Idaho Vandals

Idaho's case for the FCS: A better chance for sustained success, regional rivals

By Brian Murphy

Idaho Statesman

Originally published June 29, 2014

Perhaps it's the security that comes with 19 years on the job or the lack of heat from operating outside the brightest lights of college football that allows Doug Fullerton to speak with such frankness.

Whatever the reason,  the Big Sky commissioner is not one to hide his desires or intentions.

"It's no secret. We'd love to have Idaho football, " Fullerton said.

Idaho will join the Big Sky Conference on Tuesday,  returning most of its programs to the league it helped found in 1963.Football,  however,  is not coming.

Not yet.

Idaho signed a four-year contract to join the Sun Belt Conference as a football-only member. The deal includes a termination or extension option after two years.

The Sun Belt is one of 10 conferences playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision,  the highest level of NCAA football. The Big Sky is one of the top conferences in the Football Championship Subdivision,  the next tier. There appears to be little doubt in Fullerton's mind,  at least,  that Idaho will someday soon return to the FCS level.

The Vandals reached the Division I-AA (now FCS) playoffs 11 times from 1982 to 1995,  their final season at that level. Idaho reached the semifinals in 1988 and 1993 before losing to the eventual national champion.

Idaho has had just four winning seasons and two bowl appearances in 18 seasons at the FBS level.

"The Big Sky Conference anticipates the addition of the University of Idaho's football program as an FCS member in the near future, " according to the offer letter from Fullerton to then-Idaho president Duane Nellis on Oct. 12,  2011.

With NCAA governance changes in the works and money from the College Football Playoff on its way,  Idaho opted to remain in the FBS,  even though it meant playing as an independent in 2013.

"The financial consequences make it not very attractive, " new Idaho President Chuck Staben said. "We may see some changes that say we don't want to move to FCS."

But Fullerton,  who pursued the other programs at Idaho for a long time before finally landing them,  points out schools in his league are getting far more from their football team's successes than Idaho is from its subpar results.

"Football is no more important at Idaho than Montana,  Montana State or North Dakota. Just because you play FCS doesn't mean you can't get all football has to offer, " he said.

Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear said his department would have to cut sports by moving to the FCS because of a reduction in revenue from television contracts,  conference affiliation and big-money contract games against powerhouse teams like Florida,  which is paying Idaho $975,000 for their Aug. 30 football season opener.

But playing regional rivals like Montana and Eastern Washington with conference titles at stake,  Fullerton said,  could be better for the program than playing teams in the Southeastern-based Sun Belt.

He's hoping basketball games,  volleyball matches and track meets against traditional opponents - and the interest they generate - could pave the way for Idaho football to return to the Big Sky.

"As fans and their political base - and that's their alumni and quite frankly legislators - start to get used to us and the Big Sky teams coming to Moscow and start to enjoy that,  at that point in time may be a lot easier transition, " Fullerton said.