To understand why the University of Idaho is willing to send its football team on a 2,742-mile journey, a mere 38 hours if you drive it straight through, into the heat and humidity of an August night in Florida where the Vandals are 36-point road dogs to the Gators, then you must first understand two things: Moscow and the Kibbie Dome.
No, not that Moscow. Moscow, Idaho. Population 24,499, the county seat and metropolis of Latah, County, population 37,244. The closest metro areas are Boise – population 205,671; 295 miles and five hours by car – to the south and Spokane, Washington – population 210,721; 79 miles and 90 minutes by car – to the northwest. In between are a lot of wheat fields, mountains, elk, bears and mountain lions. This is where the deer and the antelope play.
And then there is the Kibbie Dome. Imagine a Quonset hut. A great big Quonset hut. Tall enough that it would take someone with a stronger leg than Idaho’s third team All-American punter Austin Renkow, who averaged 47.8 yards every time he launched one last year, to hit the roof. Capacity 16,000, which makes it the smallest stadium in all of Division I. A better perspective: There are almost as many seats in each of the end zones in The Swamp. Another perspective: If Idaho sells out its five home games this year, it still won’t add up to as many folks as The Swamp will hold any time the Gators play this year.
“It’s a small, cozy old indoor stadium,” describes Ben Hagel, the Idaho sports editor of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, which not only serves the University of Idaho and surrounding areas but the Washington State University community 14 miles away in Pullman. Just because the Vandals and the Cougars are close enough that you can call them reach out and touch someone buddies, they rarely play each other in football because it’s not economically feasible, even for Washington State, which has the smallest stadium (32,470) in the Pac-12. Whenever Washington State and Idaho play, the game is always at Martin Stadium although they’ve played once in Seattle and another time in Spokane on a neutral field.
The Kibbie Dome might fit the demographics of Moscow and Latah County perfectly but even with sellouts, it’s not big enough nor does it bring in enough income to pay the bills at Idaho, where the entire athletic budget is roughly $16,000,000, of which approximately $3,000,000 goes for football, leaving $13,000,000 for the other 13 spots (five other men’s sports, eight women’s). The stadium certainly isn’t big enough to rate many Division I home and home arrangements outside of conference play. The Vandals used to be members of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) but when the WAC disbanded they spent a year in college football purgatory as an independent.
“As an independent, no one wants to play you at your place and that means when someone offers you big bucks to go somewhere and play, you play,” Hagel said.
This year, the Vandals are football only members of the Sun Belt Conference, where their closest foe (New Mexico State) is 1,492 miles away. When the Vandals travel to Statesboro to play Sun Belt foe Georgia Southern on October 11, it’s a 2,613-mile jaunt.
The Sun Belt is not exactly an ideal conference for Idaho, which is the only team in the league from the Pacific northwest but the choices weren’t all that enticing -- stay independent, latch on to the Sun Belt or rejoin Division I-AA as a member of the Big Sky Conference where the other 13 sports teams compete. Independent was out of the question. The Big Sky was a step back from Division I. That left the Sun Belt, considered the catfish of Division I, the perpetual bottom feeder where the largest stadium in the league is 33,000-seat Ladd-Peebles Stadium, home to South Alabama. But, it’s the kind of conference that Idaho hopes will allow its football team to compete on a fairly even plane as well as provide a few home games with Division I opponents.
“They’re hoping they’ll be able to compete at that level,” Hagel says.
Emphasis on the word hoping.
It would probably make more sense to play in the Big Sky where opponents would be teams like Idaho State, Eastern Washington, Montana, Montana State, Weber State and Northern Arizona. The travel expenses would be far less but in today’s environment, where the power conference schools are being encouraged to stop playing Division I-AA teams, the paycheck games would dry up in a hurry. By joining the Sun Belt, the Vandals remain in Division I and on speed dial for athletic directors looking for a will take a beating for a paycheck opponent. The trip to Gainesville might cost Idaho something like $125,000 but the guarantee check Jeremy Foley will sign is $975,000, so an $850,000 net that will keep the lights on and help pay the cost of the non-revenue and women’s sports. Next year, Idaho will go to Auburn for a $1,000,000 payday. Last year, the Vandals got a big paycheck to take an 80-14 beating in Tallahassee against FSU.
Those kind of beatings are embarrassing but in today’s athletic department economy, if you aren’t from a power conference it’s either take a few stompings or go out of business.
“Do you want to win games or do you want to make money?” Hagel asks rhetorically. “They (Idaho athletic department) are more of the making money persuasion at this time. They have been struggling to make it in Division I but they prefer to stay there.”
Idaho fans, however, remember what it was like when the Vandals were winning. Back in the Division I-AA days, John L. Smith put them in the Division I-AA playoffs five times in six years, reaching the semifinals in 1993. Smith left for Utah State but the Vandals made the playoffs in 1994 and 1995 as well.
Then they elected to go to Division I. After 19 years of playing and losing with the big boys, Idaho fans long for the good old days.
“A lot of people, as you might expect, aren’t too happy with the way things are,” Hagel said. “They think they should drop down to the Big Sky. They believe they could compete with teams like Eastern Washington, which is one of the best teams in the country at that level. They complain and they call for the AD’s head but the people in charge believe this is what they have to do to survive.”
So, the Vandals come to Gainesville Saturday knowing that barring a miracle of parting the Red Sea proportions, they’ll get their butts handed to them on a platter. The Vandals are a more experienced team than they were last year when they went 1-11 and allowed nine of 12 opponents to score at least 40 points. Nine of the 11 defensive starters are back, but just because they’re a year older doesn’t necessarily mean they will be a year better. Florida, on the other hand, is a hungry team that has been frothing at the mouth while waiting for the season and the opportunity to redeem last year’s disastrous 4-8 to begin.
That the Gators want to pillage and plunder isn’t lost on Hagel, who holds no hope for a game that will stay close much longer than the 0-0 on the scoreboard when the ball is kicked off Saturday night.
“They (Idaho) are not even anywhere close to Florida’s class,” Hagel said. “It’s not going to be pretty. Florida is probably going to jump out early on and (Jeff) Driskel is going to take command. At the end of the first half, Florida is probably going to have at least a 28-point lead, probably more. I expect Idaho will score late. They usually get a touchdown late in games. They only got shut out once last year. When it’s over, I expect Florida to win the game something like 63-10.”