There’s been a caveat with each of Eastern Washington’s deep Football Championship playoff runs, one the Eagles have worked in their favor in December: inclement weather.
EWU’s previous 17 playoff games have all been in chilly Cheney, where snow and whipping winds often disconcerted warm-weather teams also tasked with adjusting to Roos Field’s blazing red turf.
“We’ve always challenged our players to get to the cold weather part of the season,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said on Tuesday. “The colder it gets, the longer you’re playing. Now we’ll be starting the season in the cold.”
And working toward a postseason run – if the NCAA sanctions playoffs – under the spring sun, the product of a fall football season postponed because of coronavirus concerns.
The Big Sky Conference announced last week that its 13 member football programs would pursue an eight-game conference season in the spring, joining the majority of the country’s FCS conferences that now tentatively plan to start their seasons in February.
EWU was slated to begin practice last Friday, but Spokane County’s social distancing mandates would have prevented the Eagles from anything more than small group workouts due to the area’s Phase 2 reopening status.
The Big Sky officially postponed the football season on Friday. On Monday, EWU became the first school in the league to suspend each of its fall sports.
EWU players were doing mandatory workouts in recent weeks, hopeful they would get the green light for full-fledged practices in August.
The Eagles – ranked in several FCS preseason Top 25 polls – weren’t shocked by the switch to spring.
“We all anticipated the decision,” Best said. “Now there’s gonna be new questions moving forward.
“In the last month, we’ve done a good job of preparing ourselves for Aug. 7. Mind, body and spirit, we were in a good spot. (The fall season) was taken away, so now we develop a plan the rest of the way.”
EWU was picked fourth in Big Sky preseason coaches and media polls, returning several fifth- and sixth-year seniors aiming to help the Eagles to a 14th consecutive winning season.
The Eagles, led by Big Sky preseason offensive MVP and senior quarterback Eric Barriere, also own a school-record 14-game home winning streak and had a favorable fall schedule.
EWU, which appeared in the 2018 FCS national title game, was scheduled to host three-time defending Big Sky champ and 2019 semifinalist Weber State, 2019 FCS semifinalist Montana State, and 2019 quarterfinalist and bitter rival Montana.
Idaho was also slated to play EWU in Cheney this fall in another budding rivalry game.
EWU may have a completely different schedule in the spring, but Best hopes the fall schedule is replicated. The Eagles’ season opener in Cheney was supposed to be Sept. 12 against Western Illinois, a team coming off a 1-11 campaign.
Best was looking forward to see his experience-rich squad bounce back from its relatively disappointing 7-5 season in 2019, when the Eagles went 6-2 in conference but missed the playoffs.
“We all want to play, but at what expense?” Best said. “What are you going to give up to play? People will have different answers.”
EWU athletic director Lynn Hickey said last week that a spring season gives the program “new life,” allowing the school more time to navigate testing protocols and potentially allowing the coronavirus curb to flatten enough to allow fans in the stands.
“If I’m a football player and I now have a half a year to get better and stronger, that can be a good thing,” Hickey said. “As good as this team is and as focused as I know they are, they’re going to be tough in the spring.”
A fall season with fans wouldn’t have been feasible at EWU under current mandates, Hickey said, and would cost the school millions in operating costs without bringing in ticket revenue.
“Many of our players said it’s not just about missing fans, but not having their families there to watch them,” Best said. “Imagine a Senior Day where their families can’t be there to give the senior a hug on the field. You feel for the seniors right now.”
Fifth-year senior linebacker Ty Graham has been champing at the bit to start his final season.
The pandemic has been a lesson in patience for the Cheney High School product.
Graham played his first three years at Idaho before transferring to EWU in 2019, sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Graham, a starter at Idaho, was expected to boost EWU’s defense this fall, but now he’s forced to wait longer.
“It’s been an interesting last few months,” Graham said. “I feel for a lot guys that are in this situation, who put a lot of work in. It’s very frustrating for a lot of us.”
A spring season is better than nothing, he said.
“I’m ready for a spring season, but you can see some of the drawbacks of playing in the spring,” Graham said. “But if we canceled football for the whole school year, that would not be a good situation at all.”
EWU was slated to open the season at Florida on Sept. 5, a guarantee game that would have given the Eagles $750,000 to face Southeastern Conference power.
The SEC opted last week to go with a conference-only schedule, though, canceling the Eagles’ game with the Gators, likely costing EWU’s financially struggling athletic department a big payday.
Graham, who faced Florida in 2018, was looking forward to the trip to Gainesville, Florida.
“I got to experience ‘The Swamp’ and it was everything you could imagine,” he said “It was euphoric.”
EWU players will finish mandatory workouts this week and many will return home until further notice, Graham said.
“It’s going to take a lot from within to stay motivated going forward,” Graham said, “This can make or break some young men and show how much they really love the game.”
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