Next year, the Vandals are leaving the Sun Belt, and the FBS altogether, as the Sun Belt decided to move on from the Vandals in hopes of creating a more geographical friendly conference. Rather than become a Group of Five Independent like UMass and New Mexico State, Idaho decided to join the Big Sky conference and become an FCS program.
It’s been a strange run for the Vandals in the FBS. Since going FBS (I-A at the time), and joining the Big West conference in 1996, they’ve been to only three bowls, or more accurately, they’ve been to a bowl three times, as it was the same bowl each time (the Humanitarian Bowl, later the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl). These were in 1998, the year they won the Big West, then not again until 2009, with their third not until last year.
Head coach Paul Petrino really seemed to have things turned around in a way not seen since Chris Tormey in the late 1990’s, but this year the Vandals finished 4-8, with no more FBS work to be done.
In 22 seasons, there’s been little indication the Vandals’ athletic department was ever really interested in making this work. Joining the Sun Belt as a football-only member for the 2001 season, their other sports remained in the Big Sky, then briefly joined the WAC, then went back to the Big Sky even though the WAC continues to offer non-football sports. Whether this was a lack of interest by the Sun Belt, or financial limitations of the university is unclear, but financial limitations were a problem for the Vandals from the very beginning. It was a problem they would never solve.
The NCAA mandates that to remain FBS, in addition to the requisite number of scholarships, a football team must average home attendance of 15,000 a year over a two-year period. Where other FCS teams such as Coastal Carolina, Texas State, and even Western Kentucky made immediate plans to expand their stadiums upon moving up, the Kibbie Dome (little more than a covered practice field with bleachers), seated 16,000 when the Vandals moved from the Big Sky, and still seats 16,000 today.
And the Vandals had a great reason for not expanding as they couldn’t fill it. Multiple times during their Sun Belt years, they were granted attendance waivers, which for some reason the NCAA actually granted. In 2016, during their bowling season and best season in years, the Vandals averaged 11,190 fans a game over five home games. During a late season game against South Alabama, the listed attendance was 9,049. The Vandals were 4-1 at home last year.
While Idaho attempted to delay their fate by staying in the Sun Belt despite these attendance numbers, the powers that be decided to move in a different direction, prompting Idaho's drop to FCS play in an effort to save on scholarship and travel cost.
With numbers like that, naturally it’s easy for the university to point fingers at the fans, but it wasn’t the fans’ fault when the school showed so little interest in the product for two decades, changing nothing about the program except the coach and expecting everything to just magically work out.
While the drop to FCS might not seem appealing to fans right now, rekindling their storied rivalries with neighboring institutions could lead to some very exciting football and increased buy-in from fans and the greater Vandals community as opposed to a 2,000 mile trek to play schools on the Atlantic seaboard.
Up to this point, the university couldn’t possibly be coming out ahead financially, and they couldn’t possibly think they were ever serious contenders to join the Mountain West. Switching conferences is a matter of wins on the field, or a desirable media market. The Vandals had neither. While the top of the Sun Belt has continued to improve since those early aughts, the Vandals remained that sad afterthought this entire time, their lone exception coming last year.
Even New Mexico State finally managed some improvement, and will make a run as an FBS independent next year following a bowl season. Someone in the AD’s office at Idaho, however, finally came to their senses. The fans may not like it, but you can’t keep pouring money into a product that doesn’t work. On the upside: Idaho will be rekindling a hundred-year-old rivalry with Idaho State. So there’s that.
The Vandals leave the FBS rankings with a winning record against only six FBS teams, four of them in the Sun Belt. After their loss to NMSU two weeks ago, Idaho still leads that series, 16-8. The Vandals also lead Texas State all-time, 5-4, and ULM, a team that was also a football-only member in the Sun Belt once upon a time, 6-3. Idaho is 2-0 against Georgia State after their victory last weekend.
There are three current Sun Belt teams that the Vandals have never beaten: Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, and Appalachian State. And now it’s likely they never will.
We’ll miss you, Idaho. You had one of the best mascots in college football and certainly a unique venue for college sports. We were rooting for you. But college football is all about money, good strategic decisions, and timing. Unfortunately, these things rarely went in Idaho’s favor.