have a plan and we’re asking. What we need to do is a good job stewarding this. I think we need to do a much better job in saying thank you and communicating and having contact with our fans and donors.
And is the red turf here to stay?
Yes, we’re OK there. It’s one of the first projects we need to complete. The field has one more year – it’s about 10 years old and has been great – so we need to pull it up and have a new red field put in next spring so we’re ready to go.
How much does a football field-size slab of red carpet run these days?
I’m guessing it’s around $1 million to $1.2 million. It’s a little more expensive than the carpet you put in your house, that’s for sure.
You’ve been able to visit most of the Big Sky Conference schools. With what you’ve seen, where do you think EWU ranks among them, facility-wise? And it your goal to make EWU the best in that category?
Sure, we’re constantly monitoring our peers. We want to be the dominant force in the Big Sky, but we also have some aspirational peers outside of that. There are other FCS power schools, and we have marks that we want to reach with all of them. But the key thing is that we’re winning the (Big Sky) championship. I once made the mistake of telling Coach Best, “I want to be the North Dakota State of the Northwest.” He said we already are, and he’s right.
We’re a tremendous investment. We’re at the top of our conference now in wins and championships. We’re at the top now in academic performance. And we’re doing that with resources that can be improved.
If we’re doing these things now, think what we’re going to do even better and more consistently if we’re more invested. I am proud to be here. We’re the kingpin that’s everyone is chasing, even though we don’t have the facilities that some of the other schools do.
A lot of universities and athletic departments are battling budget deficits. Are the challenges at EWU among the most challenging in your 40-plus years in college athletics?
Way back when, when I was at Texas A&M, I had to go ask the business associate athletic director every year if we had enough money to go recruiting, and people wouldn’t believe that today. Back in the early 1980s, A&M had an athletic budget of about $35 million, so we were trying to find cash.
When I was at Texas-San Antonio, we started with a budget of $1.2 million as a Division I school. So have I been through things more difficult (than EWU’s budget) or as difficult? Yes.
Looking back to when you accepted this position, is it what you envisioned?
This is one of those things that was meant to be. I think this was part of my plan. I am very blessed to be here and have this opportunity. There are a lot of things on our plate right now, and we have to accomplish a lot of goals. From fundraising to building programming for our students, to helping the whole university grow.
For me to have this opportunity at this point in my career, I’m extremely blessed. I even survived the snowstorms of February.
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