SPOKANE, Wash. — Eastern Washington athletic director Lynn Hickey was supposed to be in the muggy Gainesville, Florida, heat as the Eagles opened their 2020 campaign at the University of Florida, a guarantee game that would have been a much-needed $750,000 boost for a school with its share of financial maladies.
But Hickey and the 18th-ranked Eagles of the smaller Football Championship Subdivision were in Cheney on Sept. 5, the result of a fall season pushed to the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic.
What would have been a big payout for EWU and the first time the program faced a team from the tradition-rich Southeastern Conference was instead a regular day in the office for the school’s third-year AD.
“I remember leaving the office that day, driving up to the top of an empty Roos Field and looking down at that new red turf that we won’t get to play on this fall,” Hickey said. “It was sad. It’s been hard.”
Things are slowly beginning to take shape, though, improving the morale of an athletic department otherwise charged by its social and monetary lifeblood.
The NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved a plan to begin the FCS playoffs on April 24, which conclude between May 14-16 with a national title game date yet to be determined.
The plan included the go-ahead for regular-season games to begin Jan. 23 and giving programs a spring football-like prep in the fall and early winter months.
Three-time defending Big Sky champion Weber State has already completed multiple “full-go” practices.
Since the board’s approval, multiple conferences have released their regular-season schedules, including the Missouri Valley and Southland, aiming for Feb. 20 openers.
In many Midwest and southern states, local social distancing mandates are relatively more lax and uniform than most of the restrictions in the 13-team, eight-state Big Sky Conference.
Some schools in those states – including Central Arkansas, Austin Peay (Tennessee), Jacksonville State (Alabama) and The Citadel (South Carolina) – have forged ahead with regular seasons this fall, leading to a 16-team playoff in the spring instead of the usual 24 qualifiers.
Fifteen FCS schools have opted to play at least one game this fall, none from the western or northeast parts of the United States.
Navigating the restrictions of several states has been a challenge for the Big Sky as it moved toward a spring season, but Hickey is confident a conference-wide schedule will be released soon.
The Big Sky approved an eight-game conference spring regular season this past summer.
“We have a goal of getting all the schedules done by the second week of October,” Hickey said. “Been waiting on the (FCS championships schedule to be approved), then working backward from there.”
EWU, picked fourth in both Big Sky coaches and media preseason polls following a 7-5 overall mark in 2019, still faces coronavirus-induced hurdles due to Spokane County’s current Phase 2 reopening plan that restricts large groups.
There have been five athletes per coach in mandatory workouts for EWU sports with each group spread out, Hickey said, even in basketball, which the NCAA recently gave the go-ahead for a Nov. 25 start date.
“Unless you’re able to invest in a tremendous amount of testing each week, that’s all we can do right now,” Hickey said.
Major funding for regular coronavirus tests has allowed for the return of major college football across the country, including the Pac-12, which will begin a seven-game regular-season schedule in states like Washington.
Fans won’t be allowed at the games.
EWU wants more testing, but it’s a matter of cost as it works with local health officials in developing a plan.
“We will wait and we see if those protocols are changing and to see if we can develop a testing plan,” Hickey said. “The difference between (EWU and major college athletic departments) is how much you can test. Do you have the finances to test every day of the week?
“Right now, the tests we can get access to is $100 a kid. We’ve got to have a plan on how we can handle that.”
EWU’s athletic department was in a financial hole of more than $5 million before the coronavirus, which has since led to a recent 30-percent cut of operational costs in each of 14 sports.
The school recently hired an outside firm from Nevada – The PICTOR Group – to take a deep dive into the athletic department’s finances to help cultivate solutions. PICTOR will release its report to EWU Board of Trustees in February.
“It’s been a very difficult time with the financial stress,” Hickey said. “We have institutional support, but we’re responsible in building revenue, which is hard to do that when we don’t have games and the people we’re normally asking for help from – they’re in a bad spot, too.”
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