Reasons for not going back

malloy CHUCK
MALLOY

 
In Idaho

University of Idaho officials, from the president on down, have made it clear that the Vandal football program is about making money. Going “back” to the Big Sky Conference is OK for other sports, but not for football.

“The financial consequences make it not very attractive,” Idaho’s new president, Chuck Staben, said in a recent article by the Idaho Statesman’s Brian Murphy. Athletic Director Rob Spear said in the same article that returning to the Big Sky level (Football Championship Subdivision) would result in Idaho cutting other sports.

Idaho has 975,000 good reasons for opening this year’s season at Florida, which speaks more about the intelligence of Florida than Idaho. If the Gators are foolish enough to pay nearly $1 million for a non-competitive game, then Idaho is smart enough to take the cash and hope the players don’t have too many leg cramps from the humidity.

But should college football and athletics in general, be all about money? Sports should be enhancing a young person’s educational experience, and not making athletes mere tools of revenue production. Football, especially, should be about traditional rivalries and road trips to neighboring schools. A perspective that puts money first is a warped perspective.

“It’s always a negative,” says Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton. “When you play money games, two things happen. You accumulate losses and you’re away from home. Those things are deadly to an athletic program.”

In Vandal country, it’s easy to blame former Coach Rob Akey’s undisciplined approach for the football program being on NCAA probation for failure to meet academic standards. But top officials should carry some of the blame for creating a “money-first” environment that promotes recruitment of athletes who run fast in the 40-yard dash, but can’t spell “cat.”

As Fullerton sees it, branding is at least as important as money. Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington have strong brands from successful football programs. Those teams don’t win championships every year, but they are competitive and the programs are run well. Strong branding also promotes better recruiting.

“At Montana, you can’t buy a seat. I would ask the University of Idaho, is that happening on your campus? If the answer is no, then one of the problems may be how you are structuring your program. You are stretching too far to find the money,” Fullerton said.

Although Fullerton would like to welcome Idaho to the Big Sky, he understands why Idaho is not making the leap to his conference. It makes sense for Idaho to see what happens with the top five conferences of the Football Bowl Subdivision and the tiers below that. He also understands the politics that go with Idaho being in the same state as Boise State, which has had rousing success at football’s top level.

If the Sun Belt is demoted to the same level as the Big Sky, and Idaho has nowhere to go, then a return to the Big Sky could happen quickly. If nothing happens within a few years, and Idaho remains stuck in a conference that’s two or three time zones away from Moscow, then it might be time to evaluate whether Vandal football is even worth having.

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