While the long-term affects of Western Washington University's decision to cuts its football program won't truly be known for several years, the ripple affect could be devastating to small-college football on the West Coast.
There's fear among the remaining four football schools in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference that WWU's decision to drop its program could signal the beginning of the end of NCAA Division II football in the West. Officials at WWU announced on Thursday, Jan. 8, that the school would be dropping its team after more than 100 years.
"We've all had trouble," Central Washington athletic director Jack Bishop said in a phone interview. "We've all had to deal with budget cuts and revenue issues. But if you had asked me before this which schools in our conference would be best able to handle those things, I would have said Western and then us."
With just four colleges now fielding Division II football teams west of Colorado and the cost of travel rising as funds are being cut, the remaining schools might be forced to reconsider whether having football is worth the money it costs to run a program.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Bellingham Herald
The level of doubt it's already generated caused GNAC commissioner Richard Hannan to issue a statement on Friday, Jan. 9, affirming the stability of football within the conference.
"I have spoken with all of the athletic directors at our remaining four football institutions (Central Washington University, Western Oregon University, Humboldt State University and Dixie State College) and they and their institutions are all firmly committed to the sport," Hannan said in the release. "All of them have indicated to me football will remain as an integral part of their athletic departments.
As it stands, the move has left the four schools scrambling to fill two open spots on its schedules for next season. It's also cast a lot of doubt on the conference's ability to add enough schools to reach the six members it would need to automatically qualify for a bid to the NCAA Division II playoffs.
"I've talked to my athletic director and my president and they've both said football is on solid ground here at Humboldt," Lumberjack football coach Rob Smith said in a phone interview. "But this kind of thing has to make you wonder. We have to find two more opponents now and that will likely mean more money and all of a sudden maybe things aren't so solid. You just don't know."
While all of the football schools in the GNAC were hit hard by the news on Thursday, perhaps none was hit harder than Central. The Wildcats and WWU have been natural rivals in athletics since the 1920s and have played each other in football 100 times over the years.
Beyond that, the two schools have worked closely in years past to hold mutually beneficial events like the Battle in Seattle football game at Qwest Field, and both programs agreed to the two-year move to the North Central Conference that lasted from 2006-2007. It's likely neither would have made the move to the conference without the other's support.
Central would like to keep the Battle in Seattle going and is looking at possibly striking a deal with Eastern Washington or a school from Montana, Bishop said. But it's going to be more expensive to put on and certainly won't boast the same sort of tradition.
"Dropping a program like football is something that's bad for everyone," Bishop said. "It's going to have a ripple affect for us and everyone else. First off we're losing a big rival in football and that's disappointing, but I think this is going to cause everyone to rethink some things."
Reach Joe Sunnen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 756-2862.