When the odds seemed their longest and Humboldt State University football seemed destined for the dustbins of history, a Hail Mary pass connected just as time expired. Only this time, it wasn't a pass from a quarterback to a receiver, but one from a group of dedicated boosters to the university.
HSU President Lisa Rossbacher stood behind a podium in the university's Redwood Bowl on Dec. 5 to announce that an 11th hour fundraising effort, which raised millions of dollars in local pledges over the span of just a couple of months, had generated enough funds to save HSU's football program.
"We will be playing football next fall," Rossbacher said, eliciting loud cheers from the crowd.
The decision ends a tumultuous few months for HSU Athletics and comes just days after a memo from HSU Vice President for University Advancement Craig Wruck criticized the community fundraising effort and seemed to sharpen the ax hanging over the 90-year-old football program.
HSU athletics, which fields 12 teams, was thrust on the chopping block after an almost $1 million structural deficit came to light. The university had indicated that it didn't have the general funds to offset the deficit and wasn't willing to increase student fees to cover athletics costs. Looming cuts threatened multiple sports, including football, the university's most expensive team. The dire situation brought a group of stakeholders to the table back in September to kick off an ambitious fundraising campaign that aimed to raise pledges of $500,000 for each of the next five years. If the campaign was successful, the university agreed to match the funds to bridge the fiscal gap.
Ceva Courtemanche, an HSU alum who owns Hensel's Ace Hardware and whose husband played football at HSU, said she attended that September meeting not so much out of a desire to save football but because she saw it as an opportunity to bring the university and the community into a better partnership.
"I've always thought there was a disconnect between the community and HSU," Courtemanche said, adding that she was disappointed years ago when the university's nursing program was cut without an aggressive campaign to solicit community support to save it. She said she saw this as an opportunity to show what can be done when the school and the greater community work together toward a common goal.
And she thought football — and all HSU sports — were worth saving.
"Any time a student is involved in something — whether it's the arts or German club or whatever it is — they're going to be engaged in the community and their studies," she said. "That's a good thing."
So Courtemanche and a group of boosters led by Jim Redd set to work, hitting up community members and local businesses for pledges. They set up a GoFundMe campaign and got a local Rotary club to accept donations. These outside passthroughs were important, she said, because some community members weren't willing to donate directly to HSU, worried the university would take their money and cut athletics anyway.
"The problem was that some of the community was a little iffy about giving money directly to HSU," she said.
The effort gained steam and HSU set up a donation page, complete with a thermometer that counted donations toward the $500,000 goal as they came in. Problems quickly surfaced, however. When the effort hit about $350,000 in October, the university pulled the thermometer from the site, saying some of the pledges had been determined to be fake.
This raised some alarm bells among boosters, who had believed the university was verifying and collecting on pledges as they came in. Certain deadlines also passed — dates that Courtemanche said she and boosters had been led to believe were targets rather than hard cutoff points.
"We were told, 'Don't worry, we'll push it back. As long as you guys are raising money and continuing to raise money, we'll push it back,'" Courtemanche said.
So the group continued fundraising after the Nov. 1 deadline to have the first year's $500,000 in pledges passed.
Then came Wruck's memo to Rossbacher on Nov. 27, stating his conclusion that "the fund drive has failed to reach its goal, instead achieving a level of approximately $300,000 in verifiable offers of support." Courtemanche and other boosters said they learned of Wruck's accounting and conclusion via the press.
The boosters, meanwhile, had delivered an alternate fundraising tally directly to Rossbacher, bringing their perspectives into sharp relief with those of HSU's advancement office.
But Wruck's memo also painted a picture of discord and conflict, indicating that meetings grew contentious and that the process had fostered distrust between those involved. The memo also indicated that HSU hadn't been verifying pledges or trying to collect on them as boosters had expected — and was now pointing to the lack of cash on hand as a failure of the fundraising effort.
Wruck's ultimate conclusion is that the boosters had raised less than $400,000 in pledges for the first year, and less than $250,000 for subsequent years, leaving them far short of their goals.
But that was simply inaccurate, according to Redd and Courtemanche. In an interview with the Journal last week, Courtemanche said the group had raised $516,000 for the first year with pledges of between $340,000 to $400,000 for years two through five. But when the group tried to balance its spread sheets with those held by HSU, the university wouldn't turn them over, citing donor privacy issues. When the group asked for an accounting that redacted donors' names, the university still refused, Courtemanche said, leaving the community group unable to compare its tallies with those of the university in any meaningful way.
It's unclear exactly how Rossbacher reconciled all this in order to make her Dec. 5 decision.
But what is clear is that the news is a big win for football boosters and their team, which has experienced a renaissance in recent years.
After going winless in 2013, the team has allied a 32-11 combined record since, including a trip to the NCAA Division II championship game in Missouri back in 2015. This year's squad also saw its left tackle invited to a prestigious college all-star game frequented by pro scouts and its tailback, Ja'Quan Gardner, effectively re-write the university's record book.
Speaking from behind the podium Dec. 5, Coach Rob Smith indicated the controversy surrounding the program has taken a toll. The university granted a number of players waivers and cleared them to seek scholarship offers from other schools. Rossbacher seemed to address these players in her remarks.
"Some of you student athletes have considered other options," she said. "We'll do whatever we can to help you, whatever you choose to do."
Smith also said his coaches have yet to start recruiting a freshman class, uncertain if they would even have a team after this year.
Addressing the crowd, Redd, for one, was optimistic.
"You haven't finished your work here, coach," he said. "I'm looking for a banner in the trophy area to say, 'Humboldt State University, national champions.'"
Called up by Redd to the podium, Smith seemed a bit bewildered.
"I learned about this 15 minutes ago," he said, "and now we go from the real possibility of losing our football program to the one of hanging a national championship banner. I'm OK with that. It's a day to celebrate."
It's a remarkable feat for a small community: $2.5 million in pledges over five years. The desperation heave of a pass was a bit wobbly and the catch was almost botched, but someone corralled it in the end zone and, a few years from now, that's probably all most will remember.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.