Vandals Head West To Join The WAC

EDITOR'S NOTE: Idaho accepted an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference for all sports last Friday, and staff reporter Larry Johnson participated in the media conference call for the event. Here is his report.

In what may become the most notable milestone in the history of Idaho athletics, the University of Idaho Athletic Department announced that they would accept an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) effective July 1, 2005. "We are privileged to invite the University of Idaho to join in 2005 as a full member in all sports. The vote was enthusiastic and unanimous," stated Karl Benson, WAC Commissioner. "The WAC is very excited about Idaho's membership," he added, "and they bring great enthusiasm. They bring excitement to the WAC. They'll bring great value to the WAC."

During a meeting of all Western Conference member presidents, Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear and UI Interim President Gary Michael made a presentation that Idaho was prepared to cover all aspects of full membership in the WAC. "There is a travel savings of $175,000 per year in joining the conference," said Spear in a teleconference held Friday afternoon. "We analyzed the travel costs for travel to the Sun Belt Schools and the WAC," he added. "There is a savings in travel and it makes sense," continued Spear.

During conference meetings at Half Moon Bay, California, the conference changed their bylaws to adjust the voting members to correspond with the previously planned 2005 membership. After the bylaw change was installed the presidents of the member schools voted (after allowing a ninth school to compete in the conference) to extend an invitation to the University of Idaho. According to commissioner Benson "the benefits and revenues (TV) will be shared immediately" by all member institutions.

Mr. Spear stated that his department ran a marathon to prepare and present the Vandals' benefits during the conference meetings. "I want to thank the people who worked so hard in this issue in the past. Dr. Hoover, Mike Bohn, Tim White, the Idaho Athletic staff, and WAC commissioner Benson, who was first class in this effort, all worked so hard to get to this day," said Spear. Part of that marathon included a fair measure of support and leadership from Wright Waters, Sun Belt Conference Commissioner, who demonstrated a considerable amount of leadership in the past several months of conference re-alignment.

Interim UI President Gary Michael.
"We owe thanks to Commissioner Benson and the SBOE, who gave us this authority in September '03." Michael stated. "There were no conditions", added Michael, who will remain as interim president until August. Michael went on to add, "we need to raise funds and improve facilities, but we are tickled with the current leadership in the athletic department".

Gary Michael substituted for Dr. Timothy White, president designate, who suffered a heart attack 2 weeks ago and is recuperating at this home in Corvallis, Oregon. Gary Michael will remain in the interim president position until August 1, 2004 when Dr. White takes the helm.

Idaho's presentation covered topics and benefits such as the grounded presence of Idaho, the location, the greatness of the school, the living environment, the strength of the non-revenue sports, facilities, travel, and what an Idaho membership brings to the Western Athletic Conference. "We persevered when other people thought we were headed in the wrong direction with our programs. This is just another step in the right direction." Spear stated.

When asked about the momentum of the program, Spear replied, "This strategic move is another positive and a step in the right direction and will contribute to recruiting and excitement". The excitement of the invitation will also begin to re-enforce an old rivalry with Boise State University and restore tradition with Nevada, Utah State, and New Mexico State University. Commissioner Benson contributed, "there are enhanced travel benefits" in Idaho joining the conference. "Idaho brings passion, enthusiasm, and value to the conference and the WAC is excited about this addition", added Benson.

Further momentum appears likely with planned facility improvements and a commitment to produce a long-term master plan for facilities. "I will spend the rest of my life working to improve facilities for the University of Idaho. I helped get the business school done so I guess we can get this done too (athletics facilities)." Michael said.

Idaho mascot Joe Vandal.
Full membership in the Western Athletic Conference will enhance recognition in all sports and improve the opportunity to recruit students from the Pacific Northwest to play against schools in the western US. The move, which is scheduled to begin with the 2005 football season, should improve athletic event attendance. "In the past we averaged 16,500 fans per game against WAC opponents," stated Spear, when asked if attendance was a factor for the presidents' vote.

Such a move immediately brings the perception of a permanent standing in NCAA Division 1A football for the Idaho Vandals. "It (membership) provides us the stability we've been lacking." Spear said. "It's very important to be in one conference. We think we can bring some value to that conference (WAC) and be competitive. We're going to roll up our sleeves and work hard and compete."

Joining a western conference has eluded the Vandals for the past three years. But the Sun Belt Conference provided a good league and solid leadership for all sports except football when the Big West Conference dropped football in 2000. Utah State and New Mexico State departed the Sun Belt Conference earlier this year and the University of Idaho stood as the lone western all-sport team in the Sun Belt, which was expanding to include Troy State (Alabama) and additional schools in Florida. Travel to Louisiana will still occur when the Vandals travel to Louisiana Tech. in Ruston, LA.

Beginning in 2005 the Western Conference will consist of Fresno State, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Utah State, Boise State, New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech and San Jose State. With the departure of Rice, Tulsa, Southern Methodist, and UTEP the conference will, once again, have a western base. The invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference will also bring significant scheduling opportunities to the Idaho Vandals and serve as a springboard for future TV appearances as the Vandals compete against western teams.

"The work is just beginning for us", Michael said. "Our people have wanted this for a long time. Now we have to get the job done. This is an important milestone for us."

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