“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood." – Daniel Burnham
Idaho president Chuck Staben used the above phrase to start his most recent Friday Letter, and we agree with the power of these words. In that Friday Letter he lays out an ambitious plan to grow Idaho's enrollment and elevate the University's academic stature to become the state's only Carnegie Foundation R1 university (a collection of the top 100 universities in the nation), among other strategic goals for the north Idaho institution.
In that same vein, below are two letters written by the presidents of two Vandal Scholarship Fund (VSF) chapters. Jonathan Parker, a former player and current president of the Ada County Chapter, and Robie Russell, former President of the National VSF and current president of the Puget Sound Chapter, submitted these letters to Dr. Staben in the last two months. Both letters are written in support of Idaho continuing its mission to compete at the FBS level in football - the most visible and highest classification of the sport.
A mission that would appear to be in-line with Idaho's 10-year plan for institutional growth.
Dear President Staben,
I write on behalf of the Ada County Vandal Boosters Board of Directors to convey our collective belief that our football program remain FBS affiliated. We strongly believe this is the right decision for our beloved University and football program, as well as for all of the Vandal athletes we support with our time, treasure, and talents through the Vandal Scholarship Fund.
At the heart of our belief that dropping down to FCS is the wrong answer is a strong conviction that the damage to the University will be severe and widespread. The last ten years have been difficult to weather. We've experienced struggles in attracting students to Moscow, compared with strong growth at nearly all other Idaho colleges and universities, we suffered through a revolving door of presidents who promised vision and results with little to show for it. We've heard and seen little progress from the research labs that at one time garnered national press coverage and grant dollars.
The reputation of the University of Idaho has continually suffered from missteps, fallu res, and lack of investment. And we're tired of it. We want to see the University start to grow again. To invest and take the long view of what's best for students, the alumni, and future Vandals. We can not compete for students - let a lone student athletes - if we continue to treat our athletic programs as an afterthought. University athletics have a rich tradition. Cheering for teams together helps students bridge their cultural gaps, build a strong campus community, and helps them feel connected to the University of Idaho long after they leave Moscow. It's this culture that students are looking for In the university they choose to call home.
But it's not only that; athletics can be the path to college for many students who wouldn't have considered it an option, or couldn't afford to attend and prepare for a successful life. By dropping down to the FCS, we would lose over 20 football scholarships alone. Of equal importance to our board is the potential loss of entire women's sports programs, which we find wholly unacceptable. While we appreciate that you've stated we wouldn't "necessarily" have to get rid of the women's programs, we are skeptical that an FCS funded balance sheet would be adequate to prevent the reductions.
Your strategic plan calls for increasing enrollment by 5,000 students by 2025. We believe excellence on the field demonstrates our commitment to excellence as a university. Many future Vandals will be introduced to Idaho through the athletic arena. If we want them to see us on-par with top public universities in our region in the classroom, we've got to be seen with them on the football field. Moscow's remote location and small-town culture appeal to some, but we must retain our reputation for spirited campus life and sharp focus on student success to grow at the pace of our peer institutions. We're sure another institution comes to mind, where football has changed the perception of the entire college.
Alumni who have showed up through thick and thin, with their pocketbooks and their shoe leather, want our football team to remain FBS. Folks like the members of our board, which is made up of men and women, graduates spanning the last 40 years. They are people from all walks of life who give their time and money to the University they love and the athletes and coaches who keep us believing that victory cannot be withheld from thee. We strongly believe our football coaches and players are with us, and that you may lose them, and us, if you allow our program to fail.
In the strongest terms possible, we encourage you to show faith in Rob Spear, in Coach Petrino, and in our football players; support Idaho going independent and remaining FBS. The time has come to show us your vision and passion for our alma mater. We need to know that it matches our own.
It is time to be brave and bold.
President, Ada County Vandal Scholarship Fund
President Staben --
As president of the Puget Sound VSF, I have been directed to write to you to express the board and membership's position on the future of Vandal athletics, specifically Vandal football. It has been widely stated that if Idaho is expelled from the Sun Belt conference, you and Mike Perry have decided that the Vandals should drop down from FBS to FCS and rejoin the Big Sky Conference. The Puget Sound membership is STRONGLY opposed to such a move for the following reasons:
1. As has been repeatedly stated in a number of university studies over the years, athletics, and particularly football are the "front porch" of any university. And, as I have often stated, newspapers don't have education pages, they have sports pages and whether rightly or wrongly, FCS football is not on them. If the University of Idaho intends to promote itself as the leading institution of higher education in Idaho, it must maintain its status as a Division 1/FBS university. To do otherwise seriously undermines its image both in state and out of state and to a number of constituencies including corporations, donors, alumni, and prospective students. We in Western Washington know better than anyone that local interest here in Idaho athletics would virtually disappear with the move, along with any potential for financial support. Further, it would have the same impact on the Washington public's view of Idaho as a quality institution. Like it or not, athletic status has a strong impact on enrollment and the public's perception of institutional worth.
2. And, whether we like it or not, in Idaho the political wars are fought on the football field. Putting aside the University's mistakes over the years in not more strongly asserting its presence throughout the state and delivering on its promise and mission to be "the" University of Idaho, it is foolhardy to think that it will maintain its position as such if it is seen as putting its tail between its legs and scurrying back down to FCS football. Such a move is EXACTLY what the other institutions in the state want us to do. I am often reminded of a quote from John Corlette who was a writer and columnist for the Idaho Statesman in Boise. He said that, "Idaho has three capitols of which, Boise is the least popular." The other two are obviously Spokane and Salt Lake. If the University of Idaho truly wants to be the University, it must not give in to the comfort of being a little North Idaho college and instead, assert itself as THE University of Idaho.
3. There is a strong correlation between the perceived status of an institution and the willingness of its various constituencies to continue to aid said institution with financial and political support. If the University is perceived to be going backward, contributions will decline and corporations will look to invest elsewhere. Further, as many alumni and VSF supporters have already stated to you, their contributions will decline or cease entirely if the University takes the drastic and unheard of step of going backwards on athletic status. According to many I have spoken with, those who advocate dropping down to the Big Sky level have not necessarily been strong supporters of or donors to the University.
4. The University of Idaho also has a unique situation that no other institution, with the possible exception of New Mexico State, faces. That is Washington State University six miles away. To remain competitive within its own community and region, Idaho cannot afford to drop down. If it does, its fan and support base will move their attention and monies to WSU.
While there are many more examples that can be cited, suffice it to say that in the current state political climate, it would be a HUGE and potentially fatal mistake for the University of Idaho to drop to the FCS level in football.
Robie G. Russell
President, Puget Sound VSF,
Past President National VSF,
Past President Ada County VSF, and
past board member, Latah County VSF