Idaho's case for FBS: More revenue, compete at the highest level

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comJune 29, 2014 

There is no debate for second-year coach Paul Petrino about the best place for Idaho football.

It's in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of NCAA football.

"It's best for football and best for the whole athletic department," Petrino said. "I think it's really important. No. 1 for the money. You get the money they're going to start making. That money is what helps pay for all the other sports. It'll kill all the other sports. I just think that's where I'd like to be in. I want to be in (the FBS)."

Idaho joins the Sun Belt Conference on Tuesday, taking its second turn in a league that is based in the Southeast. It is a marriage of convenience for both parties, but it was pivotal to Idaho's desire to remain in college football's top tier.

As a member of the FBS, the Sun Belt will receive at least $12 million from the College Football Playoff, which begins this season. That money will be split among the 11 football-playing members, promising Idaho more than $1 million per season once the Vandals start receiving a full league share in 2016.

Another $22 million from the CFP is up for grabs among the five non-power conferences, including the Mountain West, contingent upon on-field success. That doesn't include money from the Sun Belt's television contract with ESPN and, in the future, a conference championship game, or the big dollars Idaho generates by playing road games against some of the nation's top programs (this year's season opener is at Florida, which is paying $975,000).

Those dollars simply aren't available at the second tier of college football, where Idaho played from 1965 to 1995 as a member of the Big Sky. Petrino was an assistant at Idaho from 1992 to 1994, when the Vandals reached the FCS playoffs three straight years, including an appearance in the national semifinals.

Idaho has struggled since moving to the FBS in 1996. The Vandals are 67-144 since making the transition and have lost 32 of 36 games since 2010.

Those disastrous results have led some - but not all - to call for a return to the FCS, the Big Sky and regional rivals like Montana, Eastern Washington and Idaho State. The Big Sky has made it clear it would welcome the Vandals.

"I'm FBS all the way. It would be conceding defeat if you went back down," said Tim Curtiss, a 2009 graduate who lives in Lewiston.

Athletic Director Rob Spear opted to keep Idaho in the FBS, even though it meant a one-year stint as an independent, because of the uncertainty in the NCAA.

"It would have been short-sighted (to drop down). If it was made, you have no decision later on. We went independent and we did have a decision. We went into the Sun Belt, which is going to be helpful," Spear said.

Being in a conference provides games and bowl affiliations, factors not taken lightly in Moscow after 2013's independent schedule.

Looming NCAA changes - no one is sure what impact they might have on a team's ability to move from FCS to FBS - also have impacted the decision-making process.

"Now is not the time for us to hop out of the FBS to the FCS," said Idaho President Chuck Staben, who helped guide South Dakota from Division II to Division I in his previous stop. "Rob has positioned us pretty well in the Sun Belt for now. We need to wait several years to see how things settle out.''

Brian Murphy: 377-6444; Twitter: @murphsturph

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