A day after the University of Idaho last Thursday announced its landmark decision to abandon its football pursuits at the Football Bowl Subdivision and return home to the Big Sky Conference and Football Championship Subdivision play, UI President Chuck Staben expounded on the move in an essay penned for InsideHigherEd.com.
His comprehensive explanation touched on Idaho's past, present and future under the conspicuous title, "Why We're Leaving the Football Arms Race."
"Why should my university's decision about what conference to play in matter to anybody outside our institution?" Staben posited for the online news source covering education. "Because I think our situation has potential implications for dozens of universities that play big-time college football and says a lot about the state of college athletics."
His message, that revenue-strapped universities are hurting themselves by attempting to keep up with the Power-Five Joneses, has been one whispered in the ear of the Idaho administration for years now, pointedly by Doug Fullerton, the soon-to-be retired Big Sky commissioner.
The return of Idaho as a full-time member of the Big Sky -- the Vandals, who departed for the FBS in 1996, reunited their other athletic programs with the Big Sky in 2014 -- is the latest major leap in Fullerton's ambitious plan for the conference that's 20 years in the making.
The Big Sky has swelled from eight teams the day Fullerton took office in '95 to a prospective 14 by the time Idaho returns in full for the 2018 season. From there, under the leadership of new commissioner Andrea Williams, who will be formally introduced as Fullerton's successor Tuesday, Fullerton hopes to have his vision realized: A mega conference -- or maybe two -- spanning the West as the Big Sky edges toward FBS play.
"Our future is beginning to unfold and we were able to be one of the catalysts," Fullerton said in an interview with the Missoulian late last week. "And I don't think we're done yet."
Conference realignment and the fluid landscape of the NCAA's top tier of college football backed Idaho into a corner, its only feasible path a humbling one to FCS play, but the Vandals are far from the only institution facing such adversity.
And many of them around the country kept a watchful eye on Idaho as it made its decision last week and will continue to exhibit a keen interest in its transition, Fullerton said.
"There's a huge economic bubble in college athletics. Every year costs are going up faster than we can find new money," said Fullerton, whose retirement is effective June 30. "They're trying to play FBS and if you're not in that top five, it's becoming a crisis. One bad decision ... and this bubble could burst."
Let Fullerton explain. For years the FBS has been billed as the highest level of collegiate football, Division I-A, but there's really two sects under that umbrella: The Power Five Conferences -- the name brands like Pac-12, Big 10, Big 12, SEC and ACC -- and everybody else, the Group of Five.
The Power Five has become even more powerful in recent years, playing by its own rules and, at times, making its own as well. It has the notoriety, the TV contracts and the immense revenue. The Group of Five, while still raking in more than your typical FCS conference, is its far junior sibling.
The groups are further separating following last January's NCAA conference restructuring ruling, which allowed the top five conferences to make decisions autonomously, or separately than the rest of the nation.
This, Fullerton said, was awful news for the Group of Five, but a tremendous opportunity for FCS conferences like the Big Sky.
"When we looked out here a couple years ago and saw autonomy coming -- and actually helped create autonomy as I was one of the commissioners who really pushed it -- one of the things we thought we could create is a system where we could get those top five conferences to separate off the top," Fullerton explained. "Then the rest of us, that next group, would get all muddled up and very well may re-form as some level of play that is much more efficient, reasonable, supportable, dependable -- any adjective you want to put on it."
Of course that would require more programs like Idaho, ones willing to admit they more closely mirror the FCS than the Ohio States and Alabamas of the world.
Whether voluntarily or forced, Idaho faced that quandary when its Sun Belt Conference membership was terminated in March. Sure, the Vandals were interested in continuing their FBS stay. But ...
"As president, I asked: At what cost, FBS?" Staben wrote in his editorial. "We must consider the role of athletics in the institution-wide context."
It's the same question facing New Mexico State, another soon-to-be Sun Belt castoff, which the Big Sky has pursued for membership. Right now Eastern Michigan and Massachusetts, a former FCS foe of Montana's, have also seen their respective faculty senates produce reports and resolutions suggesting an end to FBS affiliation because of budgeting concerns.
Plenty of others are not at that financial brink yet, Fullerton said, but may be in the coming years.
"People should be looking at doing what Idaho just did," he said. "Absolutely. We can pack stadiums and make sure the governor is there every week. You can have everything that athletics is supposed to be and do it well at the FCS level."
Any future for the Big Sky as an FBS conference -- or whatever a possible middle tier squeezed between FBS and FCS might be labeled -- is still a long way off. The league certainly couldn't carry all 14 members up, likely splitting into two conferences governed by one body.
That's still in Fullerton's plans, though it will be Williams's decision to execute or not. The Big Sky has not begun any preparations of forming two conferences or even two divisions within a greater conference, though that appears where things are headed. A 14-team league, as the Big Sky will become in 2018, would be a competitive disadvantage on many levels without some sort of fractioning.
"You're getting to a point where there have to be conversations," Montana Athletic Director Kent Haslam said. "You have 14 teams competing for one automatic berth and one conference championship. It's never fun when you have tri-champs or quad-champs with three or four teams (tied) at 7-1."
In the more immediacy, a two-division conference would minimize some expenses with teams cropped regionally, possibly with a Big Sky North and Big Sky South champ, respectively.
But divisions wouldn't solve all of the Big Sky's problems, as Haslam pointed out, because unlike in FBS leagues like the Pac-12 and SEC, the FCS does not allow for conference championship games ahead of its playoffs.
Despite the growing pains, Fullerton believes the lumbering Big Sky is stronger now because of Idaho's inclusion, as well as the four-team expansion the conference saw in 2012. Just as important, he's leaving a league that he feels will be secure in whatever comes next.
"We've been pretty good in the 20 years I've been here at anticipation," the commissioner said. "It's not like we've done this blindly. ... It gives us opportunity for anything you want to do."