Arrow-right Camera
Sports

John Blanchette: Idaho president Chuck Staben made the right call for Vandals

Idaho athletic director Rob Spear, left, president Chuck Staben, center, and football coach Paul Petrino take part in a press conference on Thursday at the University of Idaho. (Sean Kramer photo)
Idaho athletic director Rob Spear, left, president Chuck Staben, center, and football coach Paul Petrino take part in a press conference on Thursday at the University of Idaho. (Sean Kramer photo)

MOSCOW, Idaho – Here’s a guess: the next time University of Idaho president Chuck Staben joins his educrat compadres at a convention or gathering, every five minutes or so he’ll get clapped on the shoulder and steered into a corner and be told in a hushed tone:

“You’re the man, Chuck. Wish I had the stones to do what you did.”

And that doesn’t mean stick it to football.

Staben didn’t stick it to football when he made the decision last weekend – and then announced Thursday – that Idaho’s program will resume play as a Football Championship Subdivision member in the Big Sky Conference come the 2018 season.

He stuck up for his university.

Staben was a few short breaths into his announcement at a chilly and odd press conference in the Kibbie Dome when he dropped the line his presidential pals might want to have stitched into a sampler.

“The University of Idaho’s prestige and relevance will be complemented by our football program,” he said, “not defined by it.”

Does that mean you can still have a relevant university without an independent football schedule full of body-bag games and the FBS brand on your backside?

We’ll see. Idaho’s peers in the Big Sky seem to be doing OK.

So it’s done. The Vandals will play out the two remaining years of their marriage of convenience with the Sun Belt Conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision, start paring down their scholarships from 85 to the FCS limit of 63 and then in 2018 begin their second hitch in the Big Sky, which they abandoned 20 years ago.

“We can’t provide stability by ‘hoping’ another conference will ask us to join them,” Staben said, “or that an FBS conference ‘might’ be realigned in the future to better fit UI.”

This will hardly stop the rancorous debate among the tribe from the north, which intensified the past few years as Idaho bounced from a disintegrating Western Athletic Conference to independence to temporary shelter in the Sun Belt, only to get an eviction notice last month. And, naturally, the FBS hard-liners remain hot, some insisting they’ll withdraw support.

“We’ve got some work to do,” athletic director Rob Spear acknowledged Thursday. “We’ve got to engage them and get them back.”

Can they hold a grudge for the next two years? They harbored delusions for 20.

That’s right, the FBS faction had two decades to make it work – to marshal the right allies, generate the resources to show that they belonged and were enough of an asset to a conference to overcome the geography. They never did. Always, ineffectual leadership was blamed – and, yes, the churn in the president’s office led to mucho buck-dodging. But, simply, there were never enough of these particular visionaries, and they were in love mostly with the notion of being FBS and incapable of mustering the muscle.

Yet critics have been eviscerating Staben for taking the easy way out, even as he steered UI on an unprecedented course – though he insisted other schools have made “similar” decisions.

And then he cited “the University of Chicago choosing to leave the Big Ten in 1946.”

Uh, maybe it’s best not get folks thinking you might outfit the team in leather helmets, Mr. President.

As mentioned, it was a curious day. Being that it was Staben’s decision, it was his show – and Spear and coach Paul Petrino looked decidedly uncomfortable as wing men. No surprise – you can’t expect people to invest themselves in a cause and not feel broken, or betrayed, when the script gets rewritten. But they put on their best faces.

“The rules of the game have changed (from) when we got into the FBS,” Spear reasoned, citing Power-5 autonomy, full-cost-of-attendance rides and, most recently, the loosening of rules requiring conferences to have 12 schools to stage a championship game. “As you heard the president talk about it, it is really impossible for us to stay at that level and be competitive.”

Petrino would probably balk at that – he thinks he has a bowl team this fall. But when asked, he said he was prepared to make the transition.

“Looking forward to it,” he said.

However, when approached later as to what input he’d had into the decision, Petrino said, “My input is to coach the football team. I’m the football coach.”

Ho-kay.

Perhaps we should recall that 20-some years ago, John L. Smith sat at press conference extolling the virtues of Idaho’s jump into what would become FBS football – and then bolted to coach at Utah State two weeks later.

While Staben continually called FCS “the best choice” for Idaho’s athletes and students, if there was an FBS conference option for the Vandals, they’d probably still be there. But there’s no more point betting on the come. You can’t be FBS in a vacuum. There has to be a place for you, and there wasn’t.

For Idaho, the place is the Big Sky. Inevitably.


Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review's sports newsletter

Get the day's top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.

There was a problem subscribing you to the newsletter. Double check your email and try again, or email webteam@spokesman.com

You have been successfully subscribed!