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Idaho’s move to FCS has big funding implications

MOSCOW, Idaho – Hugh Diener doesn’t think of it as a boycott. He’s merely sticking to what he – and other boosters – told University of Idaho president Chuck Staben months ago.

His message then: If the Vandals football program rejoined the Big Sky Conference, he and his wife would stop attending games and stop donating.

“I’m not boycotting because, frankly, if they continue on in the Big Sky, which I see no other avenue for them at this point, we won’t be going to any games,” says Diener, the former president of the Vandal Scholarship Fund.

Diener, 73, graduated from UI in 1968. His wife, Barbara, completed her Idaho degree a year later. Every year since he left the school, they’ve donated money and resources to Idaho and its athletic program.

Their financial support, added up through the years, tops $100,000. They’ve given so much for so long that their names are listed in the loyal donor program on UI’s website.

But the Dieners are done. Frustrated by a move that Hugh said was “totally unneeded” when it was announced in April, the Coeur d’Alene couple dropped their season tickets and cut off their donations to their alma mater.

“We don’t like what’s going on at the University of Idaho and the best way to show that is to stop giving money,” Hugh Diener says.

Idaho athletic director Rob Spear won’t say how many donors like the Dieners have stopped giving since the school said it would become the first Football Bowl Subdivision program (formerly Division 1-A) to move down to the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly 1-AA). Nonetheless, he and Staben acknowledge that fundraising and season ticket sales are down.

“Enough to hurt,” Spear says.

Nearly five months after settling an issue that had been debated for years, Idaho’s leadership – namely Staben, who made the final call – still takes criticism from a segment of boosters, fans and those formerly associated with the program.

On Twitter, the hashtag #FireChuckStaben crops up occasionally. Staben was lightly booed when giving out an award during a timeout of UI’s homecoming game two weeks ago. And he termed comments on Idaho message boards as “almost poisonous.”

Staben says he expected this kind of reaction. He also points out that about two-thirds of the unsolicited emails he received before the decision came from people who favored it and that a small group of new donors have cited the jump to the Big Sky as their reason to start giving.

“We had looked at a number of things before we made this transition, including what our truly major donors — where are they on this kind of decision?” Staben says. “And there were major donors on both sides of this decision. There’s no doubt about that. But clearly, there was very significant athletic support oriented towards, ‘This is a good decision.’”

Idaho’s football program will join the Big Sky in fall 2018, and already the ramifications have been felt beyond fundraising and ticket sales as it begins its transition.

Scheduling

Spear has spent much of his time since April sorting out scheduling and the expected loss of revenue from guarantee games. UI will go from a 12-game FBS schedule to what’s typically an 11-game FCS schedule. (A further complication: In 2020, the Big Sky will move to a nine-game conference schedule.)

Spear’s already shuffled a number of future nonconference games. UI and Nevada mutually agreed to drop their home-and-home series. The Vandals also canceled a four-game series with San Jose State and renegotiated with Wyoming to turn a home-and-home into a single game in Laramie in 2019.

FCS teams typically get around half the payout that FBS schools net for guarantee games, something UI is figuring into future revenue projections. For the time being, though, they’ve run into little resistance from schools in Power 5 conferences.

Spear says Penn State will honor its contract to pay Idaho $1.45 million for a game in 2019. Florida will pay $1.2 million for a 2018 game. And Indiana will dish out $1.2 million in 2021 and $1.3 million in ’22 to have the Vandals play in Bloomington.

LSU is the only big-name school that balked at paying Idaho a full FBS payout. It wanted to cut UI’s fee for a 2020 game, slated at $1.4 million, by more than half, Spear says.

The Vandals declined and the game was canceled. Instead, Idaho will play at Washington State in ’20 for $550,000.

“… We’re still going to get significant guarantee game revenue for several years,” Staben says. “Now, as you go forward four or five years from now when you don’t have games scheduled yet, we’re going to see that that revenue will decline. But for the next four or five years, frankly that revenue will not decline very much.

“That seems to be a point of confusion amongst our boosters.”

Scholarships and Academics

Next season, in its last year at the FBS level, Idaho can award 85 full scholarships. The next fall, to be eligible for the FCS playoffs, it must be at 63 scholarships.

But the Vandals can spread those 63 scholarships across 85 players “because now you’re going from a headcount sport to an equivalency sport,” Spear says.

This is a nuance that both Spear and Staben raised when asked about managing the FBS-to-FCS transition. It also factors into the need to recruit players with good academic records.

“You could get somebody who has half academic aid, half scholarship money and now they have a full scholarship,” Spear notes.

Staben finds the potential to complement football scholarships with academic aid particularly attractive. He’s eager to see the caliber of student and player that Paul Petrino and his staff will be able recruit using the blended approach. (“Harder for the football coach. I get it. But a good thing in some ways.”)

The UI president doesn’t understand why some schools prioritize athletics over their academic mission. He recently noticed, for example, that Auburn’s athletic expenditures surpassed its research expenditures, and that its athletic department faced a deficit like Washington State and other schools. (In 2014, Auburn had a $13.6 million deficit, but it made $9 million last year.)

“You know, I’d rather be the university that says, ‘We’re all in on research’ or ‘We’re all in on student success,’” Staben says. “I don’t think I’d want to be the university that says, ‘We’re all in on athletics.’ Really? You’re all in on something that really isn’t your core mission. That seems kind of odd to me.

“And I think here at the University of Idaho, we’re all in on student success, access, research, engagement — and we’re really proud of our athletics program, but it’s not the tail that’s going to wag this dog.”

Diener, the former longtime Idaho donor, said Staben has made similar statements to boosters, even going as far as saying all college athletics should be club sports.

In response, an Idaho spokesperson pointed to Staben’s State of the University address last week, during which he said, “I believe in the value of intercollegiate athletics and in our student-athletes, across all our sports.”

Recruiting

Before the season, Paul Petrino said there’s no reason for his team to worry about the Big Sky transition. After all, juniors and seniors on the current roster won’t play a game in the new conference.

That doesn’t go for UI coaches, who have noticed a difference in recruiting since the Big Sky announcement.

“I think you always notice an impact,” Petrino says. “Some kids grow up and their whole life their dream is to play Division I. That’s something you’re going to deal with. It’s just life. Some of those kids you’re not going to get.”

The Idaho staff tries to gauge early on how badly recruits want to play at the FBS level. If it’s a major focus for a player they’ve targeted, they quickly move on.

Finances

Staben says Idaho didn’t turn to the Big Sky solely for financial reasons, but it was a big factor. FBS football is getting more expensive with full cost of attendance scholarships and bigger, splashier facilities.

UI figured it would have had to invest around $5 million to stay competitive in the FBS. That would have included full cost of attendance scholarships, coaches’ salaries, recruiting budget and operational expenses.

Yet there’s also a cost involved in getting booted from the Sun Belt Conference and leaving the FBS. UI will lose around $800,000 in Sun Belt revenue, as well as some NCAA revenue. And eventually it will stop collecting $1 million-plus game guarantees.

That means it will have to plug a $1 million to $1.5 million yearly gap in revenue.

“No. 1 is we’d like to grow ourself out of that problem and generate more revenues,” Spear says. “That’s the more positive approach. But everything’s on the table.”

Staben cites his plan to increase enrollment as a way to overcome the revenue gap. Students pay a fee that supports athletics, and he says it’s very significant relative to the school’s budget.

“So if we achieve our enrollment growth, we should backfill that revenue without a whole lot of problem,” says Staben, who noted during his State of the University speech that overall enrollment declined this fall.

Spear’s vision is for UI to go from one of the lowest-funded FBS programs to the one the top-funded FCS programs, something that’s possible if the school can maintain its current funding level.

If UI’s funding stays the same or grows, Spear says, it will have a better chance to competitive in the Big Sky and “enhance the student experience by providing full cost of attendance and being one of the few schools in the FCS that can do that.”

Facilities also factor into the student experience. Next week UI will announce significant progress in fundraising for a 4,700-seat events center that will serve as the home for men’s and women’s basketball. Staben says Idaho is halfway to raising the estimated $30 million for the arena that will sit north of the Kibbie Dome.


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