MOSCOW, Idaho – At a football scrimmage last month, Idaho athletic director Rob Spear sat on the Kibbie Dome bleachers and heard from one Vandals fan with an unwavering opinion: The football program needs to stay at the FBS level. No question about it.
Spear then meandered about 10 rows over and struck up another informal chat with Vandals supporters. There a fan piped up with the opposite viewpoint: “Hey, you just need to go to the Big Sky in all sports,” Spear was told.
Spear took the conversations – separated by mere minutes and feet – as an indicator that Idaho followers are split, seemingly 50-50, on which course the Vandals should plot.
The muddled situation with Idaho’s football program has dragged on for months and been the source of constant (and often heated) debate among fans. And the conjecture on whether UI should become an FBS football independent or drop down to the FCS could continue well into October, if not longer.
Spear told The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday that he has yet to finalize football opponents for 2013 beyond the four games previously lined up. He has pending contracts for eight games – including two with New Mexico State as part of a home-and-home series – but it could be another two months before the schedule is set in stone.
That means UI is largely in the same position it was in on Aug. 17 when it gained approval from the Idaho State Board of Education to explore becoming an independent and joining the Big Sky in all other sports.
Spear said then he wanted to wrap up the football schedule and make a decision on the Big Sky in three weeks. Yet one obstacle after another has impeded his progress.
“Back then I thought we could get things finalized and firmed up,” Spear said. “But there are so many moving parts with having to move games and getting the right dates freed up and then find people willing to play games. It’s all over the map. It’s something that some days I’m inches away from finalizing a schedule, yet I’m a mile away because of all the moving parts.”
The difficulty in nailing down an independent schedule is not surprising to Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton. For any athletic director, he said, scheduling is one of the most important and grueling exercises every year.
Trying to piece together a 12-game schedule as an independent, with at least five home games (four against FBS competition), is that much harder.
“Encouraging someone to come and play in Moscow as a return game when the majority of other institutions are playing within a conference … you can’t pry them out,” Fullerton said Wednesday. “It’s almost impossible. I don’t know what you do in those situations. And the whole middle part of the schedule just becomes a nightmare.”
As he’s maintained from the beginning, Fullerton said the Big Sky “covets” Idaho in all sports. But he understands Spear and UI leadership need time to work through the complex issue.
Regardless, Fullerton expects the Vandals to join the Big Sky in some capacity by the summer of 2014. (In 2013, the Vandals could stand to gain financially by playing their non-football sports in the WAC, Fullerton said. Meanwhile, Spear noted UI is continuing to talk to the WAC.)
The Vandals, after their first 0-2 start since 2006, play at No. 3 LSU on Saturday night. Traveling to the SEC powerhouse will net Idaho $950,000, the largest payout in program history.
If UI goes independent, it will have to play two or three big-money games each year, Spear said. The Vandals will get $850,000 to play Mississippi next year and $975,000 to play at Florida in 2014.
“We’ve got to have big games and payouts to keep the athletic department solvent,” said Brad Rice, a former Idaho linebacker and member of the Vandal Scholarship Fund national board.
The money from LSU and other opponents goes into a general pot that’s allocated to the entire athletic program. If Idaho goes to the FCS, the payouts for playing big-name teams will be 50 to 60 percent smaller, Spear said, thereby shrinking the overall pool for the department.
Idaho estimates staying in the FBS and getting the bigger paydays will generate roughly $1.5 million more than if it were to drop a level.
But there are other factors to consider. UI is allowed to have 85 full scholarships as an FBS school, while FCS teams can have 63 scholarships divided among 85 players.
Recruiting would take on a whole new feel if Idaho dropped down, as would the game-day vibe for fans.
“I know as an alum, I hate when we get smashed by USC,” said Rice, who works as a financial adviser for D.A. Davidson in Lewiston.
“As a fan, I don’t like that either. But I still like the big-time college atmosphere. It feels like a high school game when Idaho plays Idaho State.”
Fullerton pointed to improved facilities across the Big Sky and large fan bases at the Montana schools as evidence that the BSC can provide a similar, if not better, experience for UI fans as the WAC.
“When you’ve got teams like Montana, Montana State that draw 20, 21,000,” Fullerton said, “that will be bigger crowds than the Vandals draw. Montana has (a) 21,000 season-ticket base. There are not very many FBS schools that have that.”
Idaho’s football attendance has lagged for years, even after the Humanitarian Bowl triumph in 2009. Yet for now at least, Spear insisted that Idaho’s conference uncertainty has not hindered financial support from boosters or alumni.
After pausing, he added this: “But I do think people want to know exactly what we’re doing.”