By 1961, three years after the collapse of the Pacific Coast Conference, it was obvious that Idaho was not going to be included in the newly formed league. The four California schools plus the University of Washington were surely going to expand and the scarcely resourced Idaho was not going to be one of the candidates.
Idaho coach Skip Stahley had no problem being left out. He had seen what toll professional baseball had taken on the attendance of the college game. Indeed several universities had already dropped football. With the influx of professional franchises into southern California the future of the college game was uncertain. History would prove Stahley comically incorrect.
Instead Stahley focused his energy on forming what would become the Big Sky conference. Exploratory meetings were held involving all future Big Sky founders plus Portland University. The organizers of the conference tentatively named the Western Empire Conference also had their eyes on Seattle University.
Idaho’s dismal performance on the field was cause for additional angst. The Vandals won only two games in 1961 and coach Stahley was burned in effigy on the Moscow Campus. Even President Theophilus and the Board of Regents saw the performance of football as cause for alarm. Through all of the public fighting in the newspapers (and the Lewiston Tribune, Spokesman-Review, and Statesman all weighed in) it became clear that Idaho football suffered from two chronic problems – lack of money and difficult scheduling.
With the prospective Western Empire Conference excluding football, Idaho planned to make ends meet by playing traditional northwest rivals from Oregon and Washington as well as money games in other time zones. Army and Arizona were on future schedules. The balance of the schedule would consist of teams Idaho’s size – the Montana and Utah schools, for example.
Of course Idaho wasn’t the only school looking for a home for football. The Skyline and Border conferences were reeling as well. The Great West had recently been formed and featured the big schools whom were not included in the PCC, but several independents remained. Idaho was joined in independent status by Colorado State, Utah State, Montana, and New Mexico State to name a few. One of the many missed opportunities throughout the history of Vandal athletics was putting energy toward forming a northwest basketball conference (Western Empire) rather than banding together with the other ‘orphans‘ to form a western football conference.
Washington State, on the other hand, was busily trying to find a home for athletics. In fact, Washington State and both Oregon schools were in discussions with the likes of Arizona State and the many of the other former Skyline and Border conference schools about forming what would become the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). Imagine how different the athletic landscape would look today if WSU, Oregon, and OSU had all decided to join the WAC instead of the AAWU. Would Idaho have been considered for membership?
In the end, Washington State was invited to join the AAWU to form what would be colloquially dubbed the “Big Six”. This letter from the University of California inviting Washington State is interesting for a couple reasons. The conditions of the invitation stipulate that no round-robin scheduling will occur (the California schools hated travelling to Pullman and Moscow), that WSU will abide by the same admissions standards as UW, and, most interestingly, that the admission of WSU into the league does not commit the league to inviting any other institutions. Was this sentence in reference to Idaho? It’s more likely in reference to the Oregon schools, but it is unclear in the letter.
Here’s Idaho taking on Oregon State
and against Washington State