The college football realignment of 2010/2011 certainly made a lot of headlines. But, any student of history, and any Vandal fan should be able to tell you that this is not new and that it has gone on for a century. The following are my thoughts on realignment from a Vandal fan’s perspective.
In the early 1900’s an athletic “conference” was a loose affiliation of schools sharing geographic proximity who organized sports schedules. Most people know of Idaho’s affiliation with the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) but rarely do you hear mention of Idaho’s earlier involvement with the Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate Conference. Prior to joining the PCC Idaho competed with its traditional northwest rivals – Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Montana, Gonzaga,….and Whitman College.
In the early 1920’s Idaho joined with the other big northwest research schools (Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Montana) in the PCC. Gonzaga and Whitman had obvious academic missions that differed from the large research schools. Even in the PCC sports, particularly college football, hadn’t taken off to be the huge cash cow that it is today. As the years wore on, though, football became more popular. More and more tickets were sold and football became more about producing revenue than competition. By the 1940’s Idaho and Montana were orphans in the PCC. They had comparatively small student bodies, were located in small states, and couldn’t produce enough ticket revenue to make it worth a big school’s time to travel to their remote campuses. But, they were still awarded part of the Rose Bowl revenue which they did little to generate.
The 40’s and 50’s were a time of tumult all over the college football landscape, not just in the PCC. Again, most Vandal fans know that one of the main reasons Idaho wasn’t invited to join the Pac-8 was because of its size and inability to produce revenue. It was the same story all over the country. The large schools found ways to separate themselves from the small schools. On the field, small schools were able to compete with the large schools because there were limited substitutions allowed. As free subbing became allowed the small schools were forced, basically, to field double the amount of athletes. Schools like Idaho with small student bodies could simply not afford to compete with the large schools who would give out hundreds of football scholarships. In essence, the large schools could buy all of the best athletes.
As conferences like the Pac-8 plucked the big schools from out west other conferences like the Mountain States Conference suffered internal strife as well. The big schools (Colorado, BYU, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming) left their small siblings (Colorado State, Denver, Utah State) behind in order to band together with bigger, larger revenue producing schools.
In the 1970’s limits were placed on the amount of scholarships that could be awarded. This, once again, allowed the small schools to catch up with the big schools. Television had also begun to infuse a lot of money into sports. Idaho wanted a piece of the ever growing Television pie. The Vandals tried, but were denied entry into the predecessor of the Big West, which would have allowed access to California television markets and revenue. As the small schools began to compete better with the large schools, the big schools had to find another way to separate themselves.
Exclusive bowl tie-ins limited small schools’ access to certain revenue, but it wasn’t enough. The Bowl Championship series had to be created to limit access to revenue based on revenue generating ability and not skill. Now that the small schools have caught the big schools once again, they need to find yet another way to separate themselves. Recently there has been a lot of talk about compensating athletes for the true cost of attendance. Basically, the big schools again want to buy all the best athletes.
A major criticism of the current system is that there are ways to move up (Utah, TCU, and Louisville are a few examples) but there are no ways to move down (short of dropping football). On the surface that may be true. But, looking at history you will see that’s not the case. The PCC disbanding, in essence, forced Idaho down away from the big schools. The disbanding of the Mountain States, in essence, forced Utah State down away from the big schools. This latest round of conference realignment is just another wave in the constant ebb and flow of university growth. As certain schools grow faster than their conference-mates conferences are disbanded and reformed with appropriate peers. Idaho was one of the big schools when it left the Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate Conference.
It is truly remarkable what the BigTen has been able to do for 100 years. Athletically Indiana has no business competing with Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State on the football field. But, its historic basketball success, academic prowess, and a conference wide commitment to unity has held the conference together.
This pattern will repeat itself again and again. The happenings in the Big East will and Big XII are clear evidence of this. The Mountain West, WAC, Sun Belt and even the Big Sky are evidence of this.
As an Idaho fan it is disappointing that our state spreads funds over four separate four-year institutions. Neighboring Washington, with four times the population, has two schools competing at the highest level. In an ideal world Idaho would still be in that tightly knit geographic and academic based conference. We would all love to still be associated with Montana, Utah, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, and Washington State. Maybe someday the wave of growth will catch Idaho and once again sweep us into a conference with our historic rivals.