The University of Idaho has led a fairly nomadic existence since opting to move up to NCAA Division I (now FBS) in 1996.
The Vandal team has played in three different leagues (one of them twice), and played as an independent for one season.
This fall, Idaho’s football program moves back into the Big Sky, a conference in which the Vandals played from 1965-95.
When the men’s and women’s basketball teams moved back into the Big Sky in 2014, the Vandals were almost instantly among the top teams. The Idaho women won the conference tourney in 2016, played for the conference title on Saturday, and the men were picked to win the league this year.
Idaho’s football team is dropping a level — from FBS to FCS — and has to adjust to having 63 full scholarships instead of 85.
But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Idaho hit the ground running this fall, and immediately challenge for the Big Sky title and/or a berth in the FCS playoffs.
“I’ve always felt Idaho, once we’ve been in a league for awhile, we’ve been able to adjust, and find a way to compete,” said Rob Spear, who has been Idaho’s athletic director since the winter of 2003-04. “I look back at our history in FBS, and when we’ve had stability, we’ve been pretty good. We move into the Big West, they have football, we go to a bowl game right away, and then that league folds. And then we have this instability. And then we finally get in the WAC, and we finally build our way up, and we go to a bowl game and we win a bowl game. And then the WAC loses football. And we have all this instability again. And we finally find some stability in the Sun Belt, and we built ourselves back up, and we go to a bowl game. And then we’re asked to leave. The key for us, wherever we’re at, is stability.”
SPEAR TOUCHED on several other topics, such as the oversized Big Sky, and the thought of playing Boise State in football and/or basketball, during a visit north last month for a booster function at The Coeur d’Alene Resort:
On the Big Sky, which currently has 13 teams in football and 12 in basketball, and will drop by one team when North Dakota leaves in 2020:
“The size of the league from a football standpoint is somewhat concerning, because you don’t get to play everybody in a given year,” Spear said.
League officials decided, starting in 2020 when North Dakota is gone, to assign each team two “regional rivals” that they would be guaranteed to play every year. With each team playing eight league games, there are three teams a year each team would not play.
Idaho’s “regional rivals” are Montana and Eastern Washington. Montana’s other regional rival, of course, is Montana State.
That didn’t make Eastern happy, as Montana is the biggest opponent on the Eags’ league schedule. And now EWU is not guaranteed of an annual meeting with the Griz. EWU’s other “regional rival” is Portland State, which doesn’t generate quite the same buzz.
The other six league foes in a season will be on a rotating basis.
But that doesn’t go into effect for another two years.
Idaho will play Eastern this fall but not in 2019, but will play Montana both years.
This fall, Idaho will host Portland State, Southern Utah, North Dakota and Montana, and travel to UC Davis, Idaho State, Montana State and EWU.
In 2019, Idaho will host Weber State, Idaho State, Cal Poly and Sacramento State, and travel to Northern Colorado, Portland State, Montana and Northern Arizona.
But, beginning in 2020, Idaho isn’t guaranteed of playing Idaho State every year, either.
(Basketball scheduling is similar — Idaho played Eastern twice this year, but only played Montana and Montana State once).
It’s not ideal, but ...
“It’s like pinning Jello to a wall,” Spear said, drawing laughs. “By 2020 it could change.”
On fundraising for Idaho’s new basketball arena, which Idaho Central Credit Union recently paid $10 million for naming rights to the arena for 35 years. That brings the total raised to $35 million; $45 million is needed to build the arena.
“We’re confident we can get another 5 (million), that will allow us to possibly — and I emphasize possibly, because there’s a lot of approvals that have to go through the state board — that with another $5 million we feel confident we can put a shovel in the ground,” Spear said.
He said once you break ground, the construction process is expected to take 18 to 24 months.
“Ideally October of 2020 (for a possible opening, if all goes well), but it depends on how fast we can get the $5 million, and how fast we can get the approvals,” Spear said.
On scheduling three nonconference football games instead of four each season, since FCS schools play 11 games a year compared to 12 for FBS, and how that affects money games:
“This transition affected a lot of the scheduling, because we had nonconference games scheduled,” Spear said. “And we had to do some negotiating — move some games, drop some games, add some games — to go from 12 to 11.”
Spear said the general rule of thumb is, FCS teams receive roughly half of what FBS teams get for a similar money game. But ...
“ ... we’ve been fortunate that some of the games we’ve had previously scheduled, the Indiana games, the Penn State game, Florida game, they’re honoring what we negotiated in the contract,” Spear said, noting Penn State is paying Idaho $1.4 million to visit State College in 2019. “But moving forward ... we’ll get half moving forward.”
On the Vandal boosters that might not be contributing as much money because the football program is no longer in the highest division, compared to the boosters glad to go see the program go back to the good ’ol days in the Big Sky:
“Well, there’s still that divide out there,” Spear said. “It’s up to us. What we’re going to do is go in, be the best we can be, compete at a high level, and we want to bring those people back and support their school. I know our coaches, and our players, and myself, we want to be great, but we need all Vandals to help us be great.”
On sixth-year Vandal football coach Paul Petrino, who went 2-21 his first two seasons in Moscow, and 17-20 in the last three:
“He’s done a marvelous job,” Spear said. “He’s deserving of having success because of how hard he’s worked. ... I think he’s really refining himself as a head coach. First-time head coaches, it’s always difficult for them. It doesn’t matter if you’ve coordinated at the highest level — when you’re in charge, it’s different. And Paul has really grown as a head football coach.”
On stability with the football coach, the AD, the men’s basketball coach (Don Verlin is in his 10th season) and the women’s basketball coach (Jon Newlee is in his 10th season in Moscow):
“I think our coaches enjoy being at Idaho,” Spear said. “They’ve accepted and understand the challenges that come with that job. But when you overcome those obstacles and have great experiences that are really worth it ... I think our coaches are those type of people that like Idaho. Paul talks about when he recruits kids, it’s all about the people. And I think the people at Idaho really make a difference.
“I just think we have an unbelievable campus, land grand institution, we’re the flagship institution in the state, I don’t care what anybody says. We are,” Spear said. “We graduate at the highest level ... we make an absolute difference. I think the people that work for the University of Idaho feel that, and I think it filters throughout the university.”
On playing Boise State. Idaho and BSU haven’t met in football since 2010, the last year both teams were in the WAC.
“My stance was, we wanted to play a home-and-home (football) when we were an FBS school,” Spear said. “Now that we’re going to be competing with 22 less scholarships, I’m not sure about that game.
“On the basketball side, we should be playing it.
Home and home?
“Ideally,” Spear said. “For three or four years in a row, we played the neutral site game (in Nampa at the Idaho Center, then in Boise at CenturyLink Arena). We’d be willing to do that. ... I just think it’s good for our student bodies. Our state. We should play the game.
“Given the complexities of scheduling basketball games, especially home games for mid-major type schools, there’s another reason we should play it. Just because you would have that game every year.”
Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.