There is something about the University of Idaho mulling its athletic future that suggests a chess novice playing against Deep Blue.
No move seems to hold promise.
Now, sure, that’s contrary to what UI athletic director Rob Spear was saying the other day – that whatever happens, Idaho “is going to be fine.” And he’s right – at least, the Vandals will play at being fine, even if the circumstances really aren’t. It’s just that a substantial portion of their constituents won’t be fine with any decision.
No option for Idaho pushes as many buttons, pro and con, as the prospect of returning to the Big Sky Conference, the school’s athletic home for 33 years before the blindfolded jump to what the NCAA now calls the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1996.
So Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton is trying not to push more.
“I really respect what Rob and Idaho are going through,” he said. “It’s a tough call.”
Still, Fullerton believes he has a path that makes sense for the school. He’d obviously love to have Idaho as a Big Sky member again. Some agendas you simply can’t hide.
If you think the conference movement and intrigue at the top of college athletics has been a nasty business, it’s been every bit as savage in the not-so-great middle. But it’s one thing to be money-whipped by television contracts that few could have imagined, and whatever more riches will be realized as the major players inch toward some sort of football playoff. It’s another to be positioning yourself for nickels.
“It’s like OPEC doling out oil,” Fullerton reasoned. “Sure, there will be some sharing of that revenue. They’ll want to keep enough schools healthy – they can’t play each other all the time or they’ll just beat each other up.
“But sometime you have to take a step back and ask if you’re being used or if you’re truly a player at this level.”
And yet there is a stubborn segment of the Vandals fan base that simply can’t bring itself to embrace a second life in the Sky and sees anything – independence, another holding pattern in the Sun Belt (presuming it deigns to rescue Idaho again) or even no football at all – as preferable.
They can’t get enough of New Mexico State, but Montana? Never.
Silly. But you can’t tell people how to spend their money.
So how would Fullerton try to persuade that wing?
“One, if you really want to know what athletics is doing for you, look at Idaho’s success in the Big Sky,” he said. “The case can be made that certain years, they had better athletes in an FCS situation because they were recruiting to success. This idea that it’s ‘moving down’ is not necessarily true. And they were hard to beat in every sport they played. I’m not sure that’s been the case since.
“Two, the split now isn’t between FCS and FBS – it’s occurring within FBS. What’s going to be played at the top is a very different game. And one of the things we’ve always said, there are no exit fees in the Sky. If you think you need to go, and give us proper notice, you’re gone.
“The third thing I would say is that you’re a great regional institution. Can you see yourselves playing (Louisiana) Monroe and Lafayette, schools nowhere near your campus and not in a place you’re trying to recruit students? Think about our position in the West and what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Of course, realignment has made a mockery of regional concerns – and the Vandals need look no further than downstate, where cousin Boise has thrown in with the Big East.
Which brings us back to the motivation for what’s kept Idaho on this odyssey for 17 years.
“I understand the political nature of Idaho’s relationship with Boise State,” Fullerton said, “and if I were in the shoes of an administrator at Idaho, I’d try like crazy to maintain contact with your sister institution in the state.”
Seems like there’s a giant boulder teetering off the edge of that statement, doesn’t it?
“I think you have to ask if they haven’t already lost contact, and if that point isn’t moot,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to examine what the best thing for athletics at the University of Idaho is.”
Perhaps the biggest thing weighing against Fullerton’s pitch is that a return to the Big Sky seems, well, final – at a time when the Idaho’s next FBS life raft could come floating down the river as soon as another dam breaks above.
Although that’s part of the argument, too: What’s the quality of life on a life raft?