When the Big Sky Conference formed in 1963, the University of Idaho was among its six charter members. For the next 36 years, the league served as the Vandals home before they jumped to college footballs highest level.
Friday, Idaho will ask the State Board of Education for authorization to explore and accept an invitation to rejoin the league in non-football sports. Idaho is also seeking permission to become a Football Bowl Subdivision independent so it can remain a part of college footballs top classification.
The State Board staff recommended approval Thursday.
The Big Sky extended a formal all-sports invitation to Idaho a school it covets for its historical ties to the league and its geographic fit about 60 days ago, Commissioner Doug Fullerton said. Once the State Board gives its approval, Fullerton said he would begin official negotiations with Idaho.
I anticipate theyll be very, very happy in the Big Sky, Fullerton said.
Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear declined comment Thursday, saying he wants to allow the boards procedures and process to work. He took to Twitter to caution that nothing is finalized about the Vandals future. SBOE will vote tomorrow on our request to only EXPLORE independent football and Big Sky membership, he wrote. Nothing official.
Western Athletic Conference Interim Commissioner Jeff Hurd wrote to the Statesman in a text, there is a difference between requesting permission to make a decision (as is required by the state) and actually making the decision. I believe that has been missed in the reporting of this story.
Idaho joined the WAC in 2005. In recent years, the league has been decimated by defections, including Boise States departure in 2011. Recent losses have left the league with just four committed members after this season and just two that play football Idaho and New Mexico State.
Hurd said last month that the league would not sponsor football in 2013, leaving the Vandals without a conference. No league not the Mountain West, Conference USA or Sun Belt, which have invited current WAC members has offered Idaho a spot, in part because of its small-market size, remote location and lack of on-field success (two bowl games since 1996).
Idaho officials discussed the situation with the State Board during an executive session Wednesday. It was closed to the public.
Fridays 1 p.m. special meeting in Boise, which is open, has just one item on the agenda: Idahos athletic future.
In the board agenda document, Idaho seeks authority to commence scheduling football games as an unaffiliated FBS institution.
To comply with NCAA and FBS rules, Idaho must play nine football games, at least 60 percent of them against FBS schools and at least five of them at home, though one could be at a neutral site. Four of the home games must be against FBS members.
Idaho has three road games scheduled for 2013 (Mississippi, Wyoming and Washington State), and one (Northern Illinois) at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow.
If were going to play independent football, a lot of those decisions have to be made in the next month to two months, Idaho President Duane Nellis told the Statesman on Saturday. If it doesnt look like we can secure a schedule for us at the FBS level, then were going to have to make other decisions.
All of Idahos currently scheduled 2013 games are for August and September. Spear said scheduling during October and November when most schools are playing conference games is difficult.
The middle part of the season is going to be the most challenging part, he told the Statesman on Saturday. Weve got a lot of feelers out there, a lot of possibilities. But the window is closing.
Spear said independence would have to be a short-term solution, probably for just two years. The hope, Nellis and Spear said, is that further conference realignment opens the door for Idaho in the FBS.
Even if Idaho gets its schedule figured out, without a lucrative TV contract or bowl tie-ins, making a go as an independent could prove difficult. There are four independents in the FBS two have large TV contracts (Notre Dame and BYU) and two have the federal government to handle expenses (Army and Navy). In the board document, Idaho states it can make approximately $1.5 million more in game payouts by remaining in the FBS than by moving to the Football Championship Subdivision.
The Big Sky plays football at the FCS level, which has fewer scholarships (63 compared to 85) and a true playoff to determine the national champion.
Fullerton said Idaho has to show its fan base and others that it has exhausted all possibilities when it comes to remaining in the FBS. If the Vandals cant make independence work in football, their likely destination would be the Big Sky.
As for other sports, joining the Big Sky would allow Idaho to reestablish historical rivalries such as Idaho State, Montana and Montana State with the resulting increase in fan interest ... as well as a more regional travel schedule which will reduce costs and reduce loss of academic class time for student athletes, according to board documents.
Were really interested in playing a regional schedule. Its huge for fans. Its huge for travel reasons, Spear said Saturday.
The Big Sky currently has 11 all-sport members: Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Montana, Montana State, North Dakota, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah and Weber State.
Adding Idaho would allow the league to split into two six-team divisions and further reduce travel expenses. Fullerton said the presidents in his league would accept Idaho in non-football sports.
Its a perfect fit, Fullerton said. Hopefully that vote will confirm that we can begin that conversation in earnest.
The Big Sky sponsors 14 of Idaho's 16 sports. It does not sponsor mens golf and womens swimming and diving.
We appreciate the State Board of Educations consideration of our proposal for (Nellis and Spear) to explore what is best for the future of Vandal athletics, our student-athletes and our fans, the school said in an unattributed statement. Our priority continues to be to provide the best experience for our students, alumni and fans within a collegiate sports environment.
Brian Murphy: 377-6444,Twitter: @MurphsTurph