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Blanchette: Vandals forced to watch the Sky

Sports columnist John Blanchette. (SR)
Sports columnist John Blanchette. (SR)

So do all those Idaho Vandals antenna flags flap in the breeze at half-staff from now on?

Today in a meeting room in Boise, University of Idaho president Duane Nellis and athletic director Rob Spear schlep themselves in front of the State Board of Education to ask permission to crank the DeLorean up to 88 mph and run it past the clock tower in hopes of a lightning strike.

Technically, the BOE is voting to give Marty and Doc merely the OK to explore a back-to-the-future reunion with the Big Sky Conference in basketball and the not-important sports, along with football oblivion … er, independence. Spear got on the Twitter horn Thursday to point out there’s to be “nothing official” regarding a move, though the agenda mentions accepting an invitation from the Sky.

What’s official is this: There’s a lot of hard swallowing going on, all over the Vandal map.

So ardently has the school sought to distance itself from the very notion of the Big Sky for the last 17 years that now mockers and myopics have all the ammo they need to spin this looping back as apocalypse, or at least high comedy.

You know college football fans. They think the only thing better than a touchdown pass is a teaspoon of schadenfreude.

But of all the times over the years the Vandals have trudged into the BOE with skinned knees, it does seem as if they’re down to the last Band-Aid.

The Western Athletic Conference – long Idaho’s preferred destination – has disintegrated. There is no there there.

At present, none of the Mean Girls in the Football Bowl Subdivision wants Idaho in their clique. That could change with the stabbing of the next back, of course, which could happen any minute. Or not at all.

Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton is doing his best Lady Liberty come-hither, to the point that he’s willing to take on Idaho in every sport but football – because it’s good for the Sky, and because he thinks inevitably Idaho’s football program will settle there, as well.

Stuck between hope and doubt, then, the Vandals will tread water – their specialty.

There is not a single attractive thing about football independence, other than it buys Spear and Nellis some time for A) another round of conference cannibalism, or B) the anti-Sky faction to get the message that no one else wants the Vandals.

“I do understand the advantages to going this route,” Fullerton acknowledged on Thursday. “They have to determine if staying FBS is feasible. I have my idea about that and I’m sure they do, but they have to prove it to themselves and probably to their constituencies.

“I’m OK with that.”

But the price is absolutely brutal. Spear must find five home football games in 2013 – he has one at the moment – and a schedule that’s 60 percent FBS opponents. The coalitions that have been forged at Idaho’s purported competitive level – the Mountain West, Sun Belt, MAC and Conference USA – all have 10 or more football playing members, meaning they need relatively few nonconference games, and fewer still in the season’s second half. And little desire to come to Moscow.

Bowl games – the point of the whole enterprise, it seems – become harder to attain. Championships can’t be won. No Vandal will earn an all-conference award.

But, hey, staying FBS is for the kids.

Again, football independence is a stopover. Spear has been quoted as saying he doesn’t see it lasting more than two years.

But the Vandals – administration and fans – had better be realistic. More conference realignment may open up a spot in their envisioned destination, the Mountain West, but that league could just as easily look to fellow WAC refugee New Mexico State, or to Texas schools – a market any conference would covet. Idaho’s market is marginal, its location remote, its facilities unappealing. The first two things aren’t going to change, and the school – and the mostly talk FBS-only folks – have a lousy history in fixing the third.

But the most delicious irony in all of this is that now those hard-liners – whether they be politicians, big donors or just football snobs – will have to explain why the Big Sky is good enough for every other athlete at the University of Idaho, but not for football players.

And they can’t. Not with a straight face, and not without acknowledging that it really isn’t about the athletes at all and apparently not what’s best for the school but simply about themselves.

So they’re rooting for this delaying action producing some sort of zip line across the canyon to their idea of respectability. And if that happens, well, they can fly those antenna flags full staff again.