Gary Hunter knows as well as anyone the difficulties that exist at Idaho, but also what can be accomplished.
Currently the athletic director at Fort Lewis (Colo.) College, Hunter was Idaho’s AD from 1988-92. Four years after he left, Idaho moved from FCS (I-AA) to FBS (I-A). At the time, he expressed “apprehension and anxiety.’’
“It’s amazing they’ve been able to stay up for 20 years,” Hunter said. “The conference realignment and the explosion of budgets has just been incredible. Amazing they’ve been able to stay up. You could see the trend of the ‘arms race’ for facilities, you name it, back then. Geographically and financially it would be difficult to compete, and it has been.”
The return to the Big Sky, where the Vandals played from 1965-95, was met with mixed emotions. Many boosters preferred to stay in FBS, and current and former players aired their disagreement toward President Chuck Staben on Twitter.
Former Idaho star Mark Schlereth (an NFL veteran and ESPN broadcaster) tweeted “great news!” when the story broke Wednesday.
On Thursday, former tight end Justin Podrabsky wrote, “Sad day for Vandal football. Disappointing to see we have a president who is narrow minded and unwilling to fight for the team. #fireStaben.”
Current players, including tight end Buck Cowan and long snapper Alex Boatman, also were not celebrating. Cowan tweeted, “But going back to the big sky is really going to enhance the student athlete experience!! What a joke.’’
Boatman wrote, “It’s official. The president of this University just made the worst choice. Sending us to the Big Sky will be his biggest mistake.”
Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton, who is retiring this summer, is elated with Idaho in his league.
“There’s a certain closure, my first year as commissioner was their last, makes me feel really good walking out the door,” Fullerton said. “I think it’s a great move that will play out over the next few years. The DNA at Idaho, it’s an excellent institution. The way they had to play the game didn’t serve them well. I think this will let them shine.”
Two of the largest groups of Vandal boosters, the Ada County and Puget Sound (Wash.) Vandal Scholarship Fund chapters, sent a letter to Staben two weeks ago.
Ada County President Jonathan Parker wrote, “The reputation of the University of Idaho has continually suffered from missteps, failures, and lack of investment. And we’re tired of it. We want to see the University start to grow again. ... Alumni who have showed up through thick and thin, with their pocketbooks and their shoe leather, want our football team to remain FBS.”
Parker did not return a phone call from the Idaho Statesman on Thursday.
Staben said during Thursday’s press conference, “I’m confident our alumni will line up behind us ... and support our student-athletes.”
Hunter understands where the frustration comes from, but he envisions it dissipating over time.
“I certainly could understand the concerns they have,” he said. “But one thing I was apprehensive about was what might happen if the team wasn’t successful, that donations would drop off. When you go through a four-year cycle as a student, getting blown out, you’re far less likely to remember those Saturday afternoons when they were fun and competitive.
“I think Idaho will be more competitive in the Big Sky, the Kibbie Dome will fill up and people will be excited again.”