In 2012, The New York Times came to northwest California to do a feature on the Humboldt State football program. "At Humboldt State, Revved Up for Success" the headline read. The Great Northwest Conference isn't a typical beat for the Times, so there had to be an extraordinary reason the paper sent a writer across the country to write about Humboldt State, and there was: Humboldt State was (at the time) California's only Division II school to sponsor football.
Wins are expected often this season in this isolated northwest corner of California, one reason Humboldt has held on to its pricey football team while other colleges in the state have folded theirs. Humboldt has been California’s only Division II program since the University of California, Davis, moved to Division I in 2003. The last Cal State campus to drop Division II football was Chico in 1997. In a region known more for marijuana culture and environmental activism than athletics, football has captured the locals’ attention.
Humboldt chose a different path, keeping football and adding women’s soccer and rowing. The rowing team was honored at halftime against Colorado Mesa after winning its first national championship this year.
With the nearest metropolitan area, the San Francisco Bay region, more than five hours away, Humboldt’s leaders have stuck with football, in part, to give residents behind the Redwood Curtain something to cheer. Arcata’s population barely tops 17,000 when school is in session.
Skip ahead five years, and it's now becoming clear to Humboldt State why its neighbors dropped football, because there's now a chance Humboldt State may do the same.
Facing a budget shortfall up to the "$1 million range", there is talk around the program about temporarily dropping or all out eliminating football, as soon as this current season ends in November. From a recent column in the Eureka Times-Standard:
According to multiple sources, HSU athletic director Duncan Robins, in two separate meetings with Humboldt State football boosters and supporters, plans on either placing the program in a two-year moratorium, or cancelling the program all together once the season ends in mid-November.
“One thing I took from that meeting was that even though we were having these meetings, the administrators had already made their mind up that football was going away,” said former HSU linebacker and current Eureka High School assistant coach Ray Watson. “It was just the vibe that we all got.”
Interim athletics director Duncan Robins address the possibility head on with KIEM-TV.
This isn't a case of a university looking for a reason to cut a struggling program. Humboldt State won the Great Northwest Conference in 2011 and 2015. The university commissioned a study in January that read in part:
“Athletics can be a platform to share the ‘story’ of many of the other great programs on campus and yet if we eliminate sports we eliminate the ‘front porch.' The opportunity to recruit a diverse population of students who might not otherwise attend HSU could also be lost.”
But, still, short of coming up with the required cash, there are no easy answers. Humboldt State is located in Arcata, Calif., Humboldt State is hemmed in between the Pacific Ocean and the so-called Redwood Curtain -- there is a reason the school's nickname is the Lumberjacks, after all -- in between the Bay Area and the Oregon border. Switching conferences or dropping down to Division III could actually increase costs when accounting for the additional travel such a move would require.
All the uncertainty has taken a toll on program morale.
“Simply because we don’t know what’s going on,” head football coach Rob Smith said. “We don’t know where we’re going to move. I’m going to have a 100 percent turnover of coaches from last year to this year. And I’ve never had that. They’re concerned with the direction we’re moving. It creates a significant challenge.”
The Lumberjacks' final scheduled game is Nov. 11, a home game against Central Washington. And if this is the program's final season, the team hasn't showed any ill-effects on the field. The Lumberjacks opened the season with a 30-19 win at No. 8 Azusa Pacific.