Cabrillo College suspended its football program last May following sanctions imposed for rule violations. (Cabrillo College / Contributed)

Seahawks football is set to take wing in 2022 after two years of hiatus.

Cabrillo College trustees on Monday unanimously voted to reinstate football in fall 2022, subject to the slate of policy changes aimed at putting more of a focus on local recruitment and athletes’ academic success. The move comes a year after the college took the unusual step of suspending its own football program in the wake of sanctions imposed after a coach helped players secure housing in violation of conference rules.

What followed was a year of soul-searching around the future of Cabrillo College football. Tasked with answering the question of whether football should continue at all, a college committee spent months scrutinizing the program.

It found soaring rates of out-of-area recruitment led to housing and food insecurity for athletes, as well as subpar transfer and academic completion rates. But with those findings came an outpouring of support for Seahawks football as former athletes spoke glowingly of the doors it had opened and positive impacts to their personal and professional lives.

In an April report, the committee recommended football should be reinstated subject to a slate of policy changes and steps to improve oversight. Some trustees were initially skeptical, raising questions about safety of the sport and equity with other programs. But ultimately the elected board unanimously backed the proposal, paving the way for the Seahawks to return to the field.

Former Seahawk Femi Ayanbadejo, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens in his 11 seasons in the NFL, was among those celebrating the decision.

“I am elated that these kids will have the opportunity to compete and potentially change their lives as my brother and I did,” Ayanbadejo told Lookout. “I was heartbroken when I heard football was shutting down. The only thing that would have made me happier was to have it back this fall.”

Cabrillo President Matt Wetstein said he, too, is eager to see the Seahawks back in action, especially with an increased prioritization on local recruitment and academic success.

Before the suspension, the Seahawks’ football program saw one of its most successful seasons in decades on the field. But the program had become increasingly reliant on out-of-area recruits to fill its roster, with 40% of players from out of the area in the 2017–18 season compared to 8% the prior year, according to the April report.

“The more that we can focus on our local students, or local families, the better off I think we’re going to be in not having to address as many housing and food insecurity issues,” Wetstein said

One way to ensure that focus is a key policy change made to the program as a condition of reinstatement: Capping out-of-state athletes at 20% of the roster. Other changes include mandated educational plans for athletes, more clarity around housing costs, and the creation of a steering committee to monitor progress.

Reggie Stephens is one of the football program’s greatest success stories. The Santa Cruz High graduate parlayed two years of growth at Cabrillo into a full-ride scholarship to Rutgers University. From there he carved out a eight-year pro career spent mostly with the New York Giants, one of seven Seahawks to play in the NFL — and one of three to have played in Super Bowls.

That’s why Stephens said he rejoined the program for three years as a volunteer coach under head coach Darren Arbet: to give back to future Reggie Stephens. In that span he helped mold multiple players into four-year college products.

Seeing the program fall the way it did, up close, was difficult. But Stephens said the struggle to adequately support out-of-area players isn’t unique to Cabrillo.

“It’s not a Cabrillo problem; it’s a California problem. And it’s a problem for junior colleges all across the state,” he said, noting the lack of housing earmarked for student-athletes. “Whoever they pick as the next coach, you definitely have to figure out a good balance between how many out-of-state kids you bring in.”

Housing scandal comes to light

A fight broke out at a three-bedroom townhouse near Cabrillo’s Aptos campus in Sept. 2019, according to an internal investigation report from Cabrillo Athletics Director Mark Ramsey. The police were called and one person was hospitalized.

At least a dozen student-athletes lived in the home, according to the investigation. And in the aftermath of the fight, it came to light that a Cabrillo coach had rented the home — and a second unit elsewhere — on behalf of players, signing leases and serving as a go-between for rent payments.

The arrangement violated an athletics association bylaw barring unfair treatment of student-athletes or prospects around “obtaining, securing or soliciting” housing.

Cabrillo self-reported the violations to the Northern California Football Conference, which meted out a two-year probation and ban from post-season play along with sanctions against the individual players. Cabrillo’s trustees then took it upon themselves to suspend the program altogether in May 2020, pressing pause to evaluate what had happened and how to address it moving forward.

Starting from scratch

Cabrillo now faces the task of hiring a new head coach and rebuilding a roster before the 2022 season. Wetstein said he hopes to have a new head coach recruited by January, leaving the spring to fill the Seahawks roster.

Stephens, the former New York Giant, said he would be interested in helping out or consulting with the new head coach. And he believes the way the pandemic has shifted the plans for many young players will play to Cabrillo’s advantage.

He also hopes to see the school tap into the resources at its disposal, the success stories like himself: Sherman Cocroft, Jermaine Robinson, Brendon and Femi Ayanbadejo, Dwight Lowery, Nick Johnson.

“They have so many resources they can sit down with and use and question because we went through it, we did it,” Stephens said. “We know what kind of coach got it done.”

Once a coach is selected, they will be tasked with filling a roster essentially from scratch — and with oversight and a recruitment cap — over a period of several months. While it looks like a daunting task, Wetstein said he has had encouraging conversations with local high school coaches and believes their players are ready to fill the majority of the Seahawks roster,

“You can draw on some athletes from around the country who are coming here, but you can compete with local product and local talent,” Wetstein said.

And if there are impacts in the win and loss columns, that’s fine by Wetstein. The program’s primary goal, he said, is to develop its athletes and offer them a path to higher education and upward social mobility.

“If wins come with that, great. If not, as long as the coach is developing the athletes into scholar-athletes — and getting them to transfer — that’s what it’s about,” he said. “It is not about the win-loss record to me.”

Nick Ibarra covers higher education for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.