The Sun Belt mantra is “Together We Rise” — and the conference has done just that since it added football in 2001. It was the same year Idaho and the Sun Belt entered the world of what is now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision together.
In its first four years with the Sun Belt, Idaho had two different coaches who went a combined 9-28, and has struggled to stay relevant since.
In the meantime, the Sun Belt has grown to what many consider as one of the best of the non-power conferences.
“The Sun Belt is a lot more competitive than it was when we were in it before,” Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear said. “It was historically ranked near the bottom, but this year it was ranked first out of the five non-power conferences — it’s really improved itself.”
Last season, Sun Belt teams went 8-1 against the non-power conferences. In the summer, Idaho coach Paul Petrino said the conference’s style of play is fast-paced, no-huddle offenses that can score at a moments notice.
“It’s a very athletic league, a lot of speed,” he said. “The conference is tough, but it’s good to have a conference so we can try to go win a championship … We’re excited for the challenge.”
Spear acknowledged the football team still has a ways to go, but believes they will compete moving forward. He compares the current process to renovating a house. He said they weren’t renovating just one room, but instead tearing down the whole foundation.
“Now the foundation has established great values in the program,” he said. “It has great accountability, great discipline and now we’re able to build on that, and at the end of the day we’ll have a competitive program — it doesn’t matter what conference we’re in.”
When the WAC disbanded football in 2012, the Vandals were left without a conference. After playing the 2013 season as an independent, Idaho joined the Sun Belt as football-only members.
Spear said it was a scary time because of all the uncertainty. He said bad decisions are made when you have to react to situations, and the independent schedule was strictly reacting to their situation.
He admits it didn’t work out great, but said it gave them another year to find a conference. Now the school is in a position to control its future, he said.
Idaho has a four-year agreement with the Sun Belt Conference. Spear said each year Idaho will receive roughly $1 million from the College Football Playoff distribution, and around $100,000 from the conference television contract.
With games all over the country and televised on ESPN, Spear anticipates Idaho will get more national exposure with the Sun Belt.
“We could have not asked to be in a better situation,” he said. “During that time frame of four years, we have the time to evaluate and see what’s going to be right in the future for the University of Idaho.”
The benefits from the Sun Belt expand to more than just exposure and revenue. The new College Football Playoff doesn’t grant any automatic qualifiers. It means any school from one of the 10 FBS conferences can earn a spot in it based on performance.
Along with the CFP, the Sun Belt is tied to five other bowl games, with two more being added in 2016.
Bowl games are nice, but some Vandal fans were upset with the Sun Belt decision and wanted a move back to the Big Sky. Idaho won nine conference championships in its 32 years there.
If Idaho moved back to the FCS level, Spear believes the program would never be able to make the jump back up to FBS.
“What they (fans) need to realize is the short term decision that would have been made would not have been the right one,” he said. “We have to wait and see how all this plays out.”
With the new NCAA governance model, its new autonomy and all the lawsuits, Spear said the college athletic world is going to change over the next four years. He believes the financial strain will be too much, and the tipping point is whether the power five conferences separate.
Spear sees a possible scenario in which Vandal football could rejoin the Big Sky without moving back down to the FCS. He said Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton expressed the idea that his conference could evolve into an FBS conference, with an FCS component in the same league.
Whatever the future might hold for collegiate athletics, Spear is confident Idaho is in the best possible position to dictate its future. He said Idaho is the only school in the nation playing FBS football with its other sports in an FCS conference. He said they can now see what’s happening on both sides, which will give them an advantage to make the best decision in the future.
“It’s going to be an interesting next four years to say the least,” he said. I can’t tell you where we’re going to be, I just think our position of where we’re at now, is the best spot we can be in to evaluate it.”