The University of Idaho made its drop to the Football Championship Subdivision official Thursday morning, confirming the move to the Big Sky Conference for football at a morning press conference in Moscow, Idaho.
Idaho, which played in the Big Sky from 1965-95, will return to the league for the 2018 season. The drop from the Football Bowl Subdivision, where the Vandals most recently played as a member of the Sun Belt Conference, was the only responsible choice, president Chuck Staben said.
Idaho will make an unprecedented move from FBS to FCS after being ousted from the Sun Belt two months ago. League presidents and chancellors of the southeastern-based conference agreed to terminate the membership of both far-flung Idaho and New Mexico State after the 2017 season.
Among Idaho's options was the outstanding invitation from the Big Sky or attempting to remain at FBS as an independent -- as it did in 2013 after the Western Athletic Conference stopped supporting football -- with the goal of latching onto a conference at an unknown future date.
"To become successful enough to affiliate with any FBS conference would entail unjustifiable, unsustainable expenditures," Staben said at the conference, which was also attended by athletic director Rob Spear and head football coach Paul Petrino.
"Competing as an independent with an extremely uncertain conference affiliation would be irresponsible, particularly when we have the alternate of joining one of the most prominent and stable FCS conferences."
The transition is pending the approval from the Idaho State Board of Education, which Staben “fully anticipates” receiving.
Idaho football's shift aligns it with the rest of the school's athletics, which reunited to compete in the Big Sky beginning in 2014. In the Big Sky, which Idaho left for the brighter lights of the FBS 20 years ago, the Vandals can again be competitive, Staben said.
Idaho football won eight conference championships as a member of the Big Sky but rarely found success at Division I’s upper tier, posting a 73-162 record since the move.
"The Big Sky allows us to renew traditional rivalries and offers our athletes the opportunity to excel at the appropriate level of competition, just as they do in our other Big Sky sports programs," Staben said.
The Idaho women’s basketball team won its first Big Sky championship since the realignment last month. By contrast, the Vandals football program was 4-8 last season, but won just five games combined the previous four years. Its last winning season was in 2009, an 8-4 campaign that culminated in a victory in Boise's Humanitarian Bowl.
The prospect of a drop in division has split Idaho’s boosters and alumni, but Staben said he hopes those opposed to the move will see the benefits of a future in the Big Sky.
"I think the thing for all of our alumni and supporters to realize is that passion is very important ... and they can take pride in our football program as we move forward," he said.
The decision is expected to have significant impacts on the future of the Big Sky, which now has 14 football-playing members with the addition. Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton has said in the past that adding a 14th school could key a realignment of the conference, possibly into two divisions.
"We think that, given Idaho’s DNA of excellence, they will make our football programs better, and our football product better," Fullerton said in a release from the Big Sky on Thursday.
Even at 13 schools, which include football-only members Cal Poly and UC Davis, the Big Sky is the largest FCS conference in the country.
Idaho must shed 22 scholarships -- dropping from 85 to 63 -- during the move to the FCS. Should Idaho remain above the limit come 2018, the school would be ineligible for postseason play.
Petrino, Idaho’s fourth-year coach, said the Vandals are committed to reaching eligibility for the FCS playoffs right away.
"That's why it's good to have a two-year plan to get there," said Petrino, a Butte native who played quarterback at Carroll College in the late 1980s. "By having the two years to get there, we will make sure we get there scholarship-wise so the first year we can go into the playoffs and be successful there."
Spear added that Idaho does not foresee a need to cut other athletic programs, either to comply with Title IX regulations or for budgetary concerns. The athletic director also said Idaho's unique circumstances will not bend NCAA transfer rules, with any player leaving the program for an FBS or FCS location still being required to sit out one year.
The Big Sky has also been pursuing New Mexico State as a football member, though the Aggies have not made a decision on their future at this time.
Montana and Idaho enjoyed a fierce rivalry, second only to the Brawl of the Wild with Montana State, during the Vandals' time as conference foes with the Griz. The teams played for the Little Brown Stein, the rivalry trophy that's been housed in Missoula since their last meeting in 2003, a 41-28 victory at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.