BOISE, Idaho — Idaho has been cleared to compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision as an independent, joining schools such as Notre Dame, BYU, Army and Navy as schools without a conference.
The Idaho State Board of Education voted 5-1 Friday to let Vandal athletic officials begin the challenge of filling its schedule for the 2013 season and beyond as the school prepares to exit the ailing Western Athletic Conference.
The board’s vote also gives the UI permission to negotiate terms for rejoining the Big Sky Conference for men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, track and other Vandal teams.
“We believe playing as an independent in football is the best solution,” Duane Nellis, UI president, told the board Friday. “It allows us to develop an attractive schedule for fans ... keep our FBS status” and keep the school eligible for the big revenue generated by college football.
Idaho joined the WAC in 2005, but the league has been hit hard by conference realignment and the exodus in the last two years of some of its marquee teams, including Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada.
The conference will play a 2012 season, but for football this year it’s likely the last. Utah State and San Jose State will be joining the Mountain West Conference next year, while Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio are moving to Conference USA. New WAC member Texas State is poised to join the Sun Belt Conference after this season.
The WAC’s woes forced Idaho to consider alternatives, and after the Vandals were rejected earlier this year by The Mountain West Conference, athletic officials, convinced they wanted the team to remain an FBS competitor, made independence the focus.
After the board’s vote, Athletic Director Rob Spear acknowledged the challenge of building a full schedule that will keep the Vandals relevant, fans and alumni happy and bring competitive teams to the Kibbie Dome, the 17,000-seat indoor stadium in Moscow in north-central Idaho.
But Spear also urged fans and players to see independence as a two-year experiment rather than a long-term solution. He said the focus now is to stay independent for 2013 and 2014 and wait for college football’s ever-shifting landscape to create a new opportunity for the Vandals to rejoin a conference.
“We wanted to make sure we stayed at the FBS table, because in two years we think there is going to be additional change,” Spear told reporters at a press conference after the board’s vote. “I think it’s important for us, because of the 16 years we’ve invested in FBS football ... to stay this course.”
NCAA football rules require Idaho to schedule at least five home games per season, of which four must be with FBS schools. The Vandals also have to play at least nine games each season, with 60 percent against FBS schools.
So far, Idaho’s 2013 schedule includes games against Wyoming, Mississippi, Northern Illinois and border rival Washington State, The Idaho Statesman reported this week. Spear said Idaho will also play a home-and-home series in 2013 and 2014 with New Mexico State and is close to finalizing contracts with other schools to round out the 2013 schedule.
“We wouldn’t be sitting here today if we weren’t confident we could get it done,” Spear said.
By going independent and keeping its FBS status, Spear said the football team stands to bring in at least $1.5 million each year, money he said will be used to help support other programs.
For the other Vandal teams, the Big Sky represents a reunion of sorts. Idaho was a charter member of the conference, but left in 1996. Conference officials have said publicly they support bringing Idaho back into the fold and renewing geographic rivalries with schools like Montana, Montana State and Idaho State.
Spear also said Idaho has not officially closed the door with the WAC for non-football sports.