It was apparent to the Sun Belt Conference presidents and chancellors long before the set March 10 voting date the league wasn't interested in extending Idaho's football-only membership past the 2017 season.
By comparing notes and thoughts, they decided a vote wasn't necessary and announced on Tuesday the Sun Belt intends to be a 10-team league in 2018.
Idaho joined the Sun Belt as a football-only member in 2014 on a four-year guarantee. After two years in the conference, the league was set to decide if the agreement would last past the four-year mark.
"The Sun Belt decided not to vote on our membership and to move forward as a 10-team league in their fall 2018 season," University of Idaho President Chuck Staben said. "We will evaluate our options and as always, athletics remain very important to us. We want to ensure our student-athletes have a great experience, our fans have a great experience and we have stability for our program so we can move them forward."
Staben and New Mexico State president Garrey Carruthers were informed last Wednesday night of the Sun Belt's decision. Prior to that, they anticipated it would be made on March 10.
The two main options on the table is to return independent, as Idaho did for the 2013 season prior to being accepted into the Sun Belt, or to return the FCS ranks it left in 1996 and join the Big Sky Conference.
Idaho has a standing offer from the Big Sky expiring on May 4, although previous invitations that haven't been accepted from the conference have been extended again. Idaho can request an extension on that invitation, which would be likely to get granted.
Idaho can also wait and see if there is further conference re-alignment over the next two seasons which leads to a conference home.
"We are going to continue to do our due diligence and evaluate all the information possible so we can make the best possible decision," Idaho athletic director Rob Spear said. "I don’t think we have one option preferred over the other. I think we, again, need to do our due diligence. We certainly had expected this decision would be on March 10. It happened earlier, it allows us to start evaluating our options earlier."
Spear has been adamant that the western United States is in need of a new FBS conference since the demise of the Western Athletic Conference.
"We’ll explore all options. I really believe that, that there is another opportunity out west for another type of league," Spear said. "This is another challenge for our department, certainly, but it’s not a challenge that we haven’t faced before and we’ll work through it and select the best option for the University of Idaho. What we will do in the future is we will control our own destiny, that’s one thing we’re going to put on the forefront is be able to control the next move. We’ve been in this reactionary move for too long, so it’s very important for the University of Idaho to control its decision which will include evaluating all options."
Independence was difficult for Idaho in 2013, as the team went 1-11 in Paul Petrino's first season on campus while playing three games against Power Five opponents and only five home games.
"Independent is a very difficult status," Staben said. "We will be, as Rob has said, we will evaluate options. We’ve been independent before. It’s not an easy way to schedule your games and maintain a program and ensure stability, so that will be a factor in our consideration."
Idaho is committed to playing out the rest of its contract with the Sun Belt through the 2017 season, although Staben has eluded to making a decision on the 2018 season by the May 4 deadline the Big Sky currently has on the table.
"Those are the two primary options, although there is still flex among various NCAA conferences," Staben said. "At this point we don’t know if there would be any other conference available to us.We can go independent and we do have an invitation from the Big Sky."
If Idaho moves to FCS it will have to cut its scholarships down to 63 full-rides. Currently, the Vandals will go into the 2016 season at the FBS limit of 85 scholarships.
"That will certainly be some of the detailed work we’ll put in to make sure we know the exact requirements and we’ll prepare ourselves either way," Spear said. "It’s very important to know we’re going to evaluate the best options out there and select the best thing for our student-athletes."
Idaho opens the 2016 season at home against Big Sky opponent Montana State. Whether or not the Bobcats will be a future conference opponent remains to be seen.