By Brian Murphy
Idaho plans to play as a Football Bowl Subdivision independent and join the Big Sky Conference in other sports, pending Idaho State Board of Education approval Friday. The state board will hold a special meeting at 1 p.m. Friday to vote on Idaho's athletic future.
Idaho is the only agenda item and it is a "request for authorization for independent scheduling of football games and for the President to explore and accept an invitation to the Big Sky Athletic conference."
"We appreciate the State Board of Education’s consideration of our proposal for President M. Duane Nellis and Director of Athletics Rob Spear to explore what is best for the future of Vandal athletics, our student-athletes and our fans. Our priority continues to be to provide the best experience for our students, alumni and fans within a collegiate sports environment," the school said in a statement released Thursday.
The Vandals are currently members of the Western Athletic Conference. The league has experienced a number of defections in recent years, leaving it with just four members and two football-playing members — including Idaho.
Idaho told the state board about its plans during an executive session Wednesday. In its documents to the state board, Idaho cites the re-establishment of historic rivalries, more regional travel and reduced costs and loss of academic class time for student-athletes.
Idaho was a charter member of the Big Sky in 1963 and played in the league until 1996.
Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton told the Statesman on Wednesday that he would accept the Vandals under that arrangement.
"I would support that. It's not what we asked when we invited them," Fullerton said. "But I understand the concept."
Idaho's addition will give the league 12 all-sport members: Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Montana, Montana State, North Dakota, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah and Weber State. The Big Sky sponsors 14 of Idaho's 16 sports (no men's golf and women's swimming and diving).
To make it work as a football independent, Idaho must schedule five home games, including four against FBS schools. One of the home games may be a neutral site game. According to NCAA rules, Idaho must play at least nine games to keep its FBS status and 60 percent of them must be against FBS schools.
The Vandals have just one home game currently scheduled for 2013 — against Northern Illinois. Idaho also has road games scheduled against Mississippi, Wyoming and Washington State.
"If we’re going to play independent football, a lot of those decisions have to be made in the next month to two months," Idaho President Duane Nellis told the Statesman on Saturday. "If it doesn’t look like we can secure a schedule for us at the FBS level, then we’re going to have to make other decisions. We’re being aggressive in looking at options there. We’ll see what happens."
Idaho is hopeful that by remaining as an FBS school, it can secure a conference affiliation within a few years. The Mountain West and Sun Belt — the two most likely conference destinations for Idaho — have said they are not considering expansion at this time.
There are just four FBS independents: Army, Navy, Notre Dame and BYU. Navy is scheduled to join the Big East in 2015. BYU moved from the Mountain West to independence in 2011.
"The BCS landscape is changing rapidly and I know a number of conferences are on hold right now to see how the selection committee revenue distribution is going to unfold in the next six-to-nine months," Nellis said. "I really believe we’re not at the end of this domino effect of conference changes."
In its impact statement to the state board, the school writes: "By scheduling football as an unaffiliated and independent FBS institution, the University retains the ability to react to conference changes should an opportunity appear with an FBS conference in the future."
Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear said he believes independence will have to be a short-term solution for the Vandals.
"If we did it, it’d be definitely short-term. I don’t see us going beyond two years," Spear said.
After leaving the Big Sky in 1996, Idaho went to the Big West (1996-2000) in all sports, the Sun Belt (2001-2004) in football and the WAC (2005-present) in all sports.
2013 Football Schedule
Aug. 31 at Mississippi
Sept. 7 at Wyoming
Sept. 14 vs. Northern Illinois
Sept. 21 at Washington State
The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise has an agreement with the WAC through the 2013 game. WAC Interim Commissioner Jeff Hurd said last month that he does not see any way the league will be able to sponsor football in 2013, leaving the bowl game with an opening.
Executive Director Kevin McDonald told the Statesman on Thursday that he has spoken with Idaho about a possible agreement.
"There's been no commitment one way or the other. But there's definitely some interest on our part," McDonald said.
Idaho played in the game the last two times it was bowl eligible — 1998 and 2009.
"Tying to one team as an independent is always a little risky," McDonald said. "The issue with Idaho gets a little muddy because of their history of getting bowl eligible."
McDonald said the first preference is to align with another league.