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When it comes to the Idaho Vandals' Sun Belt Conference membership, ideas are (Big) Sky High

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There's not a lot to go on that suggests that the Sun Belt is somewhere the Vandals belong in the long run.

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

If you've paid any attention to the Sun Belt goings on lately, or follow our site, you're aware of the fact that there is an important vote on the horizon. On March 10th, the Sun Belt Conference will decide the fates of the Idaho Vandals and the New Mexico State Aggies with regards to their current status as football-only members of the conference.

Specifically, they will decide whether 2017 will be the last season of Sun Belt Conference football for these two squads, or if they would like that relationship to extend more than two seasons into the future.

I was initially going to write one article juxtaposing the two teams, but the more I have found out about the back-story of the University of Idaho, their athletic director Rob Spear, and the football team itself, the more I felt the need to delve into each team on its own, much the way each team will be voted on separately when March 10th rolls around.

So with that in mind, let's look at Idaho.

History

The University of Idaho has an athletics history that is not without its successes. Unfortunately, very little of it is recent, and even less of it has to do with football. Here are the number of conference titles the Vandals have won, across all sports, and within certain time frames:

  • In the 120 year history of the program, 80 titles across 18 sports
  • In the last 50 years, 54 titles across 14 sports
  • In the last 30 years, 30 titles in 10 sports
  • In the last 15 years, 14 titles across 6 sports

Out of those last 15 years, 11 of those 14 titles came in either cross country or track and field. The other three were women's golf and women's soccer (just last year). So the Vandals, on the whole, have minimal very recent history of success, nor do they have much of it outside of the Big Sky Conference (42 of 80 titles) or the long-since defunct Pacific Coast Conference (17 titles).

As it pertains to football, let's talk about the Pacific Coast Conference. It was founded in 1915, and at its peak, it was essentially the founding members of the Pac-12 plus Idaho and Montana. Over the course of the 1950's, it was eventually disbanded amid revelations that at least half the teams in the conference were paying their players. Idaho was not one of those teams.

The conference shut down in 1959 but essentially reformed as the Athletic Associate of Western Universities, the AAWU. Over the next four years, the all the former PCC schools re-joined, except Montana (who left right before the scandal started happening) and Idaho.

Given the trajectory of the Pac-12 since then, Idaho's choice to not join (or missed opportunity to be invited,  depending on which historian you believe) and instead remain a football independent would seem lamentable.

However, their choice to join the Big Sky Conference as a founding member in 1963, along with much more regional opponents in Idaho State, Montana, Montana State, Weber State and Gonzaga made a whole lot of sense for numerous reasons. The competition and geography were more appropriate and it was a great fit.

Here's good evidence towards that end:

  • 1963-1973: 21 conference titles across five sports, three titles in the football
  • 1974-1996: 20 conference titles across seven sports, five titles in football

The jump to the Big West in 1996 was also a jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision, and Idaho peaked shortly after with a 16-7 record in 1998-99. That capped an era from 1982 to 1999 where Vandal football won 70% of their games with only one losing season. At their peak, the Vandals went 73-26 from 1987 to 1994 with one season of fewer than nine wins.

Since 1999, the Vandals have gone 46-144 and won two games or fewer in 9 of 16 seasons. The Vandals have bounced around from the Big West to the Sun Belt, to the WAC, to independence, and back to the Sun Belt in 2014. At one point in 2002, a year after they had joined the Sun Belt as a football-only member, the Vandals were invited to join as a full member, but decided to stay in the the Big West.

Future

O.K., so the Vandals have a history that would suggest that membership in the Big Sky Conference is perhaps more valuable to them than membership in the Sun Belt Conference. But that history is only as valuable as how Idaho's athletic administration sees it fitting into their vision for the future, and this is where Spear comes in.

I was willing to show some leniency with a program seemingly struggling to find its identity until I began to stumble across some interviews that Spear has given in the past.

The University of Idaho is working on plans to expand the Kibbie Dome and build an events center, athletic director Rob Spear said.

Preliminary plans call for the west-end wall of the Kibbie Dome to be knocked out to make room for 6,000-7,000 new end zone seats. Adjacent to those new seats would be a 5,000-6,000-seat events center, which would house men’s and women’s basketball as well as campus events[...]

This was from an article in 2006, Spear's third as AD. Since that article, the football seating capacity was raised to 18,000 and then dropped back down to 16,000 in order to accommodate a new press box and luxury suites. This comment would seem fairly innocuous if I weren't to then show you the next statement.

"We have ambitious plans," Spear says. "We need to get basketball out of the dome. We need to get it its own events center, and we have a plan for that. We have a plan to expand capacity in the Kibbie Dome. There’s this perception that you can’t increase capacity of the dome. That’s not true. We can get capacity up by lowering the field and going out into both end zones. We can probably get that to seat 26 to 27,000."

That is ostensibly the same statement, made six years later in 2012. It probably didn't help matters that eight months prior, the University of Idaho announced it's biggest capital campaign in school history, but the list of "to do" items with that funding did not include Spears' facilities plan.

I'm also skeptical of his plan to add that much seating to a place like the Kibbie Dome since I'm not sure a) they know how much it would cost or b) it's actually physically feasible, and c) they had to fight just to get the Idaho Board of Education to approve the safety upgrades they completed in 2011.

Which leads me to the reason I felt the need to excoriate Spears and his vision to begin with. I stumbled across an interview he did Spokesman-Review writer (and one-time Underdog Dynasty contributor) Sean Kramer last month, and the remainder transcript at the end of the article provides some worrying statements.

Spear showed me a map of all the FBS programs in the country, and pointed to the wide open space in the Montana, Dakota region: "Long term, this map I think this is very revealing. Look at this void right now. Montana, the Dakotas, eventually I think you will see something here and that’s where Idaho strives to be at some points of time, with schools in this region."

I'm pretty sure the only thing this statement could mean is that he believes that some portion of the Big Sky teams could move to FBS in the reasonably near future. The unlikeliness of this is it's own article.

He delved on the subject some more: "Money is going to drive all decisions, I’ll point to another factor. Conference USA, their television contract is going to be reduced and it’s going to impact every school to the tune of a half-million dollars, potentially. You’re going to see television contracts not be as lucrative as they once were in the G5 conference, in my opinion. The Power Five that money will stay, in the Group of Five that money will be impacted. That’s another potential driving force for conference re-alignment."

I couldn't disagree more. CUSA saw a massive cratering in the value of their TV rights deal largely due to a shift in the composition of their membership and the media markets they represent. That's what happens when you replace ECU, Houston, Memphis and UCF with Old Dominion, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State and North Texas. We can't say for certain that this is part of some larger devaluing of G5 television contracts until others renegotiate, but I'm liking my explanation better.

Now let's hit the meat and potatoes.

On the Big Sky Conference as it stands now, and the potential of the Big Sky to become an FBS football league: "(Doug Fullerton) understands that Idaho feels the Big Sky needs to look different in the future. The status quo as it stands is not an option, especially when you have 13 football schools in that league[...]

That (going FBS) is one thing the Big Sky should look at, and Doug Fullerton has talked about that possibility … I think they could … What’s interesting is current NCAA rules say you can form an FBS football league with six members. It doesn’t allow you to form a brand new league, but the possibility exists to form an FBS league under the umbrella of the Big Sky … There is an opportunity awaiting the Big Sky to do something different that I think sustains the future of that league and we’re happy to be a part of that conversation."

So there he just flat-out said it. He thinks that the Big Sky taking some portion of its current membership (likely Idaho State, Montana, Montana State, Eastern Washington and someone else) and forming an FBS football conference is a logical next step.

This ignores the fact that the Big Sky football programs that have the necessary infrastructure to make the jump could have done so for some time now and haven't. Two (Montana and Montana State) have even explicitly turned down invitations to join FBS conferences in the past. Not only that, this FBS vision might die entirely considering Fullerton's pending retirement.

After reading all of this, I feel like I am looking at an athletic director who can best be described in the following way. He has a general vision for how Idaho athletics could be better, but he doesn't really have a strong understanding of how to execute that vision.

This is evidenced by his placing blame for that stalled-out facilities plan on both poor student attendance at athletic events and "constant turnover" at the university president level (three different full-time presidents at UI in his 12-year tenure).

That said, even with a stronger athletics director, what is Idaho's end-game to be achieved via extending their status as a football-only member of the Sun Belt? There's no way it's full-fledged conference membership, and if that isn't it, then what is?

Perhaps it's to tread water in hopes of an eventual landing spot in the Mountain West conference. Of course, the full version of that statement is "an eventual (new round of realignment where the Big 12 raids the AAC, the AAC, in turn, raids the MWC, and the MWC needs/wants Idaho badly enough to ignore the fact that they explicitly told the Vandals they didn't want them less than four years ago, and gives them a new) landing spot."

I can appreciate that the Vandals are in a tough spot; the only obvious options are continuing as a Sun Belt member, being an FBS independent, dropping to FCS, or dropping football entirely. The only positive option there is just a continuation, not an improvement.

But the fact that previous administration may have made a mistake in pursuing FBS status - regardless of the events since then that have prolonged this error - should not change whether continuing the mistake is an unwise move.

Then again maybe nobody knows what to do, not even the university. Their state board of education just voted unanimously to extend Spears' contract another three years through the end of the 2018-19 academic year. At that point, he'll have been on the job for 15 years and at the rate he's going, he won't have a thing to show for it save a whole bunch of blueprints collecting dust.