Yesterday, the University of Idaho, where I am the president, accepted an invitation to join the Big Sky Conference, starting in fall 2018. The Sun Belt Conference, our current home in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Football Bowl Subdivision, elected not to renew our membership after 2017.
Faced with the option to play as an independent in FBS, awaiting conference affiliation, or join the Big Sky, a Football Championship Subdivision league where we would gain full membership, we have chosen the road that we believe positions the football program and, importantly, the entire university, for long-term success.
Some UI alumni and supporters do not agree that the FCS is our best option. Many passionate Vandals view our place in FBS as a mark of our institution’s “prestige” and “relevance.” The University of Idaho is our state’s land-grant university, the unquestioned statewide leader in higher education.
Success on the football field should complement the prestige and relevance of our academic institution. But football affiliation or performance should not define prestige and relevance. The impact of our institution should define us, as measured by the entire experience for our student body, including our athletes; by academic excellence across the university; by sustained research, scholarly activity and creative success; and by deep engagement with communities and partnerships with industry.
Why should my university's decision about what conference to play in matter to anybody outside our institution? 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.
This is an unprecedented move in college athletics, perhaps most similar to the University of Chicago opting out of the Big Ten in 1946. But a decision needed to be made, and made now. It is the best move for our university, and for our athletics program as part of our total university experience. The University of Idaho chooses very consciously, as the University of Chicago chose so long ago, an appropriate place for its athletic programs.
The college athletics landscape faces many challenges -- litigation about use of likeness, fundamental questions about compensation of athletes, concerns about academic integrity. The enormous revenues involved in premier events like the college football playoff and the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, as well as the growing “arms race” in major college athletics, raise many questions about college athletics.
In general, we have seen a steady progression toward higher levels of expenditure and competition -- moves from Division II to Division I, from FCS to FBS, and to ever higher expenditures by premier programs.
UI moved to the FBS level 20 years ago. Since then, we have been affiliated with four different conferences and competed as an independent. And in that time, college football expenditures have increased, and rules, such as the full cost of attendance and the number of teams required for a championship, have changed. These changes should motivate other higher education institutions to reconsider the important role of athletics.
The University of Idaho has been one of the lowest-resourced athletics programs competing at the FBS level. Despite two bowl appearances in our 20 years of FBS competition, we have had very limited success on the football field, while we have had considerable success in other sports.
Nonrenewal in the Sun Belt caused us to consider how we could continue successfully in FBS football. Nonrenewal also caused us to focus on what motivates us to participate in college athletics. Our conclusion was athletics improves UI’s visibility and provides a great shared experience for fans and students as well as opportunity and valuable experience for our student-athletes.
First, we considered whether we could compete as an independent, which we did in 2013. Few, including our fans, would argue that an independent schedule suits an institution our size in a small media market with a limited national reputation. Competing as an independent would not allow Idaho to develop rivalries; independent schedules change yearly. Recruiting to such uncertainty would be difficult. To replace lost conference revenue, Idaho would have had to play three guarantee games, in which powerhouse teams pay big fees to other teams to travel to play them. Neither the student-athlete nor the fan experience seemed desirable as an independent.
Our second consideration was seeking affiliation with a Group of 5 conference other than the Sun Belt. The Group of 5 are the five smaller, nonautonomous conferences (in contrast to the so-called Power 5 conferences): American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference and Sun Belt Conference. Most made little geographic sense or offered no traditional rivalries for us. Initial inquiries revealed little receptivity; conferences wondered why they would bring in a team with limited competitive success and no other clear ties.
Nevertheless, should we pursue conference affiliation, which conference makes geographic and institutional sense and what financial resources would be required to make us competitive in Group of 5 football? From a geographic perspective, the Mountain West Conference would be most desirable, but the average expenditures in that league, $38 million, are twice that of Idaho at $19 million, and literally price us out.
More typical Group of 5 expenditures, such as $29 million in the Mid-American Conference or Conference USA, still far exceed those at Idaho. In contrast, Idaho athletic expenditures are typical of Big Sky schools. Our expenditures are already subsidized by our students (though to a lesser extent than at many universities), and that subsidy is limited by our State Board of Education. Should we commit to major additional expenditures from students or donors in order to seek uncertain affiliation?
As president, I asked: At what cost, FBS? We must consider the role of athletics in the institutionwide context. Athletics complements higher education in many ways. Athletes can excel in competition, succeed as students and grow as leaders. Gallup data, for example, suggest that many college athletes are prized by employers for their ability to focus and follow through on tasks and responsibilities.
All of these qualities will be nurtured in the Big Sky Conference -- as they are for participants in that conference from our other sports, such as our conference champion (and NCAA Tournament participant) women’s basketball team. If the benefits to student-athletes continue, if our fans can enjoy realistic competition, why should we continue in the FBS arms race simply to chase a small share of the revenue now accruing to Group of 5 universities from the college football playoff? Instead, we will plan for success as an FCS affiliate.
This is a reset for our football program. We believe Big Sky football will be positive for our athletes and position them to succeed on the field -- our head football coach and I expect Idaho to compete for an FCS championship in 2018. I think our fans will benefit immensely, with opportunities to cultivate meaningful regional rivalries with similar institutions, many within a day’s drive.
We can and will create an outstanding student-athlete and communitywide experience around our program, a vibrant football culture that is a great front porch for Idaho’s leading, national research university, a draw for future students and a continued source of pride for current students. And we can do it in a way that does not constrain the university and does not distract from our core mission.
Idaho chooses to leave the football arms race and focus on excellence in competition and academics. I expect success in football in the coming years, as we conclude our Sun Belt participation and find sustained excellence in the Big Sky Conference. We will tell that story near and far. But the impact of our institution is best represented by our 100,000 proud and passionate alumni whose lives were transformed by the experiences they had at the University of Idaho.