The 2017 football season will be the last for Idaho and New Mexico State as associate members of the Sun Belt Conference.
What's next is still unclear.
The Sun Belt announced Tuesday during a teleconference with league commissioner Karl Benson that both schools – football-only members of the Sun Belt since 2013 – will not have their four-year conference affiliation contracts renewed for 2018. The Sun Belt, which competes at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, is primarily southeastern-based with the exception of the two westerly programs.
The Big Sky Conference has coveted a reunion with Idaho for years, the Vandals having left the Football Championship Subdivision for a shot at the FBS in 1996. Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton confirmed last July that Idaho, which returned to the Big Sky for all other sports in 2014, had an invitation to bring its football program back as well.
That offer still stands, Big Sky communications director Jon Oglesby said Tuesday.
"As has been publicly stated on many occasions by commissioner Fullerton, Idaho has a standing invitation to join the Big Sky Conference in football, and the invitation will continue," Oglesby wrote to the Missoulian via email. "The decision of conference affiliation for Idaho football remains with the University of Idaho's administration."
Oglesby would not comment on New Mexico's status, though Fullerton said at last summer's Big Sky Kickoff media gathering that NMSU was also on the conference's wish list. The Big Sky was not pursuing the Aggies quite as strongly, though, rather wanting to "let them know we are here" as an option for the future.
Idaho released its own statement Tuesday afternoon saying the school was disappointing by the Sun Belt's decision, but the Vandals were "optimistic about the options before us."
"We are continuing to diligently consider our future affiliation as an opportunity to find the stability and full participation we have not experience in the Sun Belt," UI president Chuck Staben wrote.
The release went on to say that Idaho will choose between accepting the Big Sky's invitation for 2018, completing its full participation with the league, or attempting to play as an FBS independent – as it did in 2013 after its former home, the Western Athletic Conference, stopped supporting football – with no conference affiliation.
The Sun Belt voted last fall to add FCS power Coastal Carolina to its football ranks for the 2017 season, reaching the 12-team membership requirement to hold a conference championship game, which would benefit the placement of the league's winner in the postseason bowl pecking order.
But this January the NCAA struck down the 12-team rule, legislation pushed forward by the 10-team Big 12 Conference. With Coastal's impending addition, the Sun Belt no longer needed to hang onto UI and NMSU, two far-flung programs with little history of FBS success.
"This is a Sun Belt decision that's in the Sun Belt's best interest and the belief that at this time a 10-team league allows the Sun Belt ... to maximize our future performance," commissioner Benson said during the teleconference.
Both schools made pitches to the Sun Belt last month in support of their continued affiliation. Conference presidents and chancellors were expected to vote on the matter March 10 during the Sun Belt's conference basketball tournament in New Orleans. Idaho and New Mexico State needed nine of 12 votes – from the 11 current members as well as Coastal Carolina's representative – to remain in the league beyond 2017.
The announcement was bumped up a week because the Sun Belt was unified in moving forward as a 10-team league, Sun Belt and Texas State president Dr. Denise Trauth said during Tuesday's conference call.
"The sentiment had been evident for some time," she said. "As we came into the new year, our leadership felt we had amply evaluated this membership structure. It was only fair to make this announcement sooner rather than later."
No official vote was taken.
The decision had as much to do with past performance as it did with finances, Benson said. Football revenue from TV contracts and bowl games is shared among the schools; a 10-team setup is favorable to a 12.
"Consolidating to get to a structure that, again, minimizes the overall (travel) footprint and maximizes the performance (for the league)," Benson said.
The Vandals were 4-8 last season, but won just five games combined the previous four years. Their last winning season was in 2009, an 8-4 campaign that culminated in a victory in Boise's Humanitarian Bowl.
The Aggies are in the midst of a stretch of 11 straight losing seasons. New Mexico State has not made a bowl appearance since 1960.
Idaho's potential return to the Big Sky, where it was a founding member and won or shared eight conference championships from 1963-1995, is unprecedented. Since college football's Division I fractured into two tiers, many FCS programs have climbed upward – including other former Big Sky powers Boise State and Nevada – but none has dropped down.
The Vandals will make their decision in the coming months, president Staben said Tuesday, and the Big Sky's invitation must be accepted by May 4. The Big Sky will discuss its long-term strategic plan as well next week during the conference presidents' council at the Big Sky basketball tournament in Reno.
While Idaho's options have been whittled to two – FBS independence or Big Sky reunion – New Mexico State may have a wider range to choose from.
President Garrey Carruthers had said that if a Sun Belt vote did not go his institution's way, the Aggies would similarly consider an independent FBS schedule or a move to the FCS. The Big Sky would be a geographical fit, as would the Southland Conference that covers nearby Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana.
NMSU's move could be for football only or as a package deal with its other athletic programs. The Aggies compete in the WAC for everything other than football, but campaigned for full inclusion in the Sun Belt last September. The request was denied.
In 2012, the Big Sky expanded from nine teams to 13 by swallowing up every FCS program in the United States' western half, save non-scholarship San Diego. That included football-only members Cal Poly and UC Davis.