Popularity of pregame EWU activities has soared since national title in 2010
Unfortunately the odds say that eventually it would be bound to happen.
The day would come when someone who had been celebrating, and admittedly drinking at Eastern Washington University football tailgating, would get in a serious accident.
That day came about a month ago when 47-year-old Curtis Cooley from Spokane Valley was headed home following EWU's 55-34 Big Sky football win over rival Montana State at Roos Field.
Admitting he had consumed five beers and two Bloody Mary's before getting behind the wheel of his car with his 8-year-old son in the backseat, Cooley attempted to pass a bus in a no passing zone on SR 904 just north of the Cheney city limits.
In the 4:45 p.m. crash, Cooley collided with 21-year-old Cheney resident, Raquel Caballero. The crash seriously injured Cooley's son. Caballero, who suffered minor injures, was treated at Deaconess Hospital in Spokane.
The incident put the spotlight on the pregame festivities that have blossomed ever since EWU won the 2010 Football Championship Subdivision national championship and how the university views this new tradition.
Some 16,000 vehicles travel the five-mile stretch of two-lane highway between Cheney and Four Lakes on the average day with those numbers likely increasing the five Saturdays Eastern generally hosts football games.
As for EWU's part in Cooley's tailgating activities, university spokesman Dave Meany said it was unclear where he participated. "We don't know if he was in his car, with buddies, or at one of our sanctioned events," Meany said.
"This incident aside, ever since the national championship year, the game day experience has really taken off at Eastern, and for the better," Meany said.
Eastern does conduct official tailgating and game activities that involve the sale of alcohol. Activities include the Alumni Red Zone Tailgate, which ends 30 minutes before kickoff. There's the Miller Lite tent located at field level just outside the southeast corner of Roos Field. Bob and Ray's Beer Garden is a fenced in area at the top of the main grandstands and is an Eagle Athletic Association fundraiser. The different venues operate under a Washington State Special Occasions permit or with other necessary licenses.
In addition to officially sanctioned activities, fans gather in parking lot camps adjacent to Roos Field with motorhomes, pop-up shelters, barbecues and coolers where they pre-function for games and consume alcohol – all in keeping with Washington state law.
The Revised Code of Washington governs the sale of alcohol on school property. Specifically, RCW 172.64.040 deals with EWU and spells out in general that no alcohol can be sold or consumed by anyone under the age of 21 and those of legal age are not allowed to have open containers.
Hence the Red Solo cups are one of the most noticeable accessories for many fans.
"All these places we have the proper licenses, we've gone through all the proper liability," Meany explained. "We ID people, we don't let beer in the stadium, we serve food." There are no sanctioned sales at or after halftime in the alumni tent, he said.
"We go through painstaking efforts with the EWU Police Department and everybody to make sure we are taking the responsible steps," Meany said. The Police Department does foot patrols. "They want to make sure people are being responsible," Meany added.
What the police can't control is what somebody does inside a vehicle Meany said. Furthermore, police don't have authority to knock on windows or open doors, he said.
Meany was talking to EWU Police Chief Tim Walters this past Monday and the chief said they've had less issues in the lot this year before the game than previous years.
"I think people are taking our heed to come out and have fun, they're taking it seriously," Meany said.
But tailgating has much more of an emphasis on it than just consuming alcohol.
"We have people coming out here to tailgate and have fun," Meany said. "And when I say tailgate I'm talking about all the good stuff, hot dogs and burgers and family and games."
Meany also said that tailgating is among the policies that are reviewed by the university each year.
"This accident doesn't change anything," he said. "Our reaction would be like anyone else's, that somebody's made a bad choice."
Tailgating activities are not the only events that take place on campus that involve the sale of alcohol. The Orland Killin Dinner and some alumni events also serve to their over-21 attendees.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.