University of Idaho President Chuck Staben announced the decision for the Vandal football program to join the Big Sky Conference in 2018 during a press conference Thursday at the Kibbie Dome.
The transition moves the Vandals from Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), marking the first time any collegiate program has dropped divisions since 1982.
“While I understand the magnitude of this decision and the strong opinions that surround it, I am confident the Big Sky Conference is the best possible choice for our football program and our student athletes,” Staben said.
He said the decision was a difficult one to make, as he compared the Big Sky Conference with FBS independence.
“While the passion and dedication of our student athletes has been consistently strong, UI has always been one of the lowest-resourced FBS teams and therefore has struggled to achieve a winning record during our time in the FBS,” Staben said. “To become successful enough to affiliate with any FBS conference would entail unjustifiable, unsustainable expenditures.”
The move would reunite the Vandal football program with the Big Sky Conference after two decades. Idaho initially left the conference at the conclusion of the 1995 season to move up in divisions and join the Big West.
Since the 1996 season, the Vandals have competed in four separate conferences, including one season spent as an FBS independent program in 2013.
“The University of Idaho’s prestige and relevance will be complemented by our football program, not defined by it,” Staben said.
Staben confirmed reports that the University of Idaho had hired a consultant firm to review potential options for the Vandal football program.
“We did hire an outside consultant, and we received a consultant report,” Staben said. “The results were consistent with what we have received in the past.”
He said the University of Idaho did not request an extension of the initial May 4 acceptance deadline provided by the Big Sky Conference.
“As you may know, the Big Sky is considering a number of members,” Staben said. “At this point Idaho has essentially a guaranteed acceptance into the Big Sky, pending State Board of Education approval.”
Staben said the NCAA contacted the University of Idaho to discuss transfer rules for athletes within the football program.
“The NCAA has assured us that normal transfer rules still apply for our current student athletes,” Staben said. “We anticipate 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.”
Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear said the decision would not come without scholarship ramifications for Idaho. FBS football programs are allowed to offer 85 scholarships, but the FCS and Big Sky Conference limit the number of football scholarships to 63.
Title IX legislature involving athletics scholarships would require women’s sports at the university to cut a proportionate number of student-athlete scholarships.
“As I communicated with the president, we have no plans at this time of eliminating any sports at the University of Idaho,” Spear said.
He said the two-year transition to the Big Sky Conference provides the athletic department with an appropriate timeframe to meet Big Sky Conference football scholarship requirements.
“That’s why we are transitioning over two years,” Spear said. “We will be at 63 scholarships in 2018.”
Spear said the program would need to evaluate the impact of the move for future revenue games against Power 5 opponents such as Florida, LSU, Missouri and Indiana. The payout of each matchup is over $1 million per game.
“We’ve had conversations with some of the schools and have been very up front about our situation,” Spear said. “We’ll proceed as we are going to move into the Big Sky in 2018 and we’ll adjust that schedule accordingly.”
Idaho was a member of the Western Athletic Conference until it disbanded in 2012. After playing a season as a Division I independent program, the Vandals accepted a four-year contract with the Sun Belt Conference.
Idaho went 5-18 overall during its two years in the conference.
On March 1, the Sun Belt declined a contract extension for Idaho. Although the Vandals would compete in the conference through the 2017 season, the move left Idaho without an FBS conference in 2018.
“It is really impossible for us to afford to be at that level and stay competitive,” Spear said.
Idaho head coach Paul Petrino said his focus is currently on the upcoming fall season.
“I’m very excited for our team next year,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a great team, and I’m just going to keep moving forward and doing my job as hard as I can.”
Petrino said he is prepared to make the transition to the Big Sky Conference with the Vandal football program in 2018.
“That’s why it is good have a two-year plan to get there,” Petrino said. “By having the two years to get there, we will make sure that we’re where we need to be scholarship-wise, so that first year we can go into the playoffs and be successful there.”
In an interview Tuesday, Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton said the addition of the Idaho football program could allow the Big Sky to split into two separate leagues. The conference currently possesses 13 football members.
“I think playing for one automatic (playoff) berth is not enough reward for 14 institutions,” Fullerton said. “If you can form two seven-team football leagues, you can play for two.”
He said the Vandal football team provides a regional appeal for the conference.
“Geographically they really fit what we do,” Fullerton said. “You’ll sell out your arena when you play the University of Montana.”
Fullerton said the Idaho football program would allow the Big Sky Conference to be more competitive.
“I know that you won’t settle forever to be middle of the road,” Fullerton said. “In other words, I know that you will come into the league and immediately strive to be in the top. It is in your DNA.”
Josh Grissom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GoshJrissom