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Q&A: Talking sports with Eastern Washington interim president David May

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 22, 2020

David May, EWU’s interim president poses for a photo on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, outside Showalter Hall on EWU’s campus in Cheney, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
David May, EWU’s interim president poses for a photo on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, outside Showalter Hall on EWU’s campus in Cheney, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Some university presidents are loosely involved in their school’s primary source of athletic revenue.

Eastern Washington interim president David May put on a helmet.

May recently buckled a chinstrap, ran a route and proceeded to haul in a pass from EWU All-American quarterback Eric Barriere, capping off the grab with a celebratory end-zone dance.

It was promotional – EWU’s Numerica Credit Union end-zone dance contest – but also an opportunity for the 52-year-old to bond with a few members of the postponed-until-the-spring Eagles, ranked No. 18 in the Football Championship Subdivision preseason poll.

“One of the passes (Barriere) threw to me, I don’t know if he forgot he was throwing to an old guy or not, but it stung,” May said. “It was fun to be out there.”

May, who faces the challenge of leading the Cheney school during a pandemic, replaced Mary Cullinan, who resigned this past summer.

Navigating the school’s well-documented financial woes that predated the coronavirus pandemic isn’t a joyride, either.

But May, a professor of Political Science and International Affairs who has been employed at EWU for 22 years and also served as the school’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, often finds refuge from his myriad duties in the form of athletics, if only momentarily.

May played multiple sports as a teenager in Walla Walla, where he graduated from DeSales Catholic School and nearby Whitman College.

He grew up in Athens, Georgia, attending University of Georgia football games. He was also a sports dad whose daughter played varsity volleyball.

May was given the reins at EWU to help the school transition in a difficult time, but said he also understands the value of athletics in the school’s mission.

The Spokesman-Review interviewed May this week to talk about his athletic background and his 2020-21 outlook for the Eagles.

The Spokesman-Review: What sports did you play as a kid?

David May: Early on in my life I was a swimmer, but wasn’t really good enough to continue. I thought about continuing at a small, private college (Whitman) where it was more possible. I played a little baseball. Played basketball until my sophomore year of high school.

So are you the type of sports fan who is constantly checking his phone for scores, has strong allegiances to certain teams? That kind of fan?

I’m not good at relaxing and watching sports. I don’t have the attention span. I’m more of a drop in for a quarter, go home, rake some leaves, come back in the fourth quarter. I can listen to baseball. I prefer good baseball game on the radio.

What is your favorite sport, then?

Hockey. I was an Edmonton Oilers fan growing up. I lost interest in the Oilers when Wayne Gretzky left for the Los Angeles Kings. I always question if professional hockey should be played where ice doesn’t occur.

So did you play in any local men’s hockey leagues?

I don’t skate well enough to actually play the game.

What kind of athlete were you in high school?

When I was at DeSales in the early 1980s, it was a pretty athletic school. A lot of championship teams. It was disheartening for a 5-8 guy with a 12-inch vertical trying to play basketball.

As far as EWU goes, though, would you say you regularly attend athletic events?

I tend to watch a lot of EWU football, but when it’s cold outside, I’m watching the games in my living room. Basketball games are a little warmer.

How do you expect the Eagles to do in 2021?

I expect great things from football and basketball. I think we are poised to do what we did in 2010 (win the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title). In basketball, we’re poised to do what some other schools and regions have done and have a breakout year.

I’m so disappointed that the stupid, irritating pandemic got in the way of (EWU’s Big Sky Conference champion men’s basketball team) going to the NCAA Tournament. What (head coach) Shantay Legans has put together here is really an amazing group. When you have a true freshman (point guard Ellis Magnuson) who starts every game, that’s a pretty amazing thing.

With football, in my conversations with (head coach) Aaron Best, he’s pretty high on this group can do, and so am I.

You come into a tough spot where you want to help both academia and the athletic department in troubling financial times for the school, both with their respective share of fiscal issues. What can you say about trying to please both sides during a difficult time?

It’s a tough decision to be in. There’s not just two sides to this question, there’s a dozen sides to this question. It’s not just academics and athletics, and to me, those two things aren’t in opposition that they’re too often portrayed.

I don’t view Washington Street (the street between EWU’s academic buildings and athletic facilities) as wide as some people do. We have student-athletes, we have our community, we have businesses in Cheney and on the West Plains.

They’re all impacted by the decisions we’re going to make about athletics. It’s a difficult decision to be in and find a balance, in a moment like this when balance is an impossibility.

As you know, we engaged a consultant group (The PICTOR Group) to help us with some recommendations on how we might move forward. I know two things: However we move forward with EWU athletics, it has to be sustainable, and what we do moving forward has to be the right answer for EWU.

It’s not going to be the right answer for PICTOR, or any sort of constituency. It has to be the right answer that makes the most sense for Eastern; for me to make a recommendation to the board of trustees, to make that final determination.

You’ve been here 22 years, so you apparently believe in EWU and have a vested interest in many aspects of the school and its faculty. Do you consider yourself the type of guy who can walk up to a coach and chat the same way you would a professor?

I’d like to think I am that kind of that guy, someone who enjoys talking to everyone on campus. I have been committed to Eastern since Day 1. I had an opportunity early on to leave for another position, but I turned it down because I realized that Eastern had hooked me in its mission.

Note: EWU requested that specific financial questions come after the release of PICTOR’s report in February.

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