by Wednesday Walton
Idaho Public Radio
The University of Idaho announced on April 28th that the Vandal football team will accept an invitation to join the Big Sky Conference, pending State Board of Education approval, starting in the fall of 2018.
The announcement came at a press conference where UI President Chuck Staben, Athletic Director Rob Spear, and head football coach Paul Petrino all spoke.
President Staben said that he believe that this is best possible choice for the football program and the university’s student athletes.
“I understand the magnitude of this decision and the strong opinions that surround it, both for and against, but joining the Big Sky Conference is the best possible course for our athletics program and for our university,” Staben said. “We have carefully weighed our options and concluded that competing as an independent with an extremely uncertain future conference affiliation would be irresponsible when we have the alternative of joining one of the most stable FCS conferences. The Big Sky allows us to renew traditional rivalries and offers our athletes the opportunity to excel, just as they do in our other Big Sky sports programs.”
“The Big Sky Conference is excited about the University of Idaho joining the league in football,” outgoing Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton said. “We think that, given Idaho’s DNA of excellence, they will make our football programs better, and our football product better.”
Fullerton says adding Idaho into the Big Sky will add regional appeal. Many anticipate the Big Sky will divide into two-7 team leagues in football, but the new, incoming commissioner, Andrea Williams, hasn’t committed to any scenario publicly. She begins on the job July 1.
Earlier this spring, the Sun Belt Conference announced that it would move to become a 10 team conference starting in 2018, and would not renew the football memberships of Idaho and New Mexico State. The various possibilities for Idaho up until the April announcement were to wait for an invitation from another FBS conference or to go independent.
Staben said that Idaho has always been one of the lowest resourced FBS teams and therefore has struggled to achieve a winning record during its time in the FBS. He believes that in order to become successful enough to affiliate with any FBS conference would entail unjustifiable, unsustainable expenditures. He said that competing as an independent with an extremely uncertain conference affiliation would be irresponsible when Idaho has the alternative of joining one of the most stable FCS conferences.
The hope in Moscow is that the move to the Big Sky will bring back area rivalries, such as Montana and Eastern Washington.
”We are extremely motivated to compete in the Sun Belt for the next two years and then align with like institutions that make geographic sense in the Big Sky Conference that will provide our student-athletes with a quality experience,” Spear said.
The move to the FCS will require the football program to reduce its scholarship count from 85 to 63. Asked by reporters about the possibility of Idaho needing to drop a women’s sports team to comply with Title IX rules, Rob Spear said at the press conference that “as of right now we will not be dropping any teams.”
There is currently a two year plan in place to prepare for the adjustment in scholarships going into the Big Sky in 2018. Although there was no definite description of this plan given to the press during the meeting, Petrino said that if the plan goes accordingly, the Vandals will have their scholarship situation squared away and they will be playoff eligible their first year in the conference.
As far as transfer rules for any players that want to leave as a result of decision, Staben said that the NCAA has contacted the U of I and stated that normal transfer rules still apply for current student athletes. This means that if a football player wishes to transfer, he will face the penalty of losing a year of eligibility.
Staben anticipates that those student athletes will stay here and will want to stay here to participate in the great football program that Coach Petrino runs and the academics they are engaged in.
Moving into the Big Sky also has its ramifications regarding money making games against Power 5 conference schools. Future games including Florida, LSU, Missouri, and Indiana may need to be reevaluated. According to Staben, Idaho has been very upfront when discussing this possibility when scheduling with these schools.
Head football coach Paul Petrino said that throughout this entire process his focus is on the upcoming fall season and graduating his student-athletes. He said that the football staff told the team about the decision the morning before the press conference and he said he plans to meet with every player throughout the rest of the week and into the next.
The reaction from the public, boosters, current athletes, and alumni has been mixed. Staben believes that eventually everyone will be on board with this move.
A ‘Welcome Letter’ from the University of Montana was printed as a ‘Letter to the Editor’ in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.
The last time Idaho was in the Big Sky Conference was in 1995. The following year the program moved up to FBS into the Mountain West conference.
The University of Idaho has posted additional information about the move on its web site. The link includes video from the press conference and the report prepared by the university’s consultant (link below).
President Staben discussed the move to the Big Sky in a column he wrote for InsideHigherEd.com (link below). “I think our situation has potential implications for dozens of universities that play big-time college football and says a lot about the state of college athletics,” Staben said in the April 29th column.
U-Idaho informational page-
President Staben’s column–
Copyright 2016 Idaho Public Radio
Posted May 8, 2016