A $25 million renovation project aims to transform Roos Field. Eastern’s Athletic Director Lynn Hickey explains the hows and whys.
By Dave Meany
They say things are bigger in Texas. But that doesn’t mean better. Just ask Lynn Hickey, EWU’s director of athletics and associate vice president since April 2018. After more than 20 years of living and working in southwest Texas, Hickey knew she was in for a culture change when she accepted the university’s offer of a move to Cheney.
The gorgeous scenery in our corner of Washington, the food, even how we dress — yes, we actually have winter coats — is different than what she was used to in Texas. And while Hickey admits she could take a pass on the cold and snow, the people of the Inland Northwest — specifically the people associated with EWU — have won her over with their “we can do this” attitude.
It’s an outlook that’s long been part of Eastern’s DNA, going all the way back to the day Benjamin P. Cheney decided it was worth his while to start a Normal School. Major fires, economic downturns, world wars and yes, pounding blizzards: EWU has survived it all. It’s a record of resilience that blends right in with Hickey’s attitude toward the most ambitious school project in the university’s 137-year history.
“It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be fun,” she says of the $25 million stadium renovation effort.
It’s an opportunity, she adds, to bring people together and nurture even stronger traditions. Where some people see a football venue, Hickey sees a symbol of a university on the move — one in which pride of purpose meets pride of place. Armed with renderings from ALSC Architects of Spokane, she has taken the lead role in articulating how the stadium remodel will be a major boost to the university.
Eastern magazine sat down with Hickey to discuss the stadium project and how it fits in with the overall direction of the university. She not only gives high marks to the spirit of the region’s people, but also shares her admiration for the can-do spirit of coaches and student athletes at EWU and for the unwavering backing of Eastern’s devoted supporters.
How would you say Eastern’s stadium currently stacks up against our peers in the Big Sky Conference?
It’s one of the worst. If you look at just basic amenities: from concessions to restrooms, from seating to the number of seats — it’s at the bottom. What’s amazing, and so unique about it, is the red field. If you look at the rest of it, however, it’s at the bottom of the conference. It is a great place to play, but it is time to modernize it, to give everybody a better, more comfortable, experience. And then it’s really going to help us recruit, not just student athletes but students as a whole.
So we really need a complete renovation?
The venue —for the fans to have a really good experience — has not been addressed for many, many, many years. And the recruiting piece is huge. We are starting to hit a wall. We need to make some changes. It’s also important that we see the stadium as a center-piece for the whole campus, the whole region. It’s the largest gathering place for Eagles, with a huge impact to the university as far as visibility.
Tell us about the planned seating configuration. Some people have wondered about the choice to not increase seating capacity.
We want it to be the hottest ticket in town. So I [have this] debate with people. In a way we are adding seats because a lot of the seats we have now people don’t want to buy. The renovated stadium’s new seating and its sight lines are going to be so much better. Right now, for example, it’s really hard to sell a ticket to people in the north end zone or on the east side. After the project is complete, both sides are going to have the same elevation; the sight lines are going to be the same. There won’t be a bad seat in the stadium. Every seat will be brand new.
‘It will be challenging, it’s much higher than anything we‘ve done before, but it’s doable. And I think that first gift — Mr. [Jack] Gillingham’s $5 million gift — has just really ignited the possibilities.’
The university says the project will cost $25 million. Is that fundraising goal reachable?
Yes. It will be challenging, it’s much higher than anything we‘ve done before, but it’s doable. And I think that first gift — Mr. [Jack] Gillingham’s $5 million gift — has just really ignited the possibilities. I think one of the biggest hurdles in trying to make this happen is for people to really believe that it can happen. But Mr. Gillingham’s gift really gives everybody a sense of comfort and confidence that, hey, we can do this. Not everybody is going to give a gift that large; we’re going to have all different levels and there’s going to be a way for everybody to participate.
To be clear, this is strictly a private fundraising effort, with “additive” money, is that correct? Why can’t Eastern use any state funds or tax-exempt bonds?
Under state law, you can’t use state funds to build athletic facilities or for athletic operations, so we have to fundraise all of that. The [EWU] foundation is growing and is improved, but we don’t have the reserves in the foundation to issue bonds. Nor is the university in a situation where the bonding capacity is there for a project this large. People keep asking me, ‘Well can we just raise 10 or 15 million and issue bonds for the rest?’ No, we need to raise $25 million. We can do this. And let’s go after it!
At the kick-off news conference, you and coach [Aaron] Best talked about making Eastern a first-class, premier power in the Big Sky Conference. How does a renovated stadium help Eastern accomplish that goal?
When we talk about labs and classrooms for our science programs — or for English, for history — you want to have labs and classrooms that give students everything that they need to be successful academically. Think of our stadium and other sports facilities as classrooms for our student athletes. If we can upgrade the stadium and continue to recruit the best kids, then we can continue to be a dominant power in the Big Sky Conference, which means that we can make a run at a National Championship every year. And that’s what we’re after.
Removing and relocating the track is also part of the plan. Does this send any kind of message that football is more important than other sports at Eastern?
That’s a step forward for the track. That’s an improvement for our track program. Right now, because of the permanent seating in the end zone, when you host a track meet here, you cannot see the kids coming around the last curve. Our two largest teams, our track team and our football team — our two largest groups of student athletes — they have to practice in the same facility. So, the sand pits are covered when there’s a football game, the football players slip on it, the track athletes can’t leave their equipment out there to practice at any time, so they need their own spot. This is going to be a huge advantage to our track program.
‘If we can upgrade the stadium and continue to recruit the best kids, then we can continue to be a dominant power in the Big Sky Conference, which means that we can make a run at a National Championship every year. And that’s what we’re after.’
What do you say to those who believe football has an outsized influence on Eastern athletics?
The only team that brings us the revenue to help us expand our resources is football. So is it a priority? Sure. At the same time we’re working very hard to build an athletic department that’s excellent in all of our 14 sports. To do that you’ve got to have your scholarships in place, you’ve got to have your facilities in place, and you’ve got to be able to hire the best coaches. In our situation, the more successful football is the better it is for all those other sports.
Over the years people have said Eastern can’t do this or that; from having a Division 1 football program and joining the Big Sky to putting in the iconic red turf. Some people are saying it again: ‘EWU will never pull this off.’
We can do anything we set out to do. Why not us? We can do the same things the Montana’s and Montana State’s, the Idaho’s, the Cal State Davis’s do. Just maybe a little different way. We have some real advantages because of our mentality; the amount of loyalty our coaches and kids have to this program. But we can be the very best, and I think building this venue is a very public show of our level of commitment to all of our sports, to being at the highest level in the Big Sky Conference.
As the athletic director, anything else you would say to people who read this story about Eastern’s vision on this project?
We need everybody to come back and help. For a long, long time this has been a very inexpensive ticket here. We need to grow up a little bit, we need to mature. But if we all come together — with some lead gifts like Mr. Gillingham has done — if we all come together and give what we can, everybody will have a lot to be proud of.
The one venue that has more impact on public image — in really getting alumni, future students, current students and everybody together — is that stadium. Everybody understands that we are here for our kids, to help them graduate, get degrees and have careers. But there has to be campus life in order to attract people to come, in order to get people to come back.
If we can strengthen our traditions our support for each other will grow, our presence in the community will grow, and we will differentiate ourselves from other universities. Eastern will become an even more special place. The equity of your degree will grow. Athletics does not compete with academics. Athletics is here to raise the rest of the university up.