BOISE, Idaho — The University of Idaho is going independent in football — for the short term.
The next stop for the Vandals’ other sports will likely take them back to their Big Sky Conference beginnings. The Idaho State Board of Education voted Friday by a 5-1 margin to authorize the school to declare independence in the Football Bowl Subdivision and begin negotiating with the Big Sky to join in other sports.
Idaho has been considering an invitation to the league for months while exploring its options, but with the implosion of the Western Athletic Conference as a football-playing league, the Vandals are running out of choices.
Weber State athletics director Jerry Bovee said having Idaho back in the Big Sky would restore a natural rivalry with the Wildcats.
“The more we can play regionally, the better,” Bovee said. “It develops rivalries and gets us back to some things that we once enjoyed. It’s good for our program.”
Bovee said he is not surprised Idaho hasn’t committed to bringing its football program into the Big Sky at this point.
“There’s a lot that goes into that decision,” he said. “It’s quite a move to make that jump in football to the FCS. I think they need to have some time to work out the details what that means for scholarships and everything else. I suspect there will still come a time when that discussion begins to take place, but there’s so much that has to happen to move from FBS to FCS and they need some time to figure that out.”
Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton appears ready to accept the Vandals even without football.
“I would support that. It’s not what we asked when we invited them,” Fullerton told the Idaho Statesman on Wednesday. “But I understand the concept.”
For their part, the Vandals are looking at independence as a stopgap measure while holding out for a lifeline for its FBS status.
“We believe playing as an independent in football is the best solution,” Duane Nellis, UI president, told the board Friday. “It allows us to develop an attractive schedule for fans … keep our FBS status” and keep the school eligible for the big revenue generated by college football.
Idaho joined the WAC in 2005, but the league has been hit hard by conference realignment and the exodus in the last two years of some of its marquee teams, including Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada.
The conference will play a 2012 season, but for football this year it’s likely the last. Utah State and San Jose State will be joining the Mountain West Conference next year, while Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio are moving to Conference USA. New WAC member Texas State is poised to join the Sun Belt Conference after this season.
The WAC’s woes forced Idaho to consider alternatives, and after the Vandals were rejected earlier this year by The Mountain West Conference, athletic officials, convinced they wanted the team to remain an FBS competitor, made independence the focus.
After the board’s vote, athletic director Rob Spear acknowledged the challenge of building a full schedule that will keep the Vandals relevant, fans and alumni happy and bring competitive teams to the Kibbie Dome, the 17,000-seat indoor stadium in Moscow in north-central Idaho.
But Spear also urged fans and players to see independence as a two-year experiment rather than a long-term solution. He said the focus now is to stay independent for 2013 and 2014 and wait for college football’s ever-shifting landscape to create a new opportunity for the Vandals to rejoin a conference.
“We wanted to make sure we stayed at the FBS table, because in two years we think there is going to be additional change,” Spear told reporters at a press conference after the board’s vote. “I think it’s important for us, because of the 16 years we’ve invested in FBS football … to stay this course.”
NCAA football rules require Idaho to schedule at least five home games per season, of which four must be with FBS schools. The Vandals also have to play at least nine games each season, with 60 percent against FBS schools.
So far, Idaho’s 2013 schedule includes games against Wyoming, Mississippi, Northern Illinois and border rival Washington State, The Idaho Statesman reported this week. Spear said Idaho will also play a home-and-home series in 2013 and 2014 with New Mexico State and is close to finalizing contracts with other schools to round out the 2013 schedule.
“We wouldn’t be sitting here today if we weren’t confident we could get it done,” Spear said.
By going independent and keeping its FBS status, Spear said the football team stands to bring in at least $1.5 million each year, money he said will be used to help support other programs.
Bovee sympathizes with Idaho’s challenge.
“Just putting together a schedule when you’re in a conference is tough, but Spear, I’ve heard great things about how he’s running the program up there and his staff. They’re going to come in and compete in everything else; football, he’ll be able to work through it. An independent level obviously is not sustainable over time, and I think they’ve said that, but in the early going, they’ll work hard to put together a schedule that will meet their needs and as time goes on, they’ll try to figure out where they best fit.”
Even as an FBS independent, Idaho is likely to look to Big Sky schools to fill out its schedule, Bovee said.
For the other Vandal teams, the Big Sky represents a reunion of sorts. Idaho was a charter member of the conference, but left in 1996. Conference officials have said publicly they support bringing Idaho back into the fold and renewing geographic rivalries with schools like Montana, Montana State and Idaho State.
Spear also said Idaho has not officially closed the door with the WAC for non-football sports.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.