MOSCOW — In the buildup to Idaho’s highest-profile nonconference game in several years, Robb Akey was asked if the Vandals had senior quarterback Nate Enderle — a lifelong Nebraskan — in mind when they signed on to play tradition-rich Nebraska in Lincoln.
The Cornhuskers and Vandals, after all, struck an agreement in 2007, Enderle’s first year as Idaho’s starter, and decided back then to meet in the QB’s senior season.
But it turns out those were simple scheduling quirks. Nothing more.
“I think this game was scheduled with a whole lot of dollars in mind, more so than Nate,” said Akey, Idaho’s fourth-year coach said.
The Vandals, in fact, have never received a more lucrative payout than what they will reap for facing the sixth-ranked Cornhuskers on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. MST. Nebraska is dishing out $800,000 to Idaho, a whopping sum for an athletic department with a budget of about $15 million.
And the payoff for matchups with major-conference programs will only get bigger in the next few years.
Texas A&M is slated to pay $850,000 to Idaho for a game next season in College Station and Louisiana State will write a check for $950,000 to the Vandals for a guaranteed game in 2012 in Baton Rouge.
“They’re extremely important and are one of our main revenue sources,” Idaho athletic director Rob Spear said of the big-money contests. “And football, because of their ability to generate guaranteed revenue, they are the only program that generates profit at the end of the year. They help subsidize the rest of our programs and our athletic department.”
As recently as 2007, the Vandals have played multiple opponents in a single year from conferences such as the Pac-10 and Big 12. But this is the third consecutive season that Idaho will take on only one team from a Bowl Championship Series league.
The shift in scheduling has been deliberate.
“A lot of people think we should have home-and-homes with bigger schools,” Spear said. “That opportunity is still out there because we can schedule home-and-homes with BCS schools. However, with our scheduling philosophy, we want to play one of those and it makes sense for us to do that on the road and fill our home games with other like conferences.”
Last year the football program brought in just more than $1.3 million in revenue during an 8-5 season capped by a thrilling Humanitarian Bowl win. Yet the previous year, the program actually generated slightly more revenue — despite a two-win season — because of a higher payout from the University of Arizona.
The Wildcats, before they bludgeoned Idaho 70-0 in 2008, agreed to give the Vandals $600,000 in a guaranteed payout. (Last year, the University of Washington gave the Vandals $575,000).
Akey is content to travel to bigger schools, just as long as it’s only once per season. Going to UW or Nebraska, he said, is a good experience because it prepares the club for a potential bowl opponent.
“And obviously, for the university and the program, it’s a financial necessity,” Akey said. “I completely understand that. I’m a pretty good team guy.”
Yet depending on how the Western Athletic Conference’s realignment shakes out, the Vandals may have to bulk up their nonconference schedule or possibly add more BCS opponents.
One option is reigniting a series with Washington State. Spear said he’s spoken with a WSU athletic director Bill Moos about playing the Cougars as early as 2013, and at one point he thought they had an agreement.
“But that has not come to fruition,” Spear said. “There is interest on our part in doing that in the future. It makes sense, I think, for both schools because of the location. I’m not really in favor of doing it every year. But I do think doing it every few years would be the right thing to do for both schools.”
Idaho’s last win against a BCS-conference team came in 2000 against WSU. Since then, it has lost 20 straight to big-conference schools by an average of 29.6 points per game.