While the University of Idaho’s football future is unknown, the Vandals will not be caught flat-footed when it becomes much more clear in the next two months.
President Chuck Staben was in Boise on Thursday and spoke with the Idaho Statesman about the state of the program, and what lies ahead.
Staben said the university will pitch its case to remain in the Sun Belt Conference with a video presentation to league presidents in February. The presidents are scheduled to vote March 10 on future membership.
Idaho joined the southern-based conference before the 2014 season on a four-year agreement, up for extension after two years.
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Idaho has been considering its options, Staben said, whether it can remain in the Football Bowl Subdivision or return to the Football Championship Subdivision ranks in the Big Sky Conference.
“We certainly don’t have a guarantee of renewal,” Staben said. “We’ve had some pretty tough years in Idaho football. We had a better year this year. The Sun Belt wants to have members that can contribute to the prominence of the conference.”
The Sun Belt, and FBS status, provide better revenue for the school, Staben said, but the Big Sky, where Idaho played from 1965-95, would be a much better regional fit.
“Some of our natural rivals are in the Big Sky. ... There’s some interesting things about that, but that change is a challenge,” Staben said.
In addition to a loss in revenue, a change from FBS to FCS would mean a smaller budget, a reduction of football scholarships from 85 to 63 to fit FCS requirements, and an analyzation of all teams in the athletic department.
The transition would be a multi-year process, and should Idaho become the first school to ever drop from FBS to FCS, the football program would likely play a hybrid schedule and be ineligible for the playoffs in 2018 and 2019, Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton said Thursday.
“It’s never happened before, so there’s not yet a set plan,” Fullerton said. “We wouldn’t want them to skip a recruiting class or anything like that. We’re being patient, but we think they’d be a great fit.”
The Big Sky renewed its football-only invitation to Idaho in October, and Staben said the school has had conversations with the conference. Most of the Vandals’ other sports play in the league, which has 13 football-playing members. Fullerton said adding Idaho could force the creation of divisions, which could help get more teams into the FCS playoffs because they’ve been “beating up on each other.”
Further affecting Idaho’s future is an NCAA vote next week on potentially deregulating conference championships in football, which could allow 10-team leagues to have championship games instead of the current 12-team, two-division requirement.
The Sun Belt has 11 football members and will add Coastal Carolina as a full-time member in 2018. Idaho and New Mexico State are under the same four-year deals. Commissioner Karl Benson said in September if deregulation happens, the league could move forward as a 10-team league.
Benson said Thursday the Sun Belt has yet to decide if it even wants a championship game, whether it has 10 or 12 teams.
A third option exists for Idaho, which is independence. The Vandals played in 2013 as an independent. Staben said “that alternative doesn’t look attractive to me,” noting difficulty in scheduling and a lack of rivals.
“The student-athlete experience is very important. ... We want the fans to be excited about things. Winning actually is a lot better than losing,” Staben said.
The uncertainty has not been an issue for potential Vandals football players, while coaches and administrators are on the same page about any contingency plans, Staben said. The recruiting season resumes next week and ends with signing day Feb. 3.
“Our recruits are not asking that kind of question, as far as I know,” Staben said. “We’ve informed the coaches to be honest about what we’re doing; we haven’t made a decision and we’re considering our options.”