UI seeks football independence, Big Sky for other sports
The University of Idaho is ready to jettison the crumbling Western Athletic Conference and venture into new territory as a football independent.
The Vandals’ other athletic programs, however, look to be headed to a familiar spot.
UI will seek approval from the Idaho State Board of Education today to explore becoming a Football Bowl Subdivision independent and rejoin the Big Sky Conference in all non-football sports.
According to the Idaho Statesman, UI made a presentation to the board Wednesday in an executive session. Friday’s meeting will be public, and UI’s conference move is the only agenda item.
As an independent, Idaho would have to find five home opponents per year, four of which must be FBS schools. The Vandals’ lone home game locked down for next year is a date with Northern Illinois.
Only four schools operate as FBS independents — BYU, Notre Dame, Army and Navy. And if the Vandals’ leadership has its way, going independent would only be a stopgap move for UI.
Idaho expects further reshuffling among major conferences, and it has stated that it’s hoping for an FBS conference invite down the road. In the meantime, Idaho estimates it will generate approximately $1.5 million more annually with game payouts by staying in the FBS rather than moving down to the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA).
Asked about the conference reshuffling after the Vandals’ preseason scrimmage Thursday afternoon, coach Robb Akey said, “I’m looking forward to hearing what that answer is gonna be.”
Idaho has been weighing its options for more than three months. After being rebuffed by the Mountain West Conference, Idaho set its tights on FBS independence for football over becoming the first school to drop to the FCS level.
Athletic director Rob Spear told the Statesman previously he didn’t see Idaho’s independence “going beyond two years.”
Spear made a brief appearance at the Vandals’ scrimmage inside the Kibbie Dome, but would not comment. UI president Duane Nellis was not made available to The Spokesman-Review.
Idaho instead released a statement in advance of today’s board meeting.
“We appreciate the State Board of Education’s consideration of our proposal for President M. Duane Nellis and Director of Athletics Rob Spear to explore what is best for the future of Vandal athletics, our student-athletes and our fans,” it read. “Our priority continues to be to provide the best experience for our students, alumni and fans within a collegiate sports environment.”
Idaho was a charter member of the Big Sky in 1963 and played there until 1996. In the state board’s report, UI touted the “re-establishment of historic rivalries” with Idaho State, Montana, and Montana State as a way to increase fan interest in Olympic sports, reduce travel costs, and lower the time away from the classroom for athletes.
For the time being, the Idaho football staff and players say their only focus is ending their time in the WAC with a flourish.
“It’s frustrating,” defensive coordinator Mark Criner said of the conference uncertainty. “It is. But right now we’ve got to look at what’s in front of us. We’ve got to look at our season and go straight ahead. And right now, we’ve got an opportunity to win the WAC, and that’s what we’ve got to go fight for.”