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After 22 seasons of ups and downs, Idaho football is headed back to the Big Sky

Idaho coach Robb Akey celebrates after Idaho defeated Bowling Green 43-42 in the Humanitarian Bowl on Dec. 30, 2009, in Boise, Idaho. The Vandals won three bowl games in their 22-year run in the FBS. (Matt Cilley / Associated Press)
Idaho coach Robb Akey celebrates after Idaho defeated Bowling Green 43-42 in the Humanitarian Bowl on Dec. 30, 2009, in Boise, Idaho. The Vandals won three bowl games in their 22-year run in the FBS. (Matt Cilley / Associated Press)

MOSCOW, Idaho – On Aug. 31, 1996 the University of Idaho narrowly lost a football game to the University of Wyoming, 40-38. On Dec. 2, 2017 the Vandals decisively defeated Georgia State, 24-10.

In those contests, Idaho showed itself to be competitive in college football’s highest division. The games bracketed 22 years of Idaho’s participation at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Football Bowl Subdivision level. It was an era that opened with heady optimism. It enjoyed three distinct bursts of success. But looming uncertainty was a constant theme. This accounted at least in part for the Vandals’ disappointing 86-174 overall record during its time in FBS and ultimately it drove Idaho to return next year to the Football Championship Subdivision Big Sky Conference, where the Vandals played as a founding member from 1963-95.

UI athletic director Rob Spear points out Idaho won three bowl games as a representative of three different leagues. The Vandals won their first Humanitarian Bowl in 1998. The Big West Conference quit playing football in 2000. Two years after Idaho won the Humanitarian Bowl again in 2009, the Western Athletic Conference abandoned football, and although the Vandals won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in 2016 they knew the Sun Belt Conference would be canceling their membership after the 2017 season.

Chasing stability through those leagues and playing a year as an independent in 2013, the Vandals never found themselves on solid footing for long. If there is a cautionary tale in their ambitious venture in FBS, this is it. Circumstances beyond Idaho’s control ultimately put an end to the dream.

It began in the 1990s when Idaho’s arch rival, Boise State, that the Vandals had dominated in football for a decade, sought permission from the Board of Regents governing Idaho state higher education institutions to leave the Big Sky Conference and move up to the Big West. The regents approved the move, but only if the UI was able to follow suit.

“It’s your one window to move up when your biggest competitor is moving up,” said Chris Tormey. He led the Vandals through the transition. Tormey became Idaho’s coach in 1995, its last year in the Big Sky, and he coached through the 1999 season.

Tormey, now a coach with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football league, recalls when the Vandals made the move to FBS they invented on the fly a template for such a transition.

“There was no clear picture from how we would change our status from what was then I-AA to Division I. The broad outline was we would play as a I-AA team in a I-A conference.”

Idaho’s athletic director, Pete Liske, promised Tormey he would have the 85 scholarships and nine fulltime coaches allowed in Division I-A. But Tormey points out Liske left Idaho for the University of Toledo in 1996, and his successor, Oval Jaynes, only stayed two years. He was followed by Mike Bohn. With all the instability among athletic directors, “nothing got started on the facilities side,” during his tenure as coach, Tormey recalls.

Tormey himself left the Vandals after the 1999 season to become the head coach at the University of Nevada. In retrospect, he is wistful about leaving. The Vandals had lost their last regular season game to Boise State, which knocked them out of contention for playing in a second straight bowl. Had they had an opportunity to play in a bowl, says Tormey, “I probably wouldn’t have looked at anything else.”

But he had serious questions about Idaho’s future in FBS.

“It didn’t look like it would be viable. The Big West was going away. There was no long-term plan in place to improve facilities. The schedule was getting tougher. There were a lot of unknowns. It was not so much that I was attracted to Nevada, but they had everything in place we didn’t have.”

Still, when Idaho made the move to FBS some things worked in its favor. The program had been dominant in the Big Sky for years. It was well stocked with good coaches and players. Idaho’s current coach, Paul Petrino, was an assistant in 1992-94 . “There were only two games a year we were ever concerned about losing,” he remembers.

Also, its first year in the Big West the UI was still technically a I-AA school, Tormey notes. As such, it was able to split scholarships, and transfers from I-A schools could play immediately, without having to sit out a year. For their first year in the Big West, the Vandals were able to bring in 35 players, including 25 freshmen, seven junior college players and three four-year institution transfers. Among those transfers was Ryan Fien, who had started four games the previous year as a junior at UCLA.

“We were able to address immediate needs, and we didn’t have to mortgage our future. We were able to redshirt almost all the freshmen,” says Tormey.

Fien led Idaho to a 6-5 record its first year in the Big West. The Vandals went 5-7 in 1997 but rebounded to 9-3 with a Humanitarian Bowl win in 1998, and they were still a potent team in 1999 when they finished 7-4.

It was a great time to be a Vandal, according to Bohn. Buoyed by the success of the early years in what was I-A and is now FBS, “there was excitement, energy and passion” throughout the athletics department. “It mirrored the trajectory of the institution as a whole,” Bohn says. He felt a tremendous responsibility for winning teams to reflect credit on the UI and the UI to become a beneficial institution for the inland Northwest. Bohn was able to increase contributed revenue to athletics based in large part on football’s performance in the highest NCAA division, and he was able to get built the office and team facilities addition to the Kibbie Dome.

Now athletics director at the University of Cincinnati, Bohn says he still fondly recalls Idaho. “Sitting in my office there are pieces of memorabilia from my time on the Palouse.”

But after Tormey left, Idaho spiraled down through nine straight losing seasons under Tom Cable, Nick Holt and Robb Akey, respectively, before Akey’s 2009 team roared back with an 8-5 record and a second Humanitarian Bowl win. The uncertainty that plagued the UI, both in league affiliation and personnel, was ever present. Following the Big West’s football exit, Idaho played as a member of the Sun Belt from 2002-2004 before joining the Western Athletic Conference in 2005. When the WAC stopped playing football in 2012, Idaho played as an FBS independent in 2013 before returning to the Sun Belt the following year.

Spear followed Bohn at Idaho in 2004. As he worked to check the fall of the football program, Spear also addressed the UI’s facilities needs. These were so great, he says, they would have required attention no matter what level the Vandals played football. However the fact Idaho was an FBS school gave momentum to a building boom.

On Spear’s watch, the university installed turf and lights on the football practice field, improved locker rooms, built a new training room, team meeting rooms and a strength and conditioning center, installed several generations of new turf in the Kibbie Dome, corrected safety concerns and improved viewing in the dome and built a new press box and premier seating there. The athletics department is also in the final stages of raising money for a new basketball arena.

Now Idaho’s football future bends in a different direction. When the Vandals move to the Big Sky Spear anticipates a loss of approximately $2 million from lost game and conference revenue, including about $100,000 from television and donations. While the number of Vandals donors has grown since the decision to return to FCS was announced two years ago, total contributions are down about $200,000, reflecting the loss of several large donors.

The impact on other sports from Title IX compliance as Idaho drops from 85 to 63 football scholarships is still under review, according to Spear.

FCS schools are allowed to split scholarships, and Petrino points out a number of Vandals football players are notably successful scholars and qualify for academic financial aid, so Idaho will still have about 85 football players on scholarship, even if not totally supported by football dollars.

Current FCS rules allow institutions to have one more fulltime football coach than FBS but fewer graduate assistants. Spear acknowledges he dreads this time of year, when the annual churn of football coaching jobs occurs. Some of that is to be expected, Petrino says, but he doesn’t anticipate an exodus of coaches from Idaho.

“Jobs are too hard to come by. We’re all football coaches. Part of the profession is improving yourself, getting better jobs. Big Sky or Sun Belt, there are always assistants who are moving up.”

Petrino does acknowledge there are some players he won’t even try to recruit because they only want to play for an FBS institution, and the South might not be such a wellspring of good players for the Vandals any longer. Idaho had been able to entice players to the Northwest by offering them a chance to play FBS football, Petrino explains. Now the Vandals will face stiff competition for those players from southern FCS programs.

Among fans, some look forward to playing in a league that makes geographical sense, says Spear. A key part of a rivalry is being able to sit in an opponent’s stadium and cheer. A road trip to Missoula or Cheney is infinitely more feasible than one to Georgia or Alabama. “I’m not sure I could tell you who our Sun Belt rival is,” Spear says.

Other Vandals fans, though, remain bitter about a perceived retrenchment. Spear has empathy with them. “I understand that.”

Bohn says some circumstances simply can’t be avoided and Vandals supporters should realize “they didn’t do anything wrong.”

Tormey amplifies the point. Neither of the FBS leagues in the West, the PAC-12 and Mountain West, will accept Idaho. Playing as an independent, the Vandals would have no conference revenue, no television revenue and would likely play more than half their games on the road.

“It’s a tough assignment,” and to take it on “there has to be at least a glimmer of hope” Idaho could get back into an FBS league, Tormey say.

The way forward for Idaho, say Spear and Bohn, is to embrace the opportunities afforded by playing in the Big Sky. The end of the rainbow for FCS teams, after all, is a national championship.

Petrino has already set that goal for his team. Even as the Vandals were still enjoying victory in their final FBS game “we talked about it after Georgia State. We talked about it that day in the locker room. Win the Big Sky. Get in the playoffs. Win the national championship,” Petrino said. “Win it all.”