The Idaho Vandals are back in a familiar state of uncertainty, with their most likely future path one never taken in the history of college football.
The Sun Belt will not extend the football-only memberships of Idaho and New Mexico State past the 2017 season, the conference announced Tuesday.
Now Idaho’s football program is left without a clear future, as was the case after the collapse of the Western Athletic Conference in 2012.
School officials identified two scenarios Tuesday: play as an independent in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which the Vandals did in 2013, or make the unprecedented move down to the Football Championship Subdivision and join the Big Sky Conference, where the Vandals played from 1965-95.
Either way, the Vandals will have a new football home in the fall of 2018.
“This is another challenge for our department, certainly, but it’s not a challenge we haven’t faced before,” Athletic Director Rob Spear said. “We’ll work through it and select the best option for the University of Idaho.”
Idaho played in the Sun Belt from 2001-04 and rejoined in the fall of 2014 on a four-year agreement that was up for renewal after two seasons.
In making its decision to not extend the Vandals’ membership, the Sun Belt opted to move forward as a 10-team league. Its reasons were plentiful, starting with the NCAA decision in January to allow conferences with fewer than 12 teams to hold a championship game. Previously, two six-team (or more) divisions were required.
The reduction of the maximum amount of College Football Playoff money a “Group of Five” conference could be distributed, from $12 million to $10 million, also had an impact.
Fewer teams also means a larger cut of CFP money for the 10 that remain.
Idaho and New Mexico State were geographic outliers in the southern-based conference, and the schools’ combined 21-99 record the last five seasons didn’t help — Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson said “it would have been a factor had there been greater on-field success.”
“We focused on what was in the best interests of the Sun Belt rather than focusing on the characteristics or benefits (of Idaho and New Mexico State),” Benson said. “This was an economic evaluation. Ten teams versus 12 teams would be a better financial model as well.”
Initially, the Sun Belt was to vote on the schools’ future membership March 10, but Texas State President Denise Trauth, the league’s president of the board of directors, said “it became very apparent the presidents and chancellors were unified. ... Our leadership felt we had amply evaluated.”
Benson said no vote was taken.
Idaho President Chuck Staben made a presentation to the conference Feb. 15.
“We are disappointed by the Sun Belt’s decision,” Staben said in a statement. “We will make a decision in the coming months.”
When meeting with the Idaho Statesman in January, Staben said independence “doesn’t look attractive to me.”
Staben said Tuesday the Big Sky’s standing invitation expires May 4, and a decision on 2018 and beyond is likely by then, though an extension is possible. All of Idaho’s other sports joined the Big Sky in 2014.
In January, Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton, who was not available for comment Tuesday, said Idaho “would be a great fit” and told the Ogden Standard-Examiner last week “we’re working our tails off to try and get that done.”
Fullerton and Idaho officials have spoken about ways to ease the transition from FBS to FCS, which would include a reduction of maximum scholarships from 85 to 63. Spear said while those discussions have taken place, nothing is set because Idaho has two more seasons in the Sun Belt.
“I really believe there is an opportunity out west for another type of league,” said Spear, who was given a four-year contract extension last month. “One thing that we’re really going to put at the forefront here is controlling the next move, because we’ve been in this reactionary mode too long.”
Idaho football coach Paul Petrino was not available for comment and has deflected questions about a future conference home. The next crop of new Idaho recruits, who signed with the school Feb. 3, knew there was some uncertainty ahead.
“I’m really curious to see where we end up,” said receiver/defensive back Lloyd Hightower, from Temecula, Calif. “I think independence would be good, so we can stay FBS. You want to play those big schools.”
But Hightower, one of the team’s top recruits who could play both sides of the ball as a true freshman, also wouldn’t be disappointed if Idaho moved down.
“Even if they were in the Big Sky last year, I probably would’ve ended up at Idaho,” Hightower said. “It’s where I wanted to go. I loved the coaches, I loved the campus.”
The financial difference between FBS and FCS, or independence, is significant.
For the 2013-14 academic year, when playing football as an independent, Idaho received $834,318 in NCAA, conference and tournament revenue, per Idaho State Board of Education documents. The school estimates it will receive $1,914,700 in such revenue this year.
By comparison, Idaho State, which competes in the Big Sky, will receive approximately $600,000 in revenue sharing money this year. The Bengals’ football budget this year is $2.68 million. The Vandals’ is $5.6 million.
Staben has said that if Idaho moves down to FCS, it will have to re-examine scholarship distribution within the athletic department.
Temple was the last major-college football program forced out of a league. The Owls were removed from the Big East after the 2004 football season and played two seasons as an independent. Temple now competes in the FBS American Athletic Conference.
“I really don’t think we have one option preferred over the other,” Spear said. “We need to, again, do our due diligence. We certainly expected this decision would be on March 10. Since it’s happened earlier, it allows us to start evaluating our options earlier.”
Idaho Vandals conference affiliation 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
Future FBS games that could be in jeopardy
FBS programs are hesitant to pay big money to schedule nonconference games against FCS opponents, who get game-guarantee money for playing the game. If Idaho ends up in the Big Sky, starting with the 2018 season, these game contracts could be in jeopardy:
▪ 2018: Florida ($1.2 million)
▪ 2019: Penn State ($1.45 million)
▪ 2020: LSU ($1.4 million)
▪ 2021: Indiana ($1.2 million)
▪ 2022: Indiana ($1.3 million)
Source: University of Idaho