After 20 years of roaming around the edges of college football’s highest level, the Vandals are heading back to a place they once had a comfortable home.
On Thursday, a long-time possibility and a major shift, was made official. Idaho will drop down from the Football Bowl Subdivision to the Football Championship Subdivision and join the Big Sky in 2018. The Vandals were Big Sky members from 1965-95.
All of Idaho’s other teams moved back in 2014.
FBS life has not been kind to Idaho, which has one winning season and five affiliation changes since 2000. The Vandals will play the 2016 and 2017 football seasons in the Sun Belt, which voted last month not to renew Idaho’s membership.
“UI has always been one of the lowest-resourced FBS football teams, and therefore has struggled to achieve a winning record during our time in the FBS,” Idaho President Chuck Staben said. “To become successful enough to affiliate with any FBS conference would entail unjustifiable, unsustainable expenditures.”
Idaho entertained moving forward as an FBS independent, but the Vandals spent 2013 in that rare position, finding it difficult to schedule games. To do so indefinitely, without any potential conference landing spot ahead, would be “irresponsible,” Staben said.
The move is the first of its kind. The NCAA split the top level of college football into Division I-A and Division I-AA in 1978, and by 1981, there were 137 teams in I-A. That prompted the NCAA to implement attendance and stadium size thresholds. Yale, Wichita State and McNeese State met the requirements, but they played in conferences in which most teams did not, so they opted to remain in the Ivy, Missouri Valley and Southland, respectively, and drop to I-AA.
Idaho is the only to do so without having its hand forced by the NCAA.
“The game that we signed up for has changed over time,” Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear said. “As you heard the president talk about it, it is really impossible for us to stay at that level and be competitive. ...
“We’ve got some work to do. We’ve got to engage (supporters) and get them back. But I’m confident that we are going to continue to look at options, we are going to continue to be the best that we can be and really what we can do right now is control what we can control.”
The Vandals must reduce the maximum amount of scholarships from 85 to 63. Spear said a transition plan is in place, and that Idaho will be at 63 in 2018. It also would make the Vandals immediately eligible for the FCS playoffs. He said smaller recruiting classes are likely the next two years and partial scholarships can be offered beginning in two years.
Spear also added: “We have no plans at this time to eliminate any sports” to accommodate the reduction in scholarships. The Vandals field 14 teams, six men’s and eight women’s, the current NCAA minimum and all of which are required for Big Sky membership.
Approval is still required from the Idaho State Board of Education, which Staben said he expects to be granted.
Coach Paul Petrino, in his fourth season with the Vandals, was an Idaho assistant from 1992-94, when the Vandals were a Big Sky power. His contract calls for it to be revisited if Idaho changes conferences, and he is under contract through the 2017 season. Stoic during Thursday’s press conference, he expressed a desire to remain in Moscow through the transition.
“Yes I am. Looking forward to it,” he said.
Petrino said he let the team know of the decision Thursday morning, saying “I felt like the response to the team meeting went very well.”
He is doing player evaluations this week and will spend more time with the freshmen and sophomores expected to play in 2018.
In 2018 and beyond, Idaho is scheduled to receive more than $1 million each for games at Florida (2018), Penn State (2019), LSU (2020) and Indiana (2021-22). Spear said, “Each contract is different. Some will be adjusted or voided and some won’t.”
FBS opponents are usually paid more than FCS foes to visit Power 5 teams. In 2014, the highest payout for an FCS team to play at an FBS opponent was the $620,000 Michigan State gave to Jacksonville State.
FBSchedules.com reported LSU can get out of the contract for free, as it has a stipulation that if either team drops out of the the FBS, it can be voided without penalty. The Centre (Pa.) Daily Times reported that Penn State intends to keep Idaho on the schedule. There is no stipulation for Florida canceling the 2018 game because of the FCS move.
Potentially losing a few hundred thousand dollars, along with the approximate $1.5 million it receives annually as part of an FBS conference, Idaho will need to make up some serious revenue or adjust its budget.
Staben said funding a new basketball arena “is our top fundraising priority at this point.” Spear said a $15-per-credit fee, paid by students to help fund the project, has been approved by the State Board. Idaho announced its plans in February 2015 with a six-year plan to get it built. Spear said it is on track.
Staben said the decision to join the Big Sky, though potentially difficult in the early goings, is best in the long run, competitively and financially.
“The University of Idaho’s prestige and relevance will be complemented by our football program,’’ he said. “Not defined by it.’’
Idaho Vandals conference affiliations in football
- 1894-1921: No affiliation
- 1922-1958: Pacific Coast
- 1959-1964: Independent
- 1965-1995: Big Sky
- 1996-2000: Big West
- 2001-2004: Sun Belt
- 2005-2012: Western Athletic
- 2013: Independent
- 2014-17: Sun Belt
- 2018: Big Sky