In 1969 former Idaho Assistant Football Coach Ed Knecht returned to Idaho to take the helm as Athletic Director (AD). Although he was AD for only a short six years he presided over one of the most tumultuous times in Vandal football history. Ed Knecht was inducted into the Vandal Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007.
By the 1970’s it had become obvious that major college football was worth a lot of money. However, the Big Sky conference, founded in 1963, still desired to play at a lower level. Before 1978 there were only two divisions of college football – University Division and College Division. In 1978 Division I-AA was developed and is known today as the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
Idaho had spent the last several years as the only University level football program in the College level Big Sky Conference. To maintain their University level status Idaho played half of the schedule against University level opponents – and most of these games were played on the road. By 1970 the Vandals realized that they were at the precipice of a major decision regarding the future of Vandal football.
Playing games against low-drawing Big Sky teams generated less than ten percent of the revenue of a game against University level opponents. Although the issue wouldn’t come to a head for a couple more years the Vandals had already had thoughts of leaving the conference they had helped found.
Idaho finished the 1970 campaign with a 4-7 record. Despite the losing record, Idaho defeated two of the other four football playing members of the Big Sky Conference (Weber State and Montana State). Conference losses were to Idaho State and Montana. The third and fourth victories were against College level Portland State and University level Utah State. Of the seven losses five were to University level opponents. In one particularly painful loss the Vandals blew a 10 point halftime
lead by giving up 38 second-half points to rival Washington State in a 44-16 loss in front of more than 27,000 fans at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane (no games were played in Moscow since Neale Stadium burned).
Straddling competition levels was hurting Idaho football – the Vandals could not be competitive against university level opponents while at the same time being forced to adhere to College level scholarship standards. Replacing or renovating the charred Neale Stadium would contribute to determining Idaho’s fate as an athletic program. The Vandals were proceeding on a course to not only replace the stadium but construct a new basketball pavilion as well. University President Hartung addressed the growing
concern about the football program in a lengthy letter he published in 1970. An excerpt from that letter is published here. What President Hartung writes here is relatively mild, but the language and atmosphere would grow increasingly hostile in the years to come.
Back on campus, work was progressing on the replacement for Neale Stadium. An architect had been selected and the plans had been approved by the Regents. The initial plans called for a 23,000 seat stadium (with the option to cover) in addition to a 10,000 seat basketball pavilion. Both plans would change significantly in the near future. Although the size of the stadium would begin at 16,000 President Hartung assured Vandal fans that the stadium could be expanded at any time to a capacity of 25,000. Coincidentally, Idaho’s commitment to building New Idaho Stadium marked the end of the long rumored joint stadium between Idaho and Washington State. Although the joint venture had been rumored for at least a decade (see 1960 post on this blog) it could never overcome the many obstacles in its way.