The toughest, gutsiest call made by Idaho football in recent memory came when head coach Robb Akey decided to go for two points with four seconds left against Bowling Green in the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl.
Compared with the decisions the Vandal athletic department could be forced to make in the coming weeks, Akey’s decision — which, in case you’ve forgotten, worked and left the Vandals with a 43-42 victory — seems as routine as the game’s opening kickoff.
The decision this corner is calling for the University of Idaho to make?
Go back to the Big Sky Conference.
In all sports.
Say goodbye once and for all the idea that Idaho football can ever be anything more than a bit player in major collegiate football. And by major I’m talking about the Football Bowl Subdivision, or Division 1-A as it was known as when the Vandals left the Big Sky for the Big Time in 1996.
Boise State has long established itself as the major player in the Gem State. But the decision being called for here is not based on Idaho’s lack of success on the football field.
Besides, anyone who has followed the conference realignment over the past three years knows that on-field success is just a tiny piece of the puzzle employed by conferences to determine what institutions make a good fit.
This is about going where Idaho is wanted and valued.
The Western Athletic Conference — Idaho’s current home — recently saw commissioner Karl Benson leave for the same position with the Sun Belt Conference. The idea of the Sun Belt being in the same galaxy as the WAC just five years ago would’ve gotten you laughed out of the room.
Like Benson, Idaho has to see there is no future in the WAC. And anyone associated with the athletic department, starting with president Duane Nellis and athletic director Rob Spear knows this, otherwise it wouldn’t have been reported by several independent sources that Idaho has expressed interest in leaving the WAC for the Mountain West, or whatever the partnership is called that the MW is forming with Conference USA.
“Expressed interested” is the sporting media’s way of nicely saying, “Get us off this sinking ship!”
The problem as it pertains to Idaho is no one is willing to throw the Vandals a lifeline.
MW commissioner Craig Thompson toured the San Jose State campus last week. That Thompson has not publicly made a visit to Moscow, should count for something.
It’s difficult to imagine the WAC, which is already down to seven football schools, surviving with one more defection. Consensus is it will close up shop if it suffers two defections.
And if that happens, Idaho has two options: Go independent or drop down a division in football and rejoin the Big Sky Conference.
No space needs to be given to explain why the former is not an option for success at any duration.
One more thing to consider: The Big Sky is currently at 11 members for all sports and 13 for football.
For scheduling purposes, there is room for one more member. But there isn’t room for two unless you plan on adding three.
Idaho should not risk planning on the Big Sky being so ambitious in the future. It also needs to get at the front of the line in the event that San Jose State should pursue dropping down as well. It certainly beats dropping football altogether, something several California schools have done over the past two decades or so. And if South Dakota would’ve taken the Big Sky’s offer of membership, it would be a closed door.
Time, as they say, is of the essence with the Big Sky. It will go to 14 football schools the day the WAC dissolves.
Staying at the FBS level merely to save face is a horrible idea, and for the sake of Vandals fans and alumni, their leadership is doing them a huge disservice if that is the prevailing mindset. Idaho football is a money loser, as evidenced by the three body-bag games it scheduled last year at Virginia, Texas A&M and BYU. It couldn’t even get a return date for BYU and will travel to Provo in back-to-back years, and will also play this year at LSU and North Carolina.
That is not a building block to success. It’s a ploy to keep the books balanced. In the 2009-10 school year, 51 percent of the revenue “generated” by the athletic department came from student fees, state coffers and the U of I itself.
Ticket sales, body-bag game guarantees, television money and conference revenue sharing from bowl games and NCAA tournament appearances? Just 21 percent.
An in-depth look at how much money U of I would save by dropping down from FBS to the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS, is another topic for another time. Even Vandal brass knows it’s the fiscally responsible move. Claiming otherwise is borderline indefensible.
But going back to the Big Sky puts Idaho with its proper company — Idaho State, Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington for starters. Playing regional schools will build interest in your program — not games against lower-tier Texas schools or body-bag games thousands of miles away. With Boise State off the schedule for the foreseeable future, this becomes even more important.
Make the move Idaho. As Paul McCartney once sang, “Get back to where you once belonged.”
You still belong there. The Big Sky will see to it.
Patrick Sheltra is the sports editor of the Times-News and looks forward to the day when Idaho and Idaho State meet again on the gridiron. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @TimesNewsSE or on Facebook at Times-News Patrick Sheltra.