Idaho to Rejoin Big Sky for Football
In 1995, Idaho football looked to make the leap from then I-AA to I-A and left the Big Sky. 21 years later, the school is planning to return the sport to the conference it has called home from 1965-1995.
The decision for Idaho to downgrade it’s football from FBS to FCS is a bittersweet one. When the school upgraded in 1995, they joined the Big West, with hopes of leveraging some of their I-AA success into becoming an FBS presence in a region that did not have as many programs. With the upgrade and joining of the Big West, the hopes were to establish the program within I-A and to eventually join the other regional schools in the WAC, where programs such as BYU, Colorado St., Air Force and Wyoming competed.
So in 1996, Idaho moved to I-A and the Big West. Boise St. did the same. Initially, Idaho was performing on par with Boise St. at the I-A level with 3 winning seasons in the first 4 years, including a 9-3 finish and a Humanitarian Bowl bid in 1998. Over those same 4 years, Boise St. saw steady growth by 2 wins in each of the first 3 (1996-1998) and then in 1999, jumped to a 10-3 record. This would lead to a string of successful Boise St. seasons in which they had 10 or move wins in 5 of 6 seasons, finishing with a single loss in each year for 3 of those years.
And while Boise St. football was flourishing to become a national power, at that same time, Idaho football began it’s decline. Over a 17 year span from 1999-2015, Idaho had only (2) winning seasons.
Beyond just their on-field performance, the changing landscape of college football conferences was a further hinderance to the longterm football plans at Idaho. In 1999, the WAC split when a faction of schools left to form the Mountain West conference. While the majority of the Mountain West schools were located in the same region as Idaho, the conference remained quite exclusive. TCU was added to give access to the Dallas market only after proving themselves to be a national power. Even Boise St., despite a 124-18 record from 2000-2010, was not invited to join until 2011.
The lack of any leverage for Idaho left them in a state of constant conference limbo. When the Big West ceased football sponsorship, the Sun Belt took over and Idaho participated as a football member from 2001-2004. When the WAC came calling, Idaho obliged and remained from 2005-2012 until the constant flux or WAC instability led the conference to drop the sport in 2012. Idaho returned to the Sun Belt that year and was set to remain there for the time being. But when the conference opted to drop football-only memberships for Idaho and New Mexico St. following the 2017 season, it left Idaho with only 3 options: remain as an FBS independent, drop football, or downgrade to FCS and house all sports in the Big Sky again.
Idaho chose to do what many in the region have hoped they would for the past 20 years: return Idaho football to the Big Sky, to compete against regional foes like Idaho St., Montana, and EWU.
How one interprets to the end of the story that is Idaho I-A/FBS football will depend on who you are and your connection with the school.
Returning to the Big Sky, a conference Idaho has been part of since 1963 as a charter member…rejoining Idaho St. and regional powers like nearby Montana…these make the story a happy ending. Others might look at the move to I-A as a financial and even marketing failure as the program was not profitable and Idaho football had a reputation of on-the-field futility.
But there is another way to look at the entire story of Idaho football and there leap to I-A and 20 years in FBS, a positive way. Idaho took a chance. Other schools have chosen to remain in FCS, saw their programs rise to the top, have ample opportunities to upgrade to FBS in hopes of following the path of schools like Boise St., only to pass and fall back into even FCS mediocracy. Their windows closed and they will likely forever be FCS programs. But for Idaho, they took a chance. They saw the changes coming to the business of college sports before many did and opted to try to control their own destiny. They endured years of conference instability as seemingly, everyone else in the conferences Idaho was in were invited and eventually left for other conferences. There is something to be said for seeing a school give it their best, try to upgrade to stay on pace in a much faster moving business of college sports. FBS/I-A did not work out for Idaho, but they should always be commended for trying.