The day that it all happens will be a quiet one in Moscow.
Most students will be long gone doing whatever it is that they do over the summer. But for the University of Idaho athletic department, July 1 will be the day the school officially dives into a new era of both stability in the near future, and the unknown in the further off future.
Idaho will officially join the Sun Belt Conference as a football-only member on a four-year guarantee beginning in 2014-15 and running through 2017-18.
After the 2015-16 season, Idaho’s second in the league, the Sun Belt Conference board of governors will meet to decide whether to extend Idaho’s football-only agreement beyond 2017-18.
It’s a set-up that Idaho athletic director Rob Spear said gives both Idaho and the Sun Belt flexibility in a college football landscape that both parties expect to continue to evolve.
“They want to have an idea of what’s going to happen,” Spear said. “I think by then there may be some information on if the four team college football playoff goes to eight teams. Obviously they probably want to look at how our football team is progressing and the competitiveness of it, I would be surprised if they didn’t.”
A lot of the unknown stems from last January’s NCAA convention, in which a new governance structure was proposed that many feel gives the “power five” conferences more power, and would further grow the distance between them and the lesser “group of five” conferences.
A number of scenarios could play out, one that could mean a new FBS conference in the west. Further off in the future, Spear also speculates that could mean a definitive break-off between the power conferences and the lower conferences combining FBS and FCS into three separate tiers, which Spear believes Idaho would belong in the second one.
“There’s a lot of noise in the system as I would describe it still with the whole governance thing up in the air and will soon come to a resolution,” he said. ” … I think it’s going to benefit the five big conferences. We need to see how that shakes out and whether or not there any repercussions from that. So the four-year agreement I think seems like the right timeframe for me, for us.”
Some speculation has centered around Big Sky football programs looking for a way into the FBS, but when asked what he’s heard on that front Spear responded: “Nothing.”
The new NCAA governance structure could make it more difficult for FCS teams to transition into FBS. The Sun Belt has increased its membership by adding FCS transitionals Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Georgia State within the last two seasons.
“I think that all ties together, what’s happened with the governance, what’s going to happen with how you transition from FCS to FBS. All of that is going to play in the future of all conferences,” Spear said. “I do know the Big Sky feels good about FCS football. They talk about the top tier of FCS football is as good as the bottom tier of FBS football and I guess I can’t argue … Which is why I think there’s room for another tier, which would be the top end of the FCS and the bottom end of the FBS, would make a great structure and a great tier.”
Idaho’s non-football sports will enter into the Big Sky Conference on the same day. It is an indefinite membership agreement that will make Idaho the league’s 12th member in non-football sports. Swim and dive will remain in the Western Athletic Conference.
Spear was present at the Big Sky Conference meetings last week in Las Vegas in which the men’s and women’s basketball tournament host sites were discussed. The idea of having a pre-determined neutral site was discussed, with Las Vegas being mentioned as a possibility.
Idaho will also have a full vote on Sun Belt Conference football issues. The Sun Belt is current shopping for a 12th member, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson has said it’s preferred that member will be in all sports.