Idaho’s announcement Thursday of its intention to join the Big Sky Conference in football in 2018 was met with mixed feelings. Many close to the program expressed disappointment, while most outside of it thought the move was a long time coming.
Since the drop from the Football Bowl Subdivision to the Football Championship Subdivision is the first move of its kind, the unknown rules. How the Vandals will handle the reduction in scholarships, revenue and other factors won’t be fully known for years to come.
With so much to unfold, there are plenty of positives and negatives that could come into play as the Vandals make the transition.
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▪ Faster chance to succeed: There is no guarantee the Vandals will immediately be back to their former ways as a Big Sky power, but they have decent facilities in place and an improving roster. Idaho has just one winning season since 2000 at the FBS level. Competing with similar schools and not being subject to far-flung travel could be a big benefit. It also may increase donations if the team starts winning again and fans start showing up to the Kibbie Dome, which has seen attendance decrease the past three years, including an average of 11,652 in 2015.
▪ Some (eventual) stability: Idaho knows where it will be going. It knows it will be in a conference that has existed for more than 50 years. Bouncing to leagues like the Sun Belt or independence haven’t made sense for Idaho, which will move for a fifth time in 18 years when it joins the Big Sky. The Sun Belt was desperate when it added Idaho, and vice versa. Independence would be a stop-gap at best, with no conference revenue and an almost impossible scheduling task.
“We can’t provide stability by ‘hoping’ another conference will ask us to join them, or that an FBS conference ‘might’ be realigned in the future to better fit UI,” President Chuck Staben said.
▪ A better experience: Staben told the Idaho Statesman in January one of his primary goals in making a decision would be one to make it a better experience for the student-athletes. Some current players were upset at the decision, but in a few years, there will be no one on the roster that had been a part of Idaho-as-FBS football. Staben said rivalries would be re-established and be more enjoyable. A game against, say, Montana in Moscow or Missoula would be far less travel and far more intense than one against Georgia State. He said travel would be reduced from the Sun Belt, too. Again, Staben said “winning is a lot better than losing.” Staben also said he hopes it continues to help the university without letting football, which has won an average of three games per year since 2000, be the school’s primary driver.
▪ A financial dropoff: Idaho will not be able to get nearly as much of a payout from the Big Sky as it would in the Sun Belt, or even before that, the WAC. None of the College Football Playoff money goes to the FCS, and FCS teams are usually paid less for road games. Idaho is set to bring in approximately $4 million in game guarantees and conference payouts this year, as opposed to about $1.5 million for Idaho State, currently in the Big Sky. Idaho has multiple future games set up that would pay more than $1 million apiece, and those are in jeopardy of being canceled or perhaps, more likely, revised, almost certainly meaning a lower payout for the Vandals. Athletic Director Rob Spear said there is no plan currently to cut any sports.
▪ Some football instability?: The Big Sky hired a new commissioner in Andrea Williams on Friday, and she will be a key figure in overseeing Idaho’s transition. The Vandals’ addition will give the conference 14 football-playing schools. It could split into divisions, but that is not a must, with no championship game. Retiring Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton said he could see a chance the conference divides in two, but that would be unlikely without two more football-playing members. Idaho coach Paul Petrino expressed an interest to coach Idaho in the Big Sky, but his contract is set to end after 2017, and his current deal calls for possible revisions with conference realignment. Staben said players are still under standard transfer rules, but if that changes, a small exodus could occur.
▪ What could have been: The Vandals should have one of their more talented teams in recent years, with a potentially high-scoring offense and a slowly improving defense, which could mean the team’s third bowl since moving up to FBS in 1996. Success in 2016 and 2017 will only upset the Vandal faithful who preferred staying at the FBS level. Many boosters have seen the move as the easy way out, and that perhaps a short stint as an independent could lead to another conference home, especially with college football’s ever-changing landscape.