It has been quite a year at the University of Idaho – roiled by sudden leadership changes and a thorny transition in the football program.
The Vandals, after announcing the move in 2016, are finally making a contentious return to the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision and the Big Sky Conference where they last played in 1995 after spending two decades as a Football Bowl Subdivision team.
The resumption of FCS football was driven by the Sun Belt Conference’s decision to remove Idaho and New Mexico State as members, and Idaho’s inability to find a home in another FBS league. But the move remains deeply unpopular among at least part of the Idaho fan base.
According to statistics compiled by USA Today, contributed funds to athletics at Idaho were down $648,321 in 2017, to $2.565 million from $3.213 million in 2016. Revenue from ticket sales was off $78,665, to $550,068 from $629,433 in 2016.
Athletics director Rob Spear, however, has not been available to help win back disgruntled donors, to lay plans to boost ticket sales, to help the university complete fund raising on a $50 million basketball arena or to develop a unique proposal for Idaho to address an ongoing $1 million deficit by adding new sports and counting the tuition and fees paid by students participating in those sports as athletics revenue.
In April, UI president Chuck Staben placed Spear on administrative leave following claims in January from two former female athletes that – five years previously – Spear did not adequately address complaints they were harassed – and in one instance inappropriately touched by a former Vandals football player.
The allegations prompted a wholesale review of the university’s response to harassment allegations. Spear’s leave was supposed to be 60 days, but Staben extended it indefinitely as the harassment review has dragged on.
Now the Idaho State Board of Education has decided it, and not Staben, will determine whether Spear returns from leave or is fired. The board has already held two executive sessions on the matter, with the next meeting scheduled for Aug. 15 in Pocatello.
While Spear is left to ponder his fate, the board clarified Staben’s. In May it announced it would not be renewing his contract after this academic year.
As this maelstrom lands on Spokane’s doorstep, Spokane Sports Commission president and CEO Eric Sawyer doesn’t hear a rueful thud but instead a cheerful knock of opportunity.
Rather than a troubled Idaho, an ambitious but underfunded Eastern Washington and Montana, to a lesser degree, are battling it out as Big Sky schools for Spokane’s students, student-athletes and athletics revenue.
Sawyer imagines them leveraging their strengths to increase the league’s overall presence in Spokane and northern Idaho.
“I see Spokane becoming more centered for the conference,” he says.
“We would love to have the conference headquartered here. We took a run at that once.”
Sawyer’s vision is not without foundation. Although the Big Sky is headquartered in Ogden, Utah, last month it held its annual Big Sky Football Kickoff in Spokane. The event was most recently held in Park City, Utah.
The Big Sky schools within Spokane’s orbit have a track record of success in FCS football. The Eagles and Grizzlies have won national championships, and Idaho had a productive run of Big Sky titles and playoff appearances before it left to compete in FBS.
“I don’t know why this couldn’t evolve into significant rivalries,” says Sawyer.
If the Vandals and Eagles, especially, are Big Sky powers at the same time, Sawyer wonders, “how much can we really bridge the gap between Cheney and Spokane?”
In fact, Idaho’s presence as a Big Sky rival could lend momentum to EWU addressing a key facilities need, expanding 8,600-seat Roos Field.
“Adding Idaho to the Big Sky facilitates that conversation,” says Sawyer.
Staben also sees advantages to Idaho being identified with the Big Sky in Spokane.
“It’s the largest population center reasonably close to the University of Idaho. It’s the biggest TV market close to us,” Staben said.
The implications of the Vandals emerging as a comparatively well-funded league rival to EWU are not lost on Staben. He smiled and says of EWU president Mary Cullinan, “I know her well. I don’t want to worry her too much.”
According to USA Today, Idaho had total athletics revenues of $23.8 million in 2017, compared to $14.8 million for EWU and $27.2 million for Montana.
“The biggest issue for Idaho is enrollment. Educating students, particularly Idaho students, is our core mission,” Staben said.
Enrollment peaked at 12,493 in 2012. The university lists current enrollment at 12,072.
It has been difficult to drive that number up. But if it can be done the additional student activities fees could eliminate the $1 million athletics deficit, according to Staben.
For now, the education board has given UI a year to convince it that adding three sports and counting tuition and fees paid by participants as athletics revenue is a legitimate way to calculate revenue. Absent that board approval, or an enrollment boost and the corresponding increase in student activities fees directed to athletics or a windfall donation, Idaho may be forced to eliminate soccer, swimming and men’s golf.
At the same time it faces this challenge in the athletics operating budget, Idaho is still trying to complete a big capital project.
Early this year, it received the largest donation in its history, $10 million, from Idaho Central Credit Union for a basketball arena that university leaders have sought to build for more than half a century. So far, Idaho has raised $37 million toward the $50 million project.
Boldly, Idaho plans to use mass timber construction to build the ICCU Arena that Staben says is already referred to familiarly on campus as “the woodshed,” as in the Vandals taking opponents to it. The building is projected to open in 2020.
Idaho is joining with the state’s timber industry, which is contributing material and in-kind services. A basketball arena constructed largely of wood could be a compelling demonstration project showing the feasibility of mass timber construction for similar large buildings.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue got a presentation on the arena when he toured the campus earlier this month.
“I would love to see that market for USDA timber develop,” Perdue said.
Enthusiasm for ICCU Arena might allay disappointment over the return to FCS football. In any event, fund raising for it is progressing acceptably, says Staben.
“I am quite confident we will be building this building,” he said.
Ideally, Idaho would like to maintain a 50-50 balance between institutional support for athletics and donations and revenue raised from ticket sales, licensing, game guarantees, conference payouts, TV and the like. Idaho comes reasonably close to that.
With $11.3 million in school funds and slightly more than $2 million in student fees, according to USA Today, the university provides about 57 percent of its athletics revenue.
However, with its return to FCS, Idaho in the future can expect to see substantial reductions in game guarantees, TV money and conference bowl revenue, Staben says.
The loss of bowl revenue could be $600,000 to $1 million.
But there is a real advantage in having an ongoing, consistent identity as a full-fledged, football playing member of the Big Sky Conference, Staben believes.
Since leaving the league 22 years ago, the Vandals have been members of the Big West, the Sun Belt and the Western Athletic Conference. They played a season as an independent before rejoining the Sun Belt again for four years.
“Conference stability is very valuable. It’s the key attraction of joining the Big Sky in all sports,” Staben said. “There is a good, collegial group of presidents. … It’s a good spot for us.”
As Idaho embarks on its return to the Big Sky and FCS with unsettled leadership, funding challenges and unhappy donors, Staben points to recent small upticks in season ticket sales and athletics donations and to the Vandals’ successes in competition and in the classroom the past year.
“We’re on a really good trajectory at this university,” he said. “How do we keep our forward momentum going?
“I am the president. It’s up to me to leave this university in the best position possible. I’m going to work hard to do that. Hopefully everybody at the university feels the same way.”
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.