To say that it has been a hectic week at Idaho for Athletics Director Rob Spear would be an understatement. On Wednesday the Sun Belt announced that they would not renew Idaho and New Mexico State as football-only members after the 2017 season. That decision, handed down 10-days earlier than originally expected, means the Vandals have to decide what they will do for the 2018 season and beyond.
It would be mistaken to call this a trivial decision for the University of Idaho, impacting its alumni, student-athletes and students. This decision will effect other programs in the athletics department beyond football, and will be a driving force behind how the institution plans to position itself in the future.
Idaho has had a long-standing invitation to rejoin the Big Sky Conference in football for years, their FCS conference home prior to moving up to the FBS level and joining the Big West Conference in 1996. After two short years of competing at the FBS level, Idaho won the Big West Conference championship with an 8-3 regular season record, and then won the University's first-ever Bowl appearance, knocking off Southern Miss 42-35 as 16-point underdogs in the Humanitarian Bowl. They finished that season with a 9-3, 4-1 Big West mark.
Shortly after that victorious moment in 1998, which demonstrated Idaho not only could compete but also succeed at the FBS level, the world of Division 1 athletics began a period of unprecedented upheaval in the modern era that continues today. The magnitude, depth and breadth of conference realignment over the last 15 years is unmatched, and has affected every conference in the nation.
After Idaho's 1998 championship, the Big West made the decision to drop football completely after the 2000 season, sending its football members scattering. Since then Idaho has lived a nomadic conference life, playing in the Sun Belt (2001-2004), Western Athletic Conference (2005-2012), FBS Independence (2013), and a return stint in the Sun Belt (2014-2017).
The one period of time since the Big West days when things had the appearance of "stability" was Idaho's 8-year run in the WAC. Five years into that league, Idaho again built a bowl-contending team that went 7-5 in the regular season, knocked off Colorado State and San Diego State of the MWC in the Dome, put together a 5-game win streak, then won its second FBS Bowl appearance when they beat Bowling Green 43-42 in the Humanitarian Bowl. That Idaho squad (8-5, 4-4 WAC) sent a First Round NFL Draft Pick, offensive lineman Mike Iupati, to the NFL and a Pro Bowl career.
But then again, much like the Big West shake down prior to 2000, shortly after Idaho's bowl appearance the WAC began losing members to other conferences and made the decision to drop football after the 2012 season. The Vandals waded through an Independent season in 2013, then landed for their second stint in the Sun Belt Conference.
With more realignment on the horizon as the Big XII Conference weighs its options to add more members or hold firm at 10 schools, Idaho finds itself in the situation of weighing its own options when they will no longer call the Sun Belt Conference home after the 2017 season.
Do they commit to FBS Independence while the landscape continues to evolve, with all the benefits of what competing at the FBS level offers? Do they wait it out until the Big Sky forms an FBS division among its membership, something Commissioner Doug Fullerton has discussed now publicly for years? Or do they consider the Big Sky offer now?
Idaho AD Rob Spear, who is working with UI President Chuck Staben to weigh all of Idaho's future options, took time from his schedule recently to discuss these points with us.
PAT HAUGE: We’re hearing buzz of some shake-up of the Big XII and other FBS conferences on the horizon. Can you share with us what you’re hearing on this subject, or where you think things are headed?
ROB SPEAR: “What I’m hearing is not a lot different than what you’re reading and what you’re aware of. We’re certainly paying attention to what is happening out there because if there is movement we think that would create another domino effect that could benefit Idaho in the long run. Personally, I find it unlikely the Big XII is going to expand … UNLESS they get some value from the schools that are joining that league. You’re not going to divide the same pot of money by 12 versus 10.
PH: Unless there is some market value being added, like a UConn or Louisville?
RS: “Correct. But it all depends on your revenue projections for your league. Can you enhance your network similar to the Big Ten? Is that going to generate more revenue? Is that going to raise everyone’s boat higher? Those are all things of course the Big XII is probably evaluating.
“Now, from our standpoint would we like to see some movement? Sure!”
PH: Do you see this next round of alignment affecting all the G5 conferences?
RS: “That’s a good question. It’s all about money. If you’re going to lose schools…. is your conference going to have to add schools to protect itself? Or are you going to deal with the loss of membership because you have the numbers. For example, CUSA has 14 members. Would they add schools if some current schools left? I am not sure they would. G5 conferences need money and it is very likely that 10 may become the standard number. Especially since you can now conduct a conference championship with 10.”
PH: Do you see the G5 still having access to the National Championship playoff and to the premier New Year’s Day bowls in the future?
RS: “The current television agreement expires in two years, and I think there could be some modifications; do they expand it or do they keep it at four? I don’t know what will happen, but they will certainly expand it if there’s more money involved. I think the Group of Five schools will always have access to the playoff. I think that’s one of the things the Power Five realizes, access must be provided or there could be legal issues. So I always think they will have access, to what extent I have no idea. But I do think there will be some access in the future.”
PH: Do you think the move of the Sun Belt this week to release UI and NMSU starting with the 2018 season was really about being a 10-team league, or do you think they are planning to expand but more in their footprint in the coming years?
RS: “It’s all about money and geography. They’re committed to having a footprint where they can create a bus league. And they’re committed to enhancing the revenue among the 10 remaining members, and they’re doing that by eliminating two institutions. I doubt they ever expand beyond 10 in the future.”
PH: Do you see P5 realignment affecting the SBC in the years ahead?
RS: “It could. It just depends on the schools and where they come from. If the Power Five conferences expand by taking Group of Five conference schools there could be a domino effect. Also, I think a conference needs to consider how many members they have right now. Again, look at Conference USA, they are at 14 members now. Are they going to add new programs if they lose teams just because a couple schools left, or do they think this is an opportunity to right-size? I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s something they’re probably evaluating.”
PH: Focusing out west, Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton is retiring. Were you surprised about the announcement?
RS: “He announced he was going to retire effective June 30th, 2017. For him to elect to leave earlier is something he chose to do to help the Big Sky to move forward with new leadership sooner rather than later, and I think you have to give him credit for recognizing that.”
PH: What does a change with the conference commissioner mean for the Big Sky in the current environment and moving forward?
RS: “Looking from the University of Idaho’s perspective, I would like the new leader to have great vision, to propel the conference forward and to help the conference to develop an identity. To do that I think you need to have someone who is very proactive, connected and savvy. From our perspective that is what we would like to see. I think it would be a mistake to continue to operate the league in a status quo environment. There is still so much change going on and the Big Sky has a real opportunity to position itself extremely well in this whole intercollegiate athletics world.”
PH: Can you explain the May 4 deadline that the Big Sky is imposing on Idaho to make a decision about Big Sky football affiliation?
RS: “That was a conversation that President Staben had with the other presidents of the Big Sky. The president mentioned during the press conference that he felt there was some flexibility. Commissioner Fullerton also said it was not a firm date. So because of that comment I believe it is a soft deadline, and could be moved.”
PH: Is it an all-or-none-date, meaning they are threatening to pull it forever if Idaho declines?
RS: “No, no, I don’t suspect that is the case with the Big Sky. Again, I wasn’t part of those conversations, but based on what the president said during the press conference it’s more of a soft deadline than a hard deadline.”
PH: How did they come up with the May 4th date?
RS: “I think it’s when they were having discussions back in November. They talked about a 6-month window to evaluate, and that’s how they came up with a May 4th date.”
PH: Is NMSU included in this invite?
RS: “I can’t speak for New Mexico State.”
PH: We’ve had the opportunity to cover the Idaho program closely the last 16 years, and the Vandal football team coming back next fall has the hallmarks of what could be a pretty good squad. They are well-rounded, and Coach Petrino and his staff (and the players) have done a remarkable job. The 2009 team was exciting to watch with some outstanding players, but kind of came out of nowhere. This year’s Idaho squad has some momentum heading into this fall. What would a bowl team mean for this program this year?
RS: “This program is built on a much better foundation than in 2009. It would be huge for our program. We have two more years left to compete in this league, and to be able to go to a bowl game and win a bowl game would be an absolute shot in the arm for our program and this University. And I also think it would position us well for the future.”
PH: In many of our interviews with you over the years, you’ve talked about how the P5 conferences were going to break away, and that is happening now. You’ve also said for years that you want to position Idaho to be in that second tier with the rest of the G5 programs. Do you still feel that is Idaho’s best position to be in moving forward?
RS: “I do. I think it’s in that second tier with schools that have like academic missions and research missions similar to our University. That is Idaho’s best fit. I think that’s where we belong, to surround ourselves with like schools with a like academic mission and great research programs. In some cases they are the land-grant institution and the flagship institution of their state. That’s our long-term vision, to align ourselves that way, in the second tier [the Group of Five level].”
PH: With what appears to be a good Idaho team coming back this fall – a bowl contender – and with conference shuffling on the horizon, is 2 months really enough time to make a decision about 2018 and beyond?
RS: “Well, a lot of that depends on what kind of an independent schedule I can come up with in the next couple of months. We’ll take a really hard look at that to see if we can develop a competitive schedule. But we are not going to put together a schedule that’s going to be very difficult to compete in, because that is unfair to your coaches and it doesn’t do your student athletes any favors. I will work closely with Paul as the development takes place.”
We know FBS Indy is a challenging proposition, particularly from a scheduling standpoint. But is there a 2-3 year window where the conference landscape changes and Idaho finds itself with an opportunity to join a western FBS conference?
RS: “I think there are a couple ways that you approach that. I think there is an opportunity with some schools out west. If you can align yourself with them in the right way, it may be possible to create an FBS conference. Now, that is going to be challenging and will not be accomplished immediately. In this environment anything can happen in two years or four years.
"To think that we would be looking at our conference affiliation again after two years in the Sun Belt was a risk that we took. It is unfortunate that it has come to this, but they made a decision and we’re not going to complain about it. We’re going to move forward. We’re going to do what’s in the best interest of the University of Idaho. And in the future, we’re going to put ourselves in a position to control our own destiny. We’re not going to place that in the hands of somebody else.
“Now, how do you best do that? Is it affiliating with some of those Big Sky schools? Is it going independent for a while? Is it looking at what could happen with some other leagues? That is what we are going to evaluate, but those are all things that could happen in the next few years.”
PH: Does putting together an Independent schedule now buy time for Idaho so those other realignment options have an opportunity to play out?
RS: “I think it does allow you to buy some time as an already established FBS institution. Now, does that put you in the best position to control your own destiny? I’m not sure right now. We’re going to look at it, and look at it closely. I’m not sure that recruiting as an independent school is great, so it affects your program that way. You don’t have any direct bowl affiliation. There are a lot of challenges being an FBS Independent. But if that’s the way that we can best control our future, then we need to consider it.
“But it’s all dependent on putting together a competitive schedule. Can we put together an independent schedule? Yes. But who are the schools that we’re going to have to play? I don’t want to have to go play four Power Five schools, or really even three Power Five schools, because that doesn’t put your student athletes and coaches in a position where they can be successful.”
PH: I know that there has been some talk about the UMass schedule. It is a challenging schedule to say the least. But at the same time they will play seven G5 programs, one FCS program, and four Power Five programs. The four P5 games are brutal. But two of those P5 games are home games (Boston College and Mississippi State) in home-and-home series. Are P5 home games being considered as part of the Independent schedule?
RS: “I don’t like playing Power Fives at home because you never get any money for those games. It would be one thing if we had a 50,000 seat stadium and we sold it out, but we don’t. When you play home-and-home you basically just trade game guarantees, it’s a small amount to just cover travel. It can range $175,000 - $200,000. In our case, I never felt it made a lot of financial sense to schedule home-and-homes with Power Fives.
“When you get into an independent schedule you better be very careful about scheduling home-and-homes. It’s very challenging to do independence for one year, and we ended up getting pretty lucky. I strategically kicked a couple of those return games down the road, like Temple and Old Dominion. Those ended up getting kicked way down the road [in future schedules] as returns. The problem is you could end up with too many games, and then when a conference opportunity comes along you end up having to buy your way out of them. Buyouts range from $500,000 to $1 million.
“So you have to be really careful about what you’re doing schedule-wise and not lock yourself in. Just think about the consequences if you locked yourself into an Indy schedule for two years, then after the first year you get some kind of conference invitation that you have to take and now you’re going to have to play an 8-game conference schedule. That means you have to dump eight games that you had already scheduled, and if you had buyouts of a half million dollars for each one now all of a sudden you’ve got a $4 MILLION issue on your hands. That’s pretty scary. Now hopefully you can build some protection into the game contract, but then that becomes a challenge when negotiating those games.”
PH: Are there programs that are understanding of a situation like ours, and would be flexible in how those contracts are written up?
RS: “No. Football scheduling is hard enough. It’s hard enough scheduling four non-conference games a year, and locking people in and making sure you’ve got a schedule that is solidified. There is nothing worse than when you have a schedule solidified and you have a team back out. That happened to us a few years ago when Eastern Michigan backed out of a return home game. It just throws the whole scheduling into flux, and forces you to find games that might not be in the best interest of your program. The opponent might be someone that you don’t want to play.
“I think other programs understand our situation and would be willing to work with us from a scheduling standpoint. But to give us flexibility to move those games when we want, probably no because the thing you want to do is lock in games and get your guarantees set, and you want to do that sooner rather than later.”
PH: Washington State AD Bill Moos said recently that if UI goes to the Big Sky as an FCS program (with fewer scholarship players) that he would consider reviving the rivalry on an annual basis. What do you think about this? Is he as receptive to this rivalry while Idaho has a full scholarship allotment as an FBS program?
RS: “I have not heard this.”
PH: There has been so much talk of an FBS Big Sky Conference since the first time you broached the subject a few years ago. Is this still a possibility, particularly with Fullerton stepping down? Can you walk us through that process?
RS: “Doug Fullerton came out 10 or 12 months ago saying it was a distinct possibility. The conversation has centered around how the conference has naturally aligned into research schools and comprehensive schools.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you just form a new league?’ It’s really difficult to form a new league because the NCAA has a rule – even though it’s a basketball rule, it certainly impacts your ability to form a league. Could you form a league? Sure. But the NCAA rule says in order to be eligible for the NCAA basketball tournament you have to have seven schools that have been together for eight years. So, you could form a new league, but who would be interested in that league if you didn’t have an automatic bid into the NCAA basketball tournament?
“But what’s really interesting is you can form an FBS football league under an umbrella of an existing conference with just six schools. That’s an existing rule.”
PH: Is there an NCAA governing body that would have to approve or vote on that league?
RS: “Yes. And I am sure from a financial standpoint the College Football Playoff would have some say.”
PH: Would this form under the existing Big Sky Conference?
RS: “It may be a possibility in the future, several years down the road.”
PH: Are there other options? Could this happen under the WAC umbrella?
RS: “I know there was talk when we were leaving the WAC that there was a 2-year window for them to do it, but that is something that I want to follow-up with Jeff Hurd about, the Commissioner of the WAC, and just get his take on what could happen there for my own information.”
PH: The most likely scenario, with the fewest moving parts and obstacles, seems to be the Big Sky splitting into two groups where some compete at the FBS level and some compete at the FCS level. Is that accurate? Is this at all possible between now and 2020? If so, when would that process have to start?
RS: “Again, nothing is off the table. However, I would never try and put a timeline to that type of discussion and any outcome from those discussions.”
PH: So how receptive is the Big Sky to this? Are there some schools that are very interested in this, or is everyone being tepid?
RS: “There are some schools that have an interest, and some schools that have no interest. When you don’t have a league that feels together [the Big Sky has 13 football members currently], there could be some kind of movement in the future. I’m not advocating that, and I’m not suggesting that, I’m just saying one of the challenges the Big Sky has is the size of their league.”