Conference expansion has forever altered and scarred the landscape of college football. The first conference to be killed off in the BCS era was the once respectable Western Athletic Conference. Being picked apart and destroyed with the veracity worthy of Attila the Hun by such leagues as the Mountain West, Conference-USA, and Sun Belt, the WAC will no longer sponsor football starting in 2013. The most troubling aspect of this whole undertaking was the fact that two schools were left behind and forced to cobble together schedules– as independents. Those two schools are New Mexico State and Idaho. Idaho is in the most dire straits because of a few factors, namely location, market, and finances . Idaho was allowed this year to stay at the FBS level as an independent, but how long will that last?
First off here are some basic facts about the University of Idaho: It is located in Moscow, Idaho, a town of about 24,000 people. The University of Idaho was established as a land-grant institution in 1889 and opened up for classes in 1892. Supposedly, the governor of Idaho chose the location of the University of Idaho to be on the panhandle so it would not break off and become part of the state of Washington. The nickname of the University of Idaho are the Vandals. Just to brush you up on history, the Vandals were a Germanic tribe during the fall of the Roman Empire and would end sacking Rome itself in 455 AD, thus coining the term “vandalize,” due to the appalling amount of carnage left in their wake. Idaho’s stadium, the Kibbie Dome, seats just 16,000 fans, the smallest of any stadium capacity and just barely above the required attendance needed to have a football program at the FBS level. Their most notable rival, Washington State, which is only eight miles away located in Pullman, WA, play each other annually. As a matter of fact, it is said that the losing teams fan base, if they are the visitor, has to make the eight mile track back to their campus on foot.
Primarily, the University of Idaho is in the middle of nowhere in an isolated city. When Boise was in the WAC, even being in the same state, it still quite a drive, 350 miles away. In 2011, when Boise State and San Diego State had accepted invitations to the Big East, Idaho tried to jump ship, but was rebuffed. Why? Because Craig Thompson, commissioner of the MWC, was staying at ten and seeing if BSU and SDSU were going to come back after the lions of college football pick apart the carcass of the Big East. Idaho cannot deliver the largest city in Idaho, Boise, like BSU you can. If they were to receive an invitation to the Mountain West, and that’s if the PAC-12 or Big 12 felt the need to expand to keep up with the Jones’, that would be the only way they would get into the MWC. If Boise State were to leave for the Big 12, Idaho might be asked to join but here’s the problem. No school would like to take a flight to Boise and then have to take a commuter plane to Moscow. Its nearest opponent would be Utah State, which is 620 miles away! For all the trouble it would be worth, they might as well be located in Moscow, Russia.
The most glaring problem would be finances. UI is a land-grant institution, and because of the economic recession that still prevails, less and less funding will be available. The operating costs of travel alone would sap the resources of the school. As an FBS independent, they do not have a realistic shot in getting any bowl partnership and UI is not BYU or Notre Dame. BYU and Notre Dame are exceptions to the rule because of the fact that both schools have large nationwide fan bases. Idaho is a small state school that does not even carry the state of Idaho anymore. The money that they possess has been used to renovate the Kibbie Dome, which will have a capacity of 27-30,000 people. One way they could correct this for example, this year alone, teams like Florida State are paying Idaho $950,000 to travel to their stadium to take a beating. The only problem with that is scheduling heavy-hitters on the road often will not only chalk up games the loss column, but why would fans want to watch a losing team or recruits play for one? Not being in a conference does put them at a disadvantage when scheduling game late in the season due to the fact that the majority of teams will be playing their conference games. Unless it is for a Mickey Mouse team, not too many schools are jumping through rings of fire to play against Idaho.
For Idaho, the Big Sky is the limit. Idaho would be nearer to teams like Eastern Washington, Montana, and Idaho State, which would slash travel expenses by a great deal. For Idaho, it would be humiliating because they would drop back down to FCS. Honestly, I think this is their only option. This means though reducing scholarships and funding for its football team. Idaho is already going to put its other sports in the BSC; it would behoove them to at least consider this. They may be able to use this as a stepping stone to get back to FBS level again. The Sun Belt Conference is rumored to be in talks with schools like Idaho, but if push comes to shove, I think Idaho will be given the cold shoulder again because of the fact that it would be such a geographic outlier in the SBC, it would not be worth their while. NMSU is more likely to be accepted because the state of New Mexico borders Texas, where SBC members Texas State and UT-Arlington are located. The irony of that is the current commissioner, Karl Benson, was the former commissioner of the WAC.
As mentioned in previous articles, expansion is very fluid and rapidly changing as we speak. Should Idaho tough it out as an independent? That is for the president and alumni to decide, not me. For Idaho’s sake, I hope they still have a football team in the future. Is the state of Idaho big enough to have two FBS teams?