Full speed ahead: Idaho Vandals return to familiar, stable Big Sky and Sun Belt conferences

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comJune 29, 2014 

Idaho head football coach Paul Petrino, an assistant with the Vandals from 1992 to 1994, was part of the good times in Moscow and wants them back. "I want to get it to where we're competitive to win the conference year in and year out," Petrino said. "That's my goal - to get it back to where the Vandals were." Above: Petrino works his camp in Moscow last week.

KYLE MILLS — For the Idaho Statesman

  • Money and memberships

    BIG SKY ATHLETIC BUDGETS

    • North Dakota: $22 million

    • Idaho: $19.5m

    • Montana: $19.2m

    • Montana State: $18m

    • Sacramento State: $17m

    • Portland State: $13.7m

    • Northern Arizona: $12.8m

    • Weber State: $12.3m

    • Northern Colorado: $12.2m

    • Idaho State: $11.1m

    • Eastern Washington: $10.1m

    • Southern Utah: $9.5m

    * Figures reported by schools to the Statesman or obtained via State Board of Education documents. Figures are for the past school year or projections for this school year - depending on the most recent figures provided by the school.

    BIG SKY MEMBERS (2014-15)

    All sports

    • Eastern Washington

    • Idaho State

    • Montana

    • Montana State

    • North Dakota

    • Northern Arizona

    • Northern Colorado

    • Portland State

    • Sacramento State

    • Southern Utah

    • Weber State

    All sports (minus football)

    • Idaho

    Football only

    • Cal Poly and UC Davis

    SUN BELT MEMBERS (2014-15)

    All sports

    • Appalachian State

    • Arkansas State

    • Georgia Southern

    • Georgia State

    • Louisiana-Lafayette

    • Louisiana-Monroe

    • South Alabama

    • Texas State

    • Troy

    Football only

    • Idaho

    • New Mexico State

    All sports (minus football)

    • Arkansas-Little Rock

    • UT Arlington

    IDAHO CONFERENCE HISTORY

    • 1921-59: Pacific Coast (football started in the PCC in 1922)

    • 1959-63: Independent (basketball)

    • 1959-64: Independent (football)

    • 1965-96: Big Sky (basketball started in the Big Sky in 1963-64)

    • 1996-2000: Big West (football)

    • 1996-2005: Big West (basketball)

    • 2001-2004: Sun Belt (football)

    • 2005-2012: WAC (football)

    • 2005-2014: WAC (basketball)

    • 2013: Independent (football)

    • 2014: Sun Belt (football)/Big Sky

    THE GLORY DAYS

    Idaho was highly successful in the Big Sky in the 1980s and early 1990s, earning national prominence in football and men's basketball:

    • The Vandals reached the Division I-AA (now FCS) football playoffs in 10 of 11 seasons before leaving for Division I-A (now FBS) in 1996. Idaho has won two bowl games, in 1998 and 2009, but has only two winning seasons otherwise in the FBS era. The Vandals had 15 winning seasons in football in 18 seasons before leaving the Big Sky - and four since.

    • The move to the Big Sky could rekindle past glory in men's basketball, where the Vandals reached four NCAA Tournaments (1981, 1982, 1989 and 1990), even breaking into the AP top 10 in 1982. Idaho has not reached the Big Dance since 1990.

    • The Vandals won the WAC Commissioner's Cup in 2013-14 after championships in women's basketball, women's cross country, indoor men's track and field, men's and women's tennis and men's and women's outdoor track and field.

After four months on the job, University of Idaho President Chuck Staben remains undefeated.

In racquetball.

Staben, 55, issued a challenge to undergraduate students on the Moscow campus when he became president March 1: Beat him at racquetball and he'll buy lunch.

He's 5-0 - and can only hope the football team enjoys as much success in its first days in a new home.

"We don't want to be permanently 1-10," Staben said.

Idaho's football program ends its one-year stint as an independent and joins the Sun Belt Conference on Tuesday. The Vandals' other athletic programs move from the Western Athletic Conference to the Big Sky on the same day.

"You're playing against the right schools and re-establishing some of the old rivalries. I think that will help with attendance and interest," said Rob Spear, Idaho's athletic director since October 2003. "The Big Sky gives our coaches stability now."

Idaho was a founding member of the Big Sky, playing in the league from 1963 to 1996, often with great success, before making the move to Division I-A (now the Football Bowl Subdivision).

Stability has proven elusive for the Vandals since.

The athletic department has been a member of three conferences, Big West (1996-2005), Sun Belt (2001-04) and WAC (2005-14), and has found precious little success over the past two decades in football and men's basketball.

The vagabond status - the moves have been made not out of success and promotion, but near desperation - left Idaho scrambling, as best evidenced by an independent football schedule in 2013.

"You're just trying to react to stay alive," Spear said.

The WAC has been in the same reactive posture. Its response to losing programs like Boise State, Nevada and Fresno State was to reload with whoever it could find, no matter where the new schools were located or how little they brought to the league.

Anything to survive.

The chain reaction left Idaho in a conference with Chicago State, Texas-Pan American, Missouri-Kansas City and Grand Canyon.

"I don't think any of the Vandal fans know anything about Chicago State. They'd much rather have Montana State or Weber State than Chicago State," men's basketball coach Don Verlin said.

Said women's basketball coach Jon Newlee: "A lot more people are going to want to watch us play the (Montana) Grizzlies than play the (UMKC) Kangaroos."

Without a football affiliation, it no longer made sense to remain in the WAC, certainly not with the Big Sky willing to take Idaho back. Idaho agreed to return to the conference in 2012, but delayed entry until this week to collect part of the exit fee windfall that was headed to the WAC from departing members.

"From a personal standpoint and to a basketball coach - I'm not speaking about football - it's a great move for us," Verlin said.

Idaho and Montana have met 180 times in men's basketball. Idaho and Montana State have played 112 times, and Idaho and Idaho State have met 102 times.

Last year's meetings with WAC foes UMKC and Utah Valley were the first in Idaho history.

"Everybody that I've spoken to in the sports that are moving to the Big Sky feels there are a lot of positives: level of conference, ability of conference, geographic rivalries, renewing some rivalries," men's and women's tennis director Jeff Beaman said. "It's definitely a good thing."

Coaches in the non-revenue sports believe a move to the Big Sky will allow them to recruit closer to home and allow parents to see their children play more often. It should increase interest among fans. And, for many, it will cut down dramatically on long flights with numerous stops and missed class time.

"We're going from Chicago to Texas-Pan Am on the border of Mexico. It's like, 'Whoa. What are we doing here?' Now we know where we're going and we know how to get there," Newlee said.

Newlee and the women's basketball program reached the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons.

Despite the struggles in football, the Vandals were a successful program overall in their last season in the WAC. They won the league's Commissioner's Cup, awarded to the top athletic department based on overall results.

It is a source of pride for the school, even if those sports don't generate the headlines of football (four winning seasons since 1996) and men's basketball (no NCAA Tournament appearances since 1990).

"It doesn't matter what league we're in, we're always going to have high expectations that we can compete at the highest level," Spear said.

Idaho offers 207 scholarships, the most allowable based on its 16 sports. Not all schools provide all available scholarships for non-revenue sports.

But costs keep rising. Spear said his scholarship costs have increased $1 million since 2008, even though the athletic department pays in-state tuition for all athletes. Idaho needs $3.1 million yearly to pay for scholarships and has only been raising about $1.7 million yearly for scholarships, Spear said.

The rest must come from other sources.

In the Vandals' case, that means football. It's one reason Spear did not want to move football to the Big Sky, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision.

"We would have had to eliminate sports," Spear said.

Even with a drop in football expenses - Idaho offers 85 scholarships; teams in the FCS can offer 63 - Spear said other programs would have been eliminated.

"It made a lot of sense for us to wait and see what happened," he said.

After their first season as an independent, an old friend offered a life preserver. Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson, a Boise State graduate and the former commissioner of the WAC, invited Idaho as a football-only member May 15, 2013.

The Sun Belt needed football-playing members to rebuild after being raided by Conference USA. Idaho needed a home - badly.

"It was a mutual need," Benson said. "Idaho didn't have a lot of choices."

The Vandals were a football member of the Southeastern-based Sun Belt from 2001 to 2004 before moving to the WAC.

It's not an ideal fit, but it's better than independence and the constant scheduling struggle that accompanied it.

By remaining in the top tier of college football, the Vandals will reap a small portion of the huge money flowing into the sport through the new four-team College Football Playoff. It will help immensely for a program whose overall budget will be in line with top spenders in the Big Sky.

"We're in a conference that I believe is quite good for us," Staben said. "It's not optimal in the sense that if you could write down what teams you wanted in a conference, it might not be these. But we don't get to do that."

Few do.

For now, for the first time since the WAC first began to crumble, the Vandals have stability - something the entire department has craved. They're done reacting, done scrambling.

Now they must find out what comes next.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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