UNLV faces program in transition as Idaho prepares for FCS

The process has been ongoing, from plans to trim scholarships to scheduling and researching how they will be immediately eligible for playoffs. This stuff takes time.

The silent majority who responded to the decision in a positive manner came in around 75 percent.

The other 25 wasn’t so silent.

Rob Spear knows money drives everything — “Show me a problem that can’t be solved with money, and I’ll show you a real problem,” he said — and nowhere is that more true within intercollegiate sports than football.

At the University of Idaho, it also means a move never made by anyone until now.

The Vandals meet UNLV on Saturday night at Sam Boyd Stadium at 6, and will continue playing this season and next at the Football Bowl Subdivision level before dropping to the Football Championship Subdivision.

Or, for all who remember how things were once referred to, from Division I-A to I-AA.

“It’s tough to compete now at an FBS level for non-Power 5 teams,” said Spear, athletic director at Idaho since 2003. “We did some analysis and discovered even if we were to stay and try to compete at the (FBS level), it would be an additional investment of $5-6 million for the football program alone.

“When you are already funded at a level of No. 125 or 126 out of 128 FBS teams, the institution is not going to invest that much in athletics and in turn be a detriment to academic programs. Nor would I expect that to happen.”

Idaho’s hand was forced when the Sun Belt Conference announced in March it would drop the Vandals and New Mexico State following the 2017 season. Once the NCAA allowed the Sun Belt to pursue a league championship game with 10 teams, not renewing the contract of two schools across the country from most members wasn’t a difficult choice.

There also was that part about the Sun Belt wanting to split its millions from the College Football Playoff annually among 10 schools instead of 12. It’s a way of life for any Group of 5 conference: Get as much as you can for those in the family.

Idaho had the option of playing as an FBS independent, which it did in 2013, and yet had no option at all. Not in this climate of Power 5 riches and everyone else. Not at such a steep cost for a program that has been defined at college football’s highest level like a boat sinking away from the dock as water rushes over the gunwales.

So it goes that Idaho football will join the Big Sky Conference in 2018, returning to a home where it once won eight league titles and where the school’s other sports reside.

Consider: Idaho, a more than two-touchdown underdog to the Rebels, last had a winning season in 2009. In two decades as an FBS program, it has averaged just under four wins per season.

In the last 16 years, that average is under three.

It’s 7-31 over the last four years and has been outscored this season 132-40.

“It’s tough when you look at college football now with the haves and have-nots,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “You need to be very creative in the way you go about making money.

“If you’re limited in television and conference money and have decent home attendance but not great in that way, you have to figure out how to do it. You hate to see things like (Idaho dropping to FCS) and even though it seems the conference (affiliation) dictated it, it’s also the nature of things.”

There is a reason no one has made the move down until now, because even for the poorest FBS programs, the idea of dropping to the FCS or, as some like Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton have done when eliminating football altogether, means accepting a totally different level of revenue streams and perception of one’s athletic department.

But regional rivalries are also an important part of the college experience, and a move to the Big Sky in football will create more of them for Idaho as annual games eventually arrive with the likes of Idaho State and Eastern Washington and Montana and Montana State and Portland State and others.

The Vandals will have fewer scholarships (85 to 63) and in most seasons one fewer game (12 to 11), but they also will have the annual opportunity to reach a playoff tournament and compete for a national championship.

Which, at the FCS level, means joining the masses that continue to chase North Dakota State.

“We better be competitive right away,” Spear said. “That was the whole basis for making this move. When you consider the resources available to us, we expect to be at or near the top (of FCS). We have very high expectations. It’s not going to be easy. There are talented programs in the Big Sky Conference.

“We had about 25 percent of people upset at this who really voiced their displeasure. But the majority understood and, over time, those people will support you, no matter what league you play in.”

Especially when it makes the most sense.

Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Twitter: @edgraney

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