The University of Idaho football team arrives in Boise on Sunday to begin preparations to play Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl next Thursday.
Idaho is 8-4 and going to a bowl game for the first time since 2009 — yet some fans are bitter, disappointed and even angry.
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In April, after being voted out of the southern-based Sun Belt, the university announced it is moving the program from the Football Bowl Subdivision to the Football Championship Subdivision and will return to the Big Sky in 2018. Idaho played football in the Big Sky from 1965-95, and some fans see the change as a move down in status.
Idaho President Chuck Staben, who made the decision to move, disagrees. And he says the move has been received with plenty of support from fans, boosters and donors. Here is a bulk of his interview with the Idaho Statesman:
Q: In April, Idaho announced its decision to move the football program to the Big Sky starting with the 2018 season. Has this successful season changed your thought process at all?
A: We’re very pleased with the successful season, but it hasn’t changed the fundamental factors: lack of conference affiliation, the only option being to compete as an independent. That really motivated that decision. So no, it hasn’t changed that basic thought process, and yet we’re still enjoying a great season.
Q: How often do you hear from fans and boosters, and what is the split between those who want to remain FBS and those who support FCS?
A: We do hear from boosters pretty often. And most of the boosters that we hear from, in a variety of ways, actually favor the Big Sky. Yet, there is clearly a set of boosters, very passionate Vandal fans, that feel we should remain FBS and compete as an independent. And I always listen to those opinions, and I respect their passion for the program.
Q: What is the advantage of going to the Big Sky?
A: The big advantage going to the Big Sky is, as I said when we made the announcement, that we can compete against regional rivals and rivalries at a level where we’re properly resourced to be very competitive, so that our student-athletes, when they step on the field, can be quite sure that they’ll be competitive.
Q: Will you have to sell the program more now that Idaho is moving down?
A: We’re not moving down, we’re moving forward to the Big Sky. There’s a big difference.
Q: A lot of people probably look at the move as “moving down.”
A: The university is moving forward on many fronts. One, we’re assuring the ability of our football team to compete, just as all of our other sports have competed for years and now compete in the Big Sky. But there’s a lot of other things going on at the university. We broke the $100 million mark on research this year. We have our freshman enrollment up. We’re at an all-time enrollment high since 2012, new buildings. So we’re excited about a lot that’s happening at the university. And the football program is just a part of that.
Q: What has been the financial impact so far of the move?
A: There’s a minimal financial impact at this point.
Q: Any specifics?
A: There are some donors who have threatened to, and some I am sure who have decided to, not contribute. But at the same time, we’re actually doing extremely well on overall contributions with the university. And so, in general, this has not been a financial (issue). It was not a primarily financially motivated move, and it has not been a financial issue.
Q: Regardless of how people feel about the move, you did make what a lot of people consider a controversial decision, a decision no one probably wanted to make. There has been such divided feedback from fans and donors, how do you internalize being “The Guy” who made that decision?
A: First off, I wasn’t the only guy who made that decision. This was a university decision. I consulted with my cabinet, with our athletic director, with our football coach, with people outside the university whose opinions I respect. Ultimately, though, the major decisions at the university are something that I’m responsible for. So yes, I made this decision and, frankly, presidents have to make tough decisions. This was just one of those tough decisions that I needed to make. And I feel very good about that decision.
Q: Now that the transition is real, what’s the biggest priority in terms of changing from FBS to FCS?
A: The concrete change is, for example, 85 full-equivalent scholarships to 63 scholarships at the FCS level. And then there’s also the change from a 12-game season to an 11-game season with the possibility of postseason competition in FCS. So those are the biggest, concrete changes. And the staff is aware of that. They’re planning for that sort of transition.
Q: Coach (Paul) Petrino is winning football games and building a program. How difficult will it be to keep him in Moscow for the next few seasons?
A: Coach Petrino is a good coach. We’re really happy with his success. He was named the Sun Belt Coach of the Year. I’ve thought he’s a good coach. He’s turned the program around, not just athletically, but academically. Our APR, our Academic Progress Rate, is much higher than it was when he became our coach. So, very happy with him. He received a new contract last year, as you probably realize, and we feel optimistic about retaining him as our coach.
Q: Will there a reduction in salary pool for the head football coach and the staff with the move?
A: We’re not planning to decrease the resources that we put into athletics. So no, I don’t foresee that. Again, I see this as a step forward for the university. We’re changing one aspect, our conference affiliation of what’s actually a very large program.
Q: You brought up the scholarship changes. Has that plan been finalized? Have you talked to coaches about recruiting and how it will be handled?
A: I’ve talked to coaches, especially coach Petrino, specifically about that plan. We understand that to be eligible for postseason competition in 2018 in the Big Sky, we would need to be at that 63-scholarship level. So it’s clear that we need to get to that level. I would point out, and you probably realize this, that it’s 63 full scholarships. You can distribute those over 85 players. You can maintain a squad size and distribute those scholarships a little bit differently. And it’s likely to be part of our overall plan.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the checklist of items that the program has to do going forward to be successful in the Big Sky?
A: Idaho was successful in the Big Sky for many years. That’s a long time ago now, over 20 years ago, I believe. But we can be competitive there. I mean, we’re competing well right now. So I see no reason why we cannot be competitive and, frankly, coach Petrino sees no reason we can’t be competitive. One of the first things he said to me when I discussed this transition with him was, “I’ll win you a national championship.” And I believe we can do that.
Q: How important is winning right away going to be?
A: Winning is important when you’re an athlete. And winning right away is important.
Q: Do you think it’s going to be difficult with the transition?
A: Winning is never easy. Winning takes effort. It takes energy; it takes planning. So winning isn’t going to be easy, but winning is entirely possible.
Q: From the fan and booster perspective, do you think getting those early wins is going to be important to keep the support?
A: Fans and boosters always like to win, and that’s great. They should expect to win. That’s what our football team did this year, and they’ve done a great job. And so, we’re going to celebrate this year and we’re going to celebrate our return to the Big Sky.
Q: Overall, from your perspective, what do athletics mean to the University of Idaho?
A: Athletics means a lot, and you can see that. Athletics is great for the student-athletes, it’s great for the student experience, to have on-campus athletic programs. Two of my sons are NCAA athletes. I’ve certainly enjoyed athletics myself and watching them compete and watching our teams compete. I’ve gone to 10 of the football games this year. I went to 10 last year. And there’s just an excitement about athletics. And it’s clear, from athletics at the college level, up and down, from college through pros and college, high school down to age-group athletics. People care a lot about athletics, and that’s wonderful.
Q: In your tenure, have you seen an increase in support or a decrease in support?
A: During my tenure, I think we’ve actually made some good, strong commitments to athletics. We made some commitments to the football program, in terms of improving their office spaces, etc. I don’t think that was particularly visible. The biggest single change that you’re seeing is our commitment to build a basketball/volleyball arena on our campus, something that our students clearly want. They imposed a fee on themselves to help fund that, something that some of our major boosters clearly want. We have naming gifts for two of the major areas, the competition court and the practice court. And we have other sponsorships, including one from Albertsons here in Boise.
Q: How public will you be during the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl? How important will it be to use that time to connect with fans and boosters and keep the brand going?
A: It’s really important for me to be visible, and I plan to be quite visible. I mean, I’m quite visible at home football games. I’m pretty visible at the away games that I’ve been able to attend this year. This is fun. This is a celebration of the success of the team. And, as you can tell, I’m a pretty big fan. I know a lot of the student-athletes and the coaches and, so, of course I want to be engaged.
Q: For you personally, how fun has this season been? It probably caught some people off guard, probably didn’t catch your team off guard. What has it been like as a fan?
A: It’s been great. This is the best season in Idaho football for a very long time. I’m afraid I can’t quite remember if we’re talking 20 years or whatever. But it’s been a great season. And I think every Vandal fan, no matter what they think of FBS or FCS, has enjoyed this season.
Q: What does it mean to be playing in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl?
A: It’s great to be playing in the Potato Bowl. I’m looking forward to hearing the Vandal fight song ring out across Albertsons Stadium. And so, I think it’s great to be in the Potato Bowl. One of the wonderful things about that is that so many of our fans are supporters, some of our students, etc., are going to be able to participate and see the team. So the Potato Bowl is great for this.
Q: I know you’re sold on the transition, but with the recent success of the team, is there an avenue to reverse the decision?
A: If a relevant FBS football conference approached us with a desire to have us become a member, then I think it’s a decision worth considering. At this point, I realistically do not see that as likely to happen.
Q: But it’s on the table, hypothetically?
A: I always look for the best opportunity for the university in every aspect of the university. And I think that would be the key to a change in that decision.
Q: Now that there’s been time for analysis in the reduction of football scholarships, what does it mean for women’s sports and non-football teams?
A: This really won’t affect women’s sports or non-football sports. We can reduce from 85 to 63 and stay within our Title IX compliance, and so I don’t see any effect on any of the other sports.
Q: What is your response to fans and boosters who want to stay in the FBS?
A: First, most of the fans and boosters who want to remain FBS are very passionate supporters of the athletics programs. So the first thing that I try to do is to respect their passion for that, because I share that passion. And then, I’m always very responsive to them and try to understand their position and show that I understand their feelings. And yet, I still have to make the decision for the university.
Q: And from everything you’ve said, this is the best decision for the university?
A: I believe this is the best decision for the university.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
▪ Teams: Idaho (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) vs. Colorado State (7-5, 5-3 Mountain West)
▪ Time: 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 22
▪ Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf), Boise
▪ TV: ESPN (David Neal, Matt Stinchcomb, Oliuvia Harlan)
▪ Radio: 630 AM
▪ Tickets: Available at ticketmaster.com
▪ Vegas: Colorado State by 13 1/2
▪ Coaches: Idaho, Paul Petrino (fourth year; 14-33); Colorado State, Mike Bobo (second year; 14-11)
▪ Bowl records: Idaho 2-0, Colorado State 6-9
▪ Series record: Colorado State leads 4-3