The long strange trip that the Idaho football program has been on is taking another big detour.
Idaho’s game at Georgia State on Saturday will be its final contest as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Next season, Idaho will become the first program in modern history to voluntarily drop to the Football Championship Subdivision and will compete in the Big Sky Conference.
Idaho (3-8, 2-5 Sun Belt) is returning to the FCS after being kicked out of the Sun Belt Conference, effective at the end of this season. The Vandals were unable to convince another conference to take them in, and the administration decided it was financially and competitively undesirable to pursue life as an FBS independent. Athletic director Rob Spear said the decision is final.
If an FBS league had taken the Vandals, “we would still be playing FBS football,” Spear said. “Being independent was not something we wanted to be a part of.”
Coach Paul Petrino has declined to discuss the pending move with his team this year, preferring to focus on the next game.
“I’ve been proud of our players,” Petrino said. “They’ve showed up and worked hard every day.”
Spear said Idaho will take a financial hit by moving down. He estimated the athletic department will lose $800,000 to $1 million a year that was its share of College Football Playoff money. But the program will have lower travel costs and will have to fund 22 fewer scholarships, dropping from 85 to 63.
Some donors have also decided to withhold or cut their contribution to the Vandals because of the decision, Spear said. But there has been a small increase in season ticket sales because the Vandals will be renewing regional rivalries with nearby programs that are of interest to their fan base, Spear said.
Idaho has long bounced among football leagues. That’s in part because the school is in Moscow, Idaho, a remote town of fewer than 25,000 people, a small television market far from major population centers.
The Sun Belt was always a strange fit for Idaho. It is a collection of teams in the southeastern U.S. whose closest member is 2,000 miles from the Vandals’ campus.
After adding some new programs a few years ago, the Sun Belt discovered it didn’t need Idaho or New Mexico State any longer in order to host a conference championship game. The league told both schools that they would be ousted at the end of this season.
New Mexico State is pressing forward as an independent.
But Idaho decided to rejoin the Big Sky, which was already home to most of its other sports programs.
Idaho was a member of the Pacific Coast Conference, a major West Coast league, from 1922-1958. The Vandals then played as an independent until they joined the Big Sky Conference in the 1960s. What followed was a golden period of Idaho football. Led by coaches like Dennis Erickson, Keith Gilbertson and John L. Smith, the Vandals won nine Big Sky titles.
They decided to return to what was then called Division I-A in 1996, but have had only five winning seasons since.
Idaho first joined the Big West, did a stint in the Sun Belt and then was a member of the Western Athletic Conference until that league disintegrated in 2012. The Vandals spent 2013 as an independent, an experience that soured them on that prospect. They have spent the past four seasons back in the Sun Belt.
While this season has been a disappointment, Idaho won nine games in 2016 and qualified for a bowl game.
That was a rare bit of success. In two decades as an FBS program, Idaho qualified for a bowl only three times.
The Vandals averaged fewer than three wins per season as an FBS program, with eight 10-loss seasons. Crowds were sparse in the 16,000-seat Kibbiedome, a wooden stadium built in the shape of a Quonset hut. The losing felt worse because cross-state rival Boise State was enjoying huge success.
When the Sun Belt kicked the Vandals out, Idaho President Chuck Staben decided the two-decade experiment as an FBS program wasn’t worth the effort.
“I know many passionate Vandals view football’s place in the FBS as a mark of our institution’s ‘prestige’ and ‘relevance,’” Staben said in announcing the move last year.
“Success on the football field will complement UI’s prestige and relevance,” Staben said. “We will be successful in the Big Sky Conference.”
Spear said the change was disappointing for the coaches and players. “However, you don’t get anywhere dwelling on the past,” he said.