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Blanchette: Sun Belt doesn’t need Idaho Vandals anymore

Another day, another fist to the chops for the University of Idaho, another palm to the forehead for anyone with a front-row seat to this tired charade.

The Sun Belt Conference on Tuesday served papers – or is it a restraining order? – on the Vandals, demanding they vacate the premises before the 2018 football season. The purpose they served the league back in 2013 – along with their companions in mobile misery, New Mexico State – they serve no longer. They’ve been jettisoned for a trophy wife after putting the hubby through med school.

And the trophy wife?

Coastal Carolina.

Turns out that’s not a travel magazine you’d find on the coffee table in a Myrtle Beach hotel room, but an actual university.

Yet this is what it’s come down to for Idaho: being a less appealing partner than Coastal Carolina.

To be more accurate, what the Vandals and the Sun Belt entered into a few years ago was a green-card marriage. Idaho and NMSU had drifted for a year as independents after the disintegration of Western Athletic Conference football. The Sun Belt, eager to tap the full allocation of revenue from the College Football Playoff, needed extra members – which would also put it closer to the 12 required by NCAA fiat to stage a potential championship game.

So the conference took on the two western schools far beyond the league’s geographic footprint on a four-year deal – to be reassessed after two. But in the meantime, the CFP downsized the payout Sun Belt teams would share, and then in January the NCAA revamped the rules to allow 10-team leagues to play title games. And the Sun Belt signed up Coastal to make the subtraction of UI and NMSU work.

“If you look at two of the main reasons in April of 2013 that we focused on Idaho and New Mexico State,” said Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson, “neither of those are in place today.”

In other words: buenos noches, coaches.

The Sun Belt did have Idaho president Chuck Staben deliver a presentation two weeks ago to air the Vandals’ case for staying and set a March 10 date for a vote.

Speaking of charades.

“Sentiment,” said SBC president Denise Trauth of Texas State, “has been evident for some time.”

So now the Vandals are back at a familiar crossroads: carry on again as a football independent after 2017, hope more conference cannibalism makes them some league’s necessary stopgap or – and this is the one that sends a throaty sliver of the fan base into spasms – return after 20 years to the FCS level and the Big Sky Conference, where its other sports teams reside.

And yet there was Idaho athletic director Rob Spear on Tuesday, getting all feisty.

“What we will do in the future is control our own destiny,” he said. “That’s one thing we’re really going to put at the forefront here is being able to control the next move because we’ve been in this reactionary mode for too long.”

He should know. He’s been the point man for 12 years.

How they’re going to be in control is unclear, but this much is known:

They’re going to be optimistic – Staben said so.

They’re going to be proactive.

They’re going to do their due diligence.

And they’re going to be as deaf to the drumbeat of reality, common sense and their place in the athletic world as they’ve been while chasing their tails for 20 years.

Here’s a sample of some of the measures Idaho has taken in that time while pursuing their FBS grail: played home football games across the state line at Washington State, subsidized travel for conference opponents, gone to APR jail, had their players in the air for 25,000 miles one season, hired Dennis Erickson for 10 months and swapped affiliations (or lack of) five times. Six, now.

Fugitives don’t change addresses that often.

All the while, the Big Sky has hummed along, winning national championships, playing fun football, serving its athletes and alums well – and grilling brats and pouring beer just as tasty as the fare at FBS tailgates.

There are financial ramifications, yes, but this long ago stopped being about money. This is a vanity exercise, period.

And even Spear acknowledges the necessity of regionalism. But to him, this entails arm-twisting a handful of Big Sky schools to join Idaho in the pointlessness of FBS bottom-feeding, and creating a split-level conference. This is likely the direction his “control our own destiny” shtick will take.

Because independence, as Staben admitted, is a drag. And as far as more conference movement, what the Sun Belt did Tuesday signals that 12-team leagues aren’t important anymore – and Idaho brings no market pizzazz to any league’s TV contract.

And in the pizzazz department, it’s time to point out that Idaho’s record in 73 years – before and after Big Sky football – of trying to be one of the cool kids is 248-449-16.

What possibly makes anyone believe this remains a good idea?


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