Recently I was debating with someone why I thought the move to FCS was a terrible decision on the part of the institution. Among the typical reasons this person supported the move was that we will never be able to compete with the USC’s of the world. In their view the institution would never provide adequate resources to compete at that level. Wouldn’t our resource capability be better positioned for success against the Big Sky?
That got me thinking. It depends, of course, how the institution defines success. I would argue that we don’t need to compete with USC and Alabama. We should judge our success relative to other Group of Five (G5) schools. I would argue that a measurable measure of success would be bowl appearances. I would argue that this program would be successful if every four-year player to pass through the program appeared in at least one bowl game. Would our level of institutional support not allow the program to achieve such a modest goal?
Well, for the years 2012 through 2015 the average budget for G5 teams making only one bowl game was over 30 million dollars. Meanwhile, Idaho’s budget for the last year was roughly 20 million. But, that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Some athletic departments like Connecticut and UNLV with huge budgets have only one bowl appearance to show for it. During the same time period Bowling Green went to four bowls, Lafayette went to three, Louisiana Tech went to two, and Monroe went to one. All four of these institutions have budgets similarly sized to that of the University of Idaho and are capable of producing at least one bowl team within the last four years. Is Idaho unable to manage its finances at least as well as Monroe and Bowling Green?
Since the decision has already been made it begs the question “how will we define success in the FCS?” The average budget of a playoff team last year was nearly identical to Idaho’s athletics budget. Should fans now expect yearly playoff appearances from this program? Would less be considered a failure? Or will the Idaho athletics budget, without the benefit of big money games at the FBS level, shrink to a less competitive level for even a lower division? One side of this debate will be proven right. Either Idaho will return to football prominence in the Big Sky or drift further into irrelevance in the Big Sky and State of Idaho.
Regardless of future results fans of the Idaho program should not excuse the mishandling of the Vandals entire tenure in FBS. Never forget that when Idaho made the jump to FBS in 1996 the Vandals beat Boise State 3 years in a row, won a conference title and went to a bowl game. The university is now suffering the consequences of that lack of inaction. Doing things the “Idaho Way” have crippled this program and doomed it to failure. Exploiting NCAA attendance rules rather than using early on-field success to improve facilities is but one in a long history of missteps by the university.
A final thought on the decision to accept the Big Sky’s standing invitation: Idaho is not the University of Chicago. In the first place the private University of Chicago is one of the most elite research institutions in the world whose legitimacy will never be defined by athletics. Idaho is a state, land-grant university. In the second place Chicago may have withdrawn from the Big Ten athletic conference but as a founding member of both the Big Ten and its academic counterpart the Committee on Institution Cooperation the University of Chicago remains intimately associated with the Big Ten. Any further comparison between Idaho and the University of Chicago is not only unfounded but embarrassing.
Far more applicable to this situation is the voluntary decision by the University of Montana to withdraw from the Pacific Coast Conference, of which Idaho was a member. The governor of Montana said at the time that their university would keep athletics “properly subordinated to the academic function”. At the time Montana wanted to join an inferior league composed of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Of course, all of those schools continued on an upward trajectory while Montana chose to look downward.
History, it appears, it repeating itself again.