Future of Vandals uncertain as WAC crumbles

May 3 2012 - 6:50pm

Go ahead and subtract a few more schools from the ever-shrinking Western Athletic Conference, which appears to be on its last leg and the first casualty of conference realignment.

Before even competing in its first athletic event as a member of the ailing conference, Texas State announced on Wednesday that it will join the Sun Belt Conference in July 2013. Texas State's exit follows closely in the footsteps of University of Texas-San Antonio, which last week declared its intentions to join Conference USA in 2013, pending approval by the University of Texas System Board of Regents today. Texas State and UTSA, which both will compete in the WAC this coming season, aren't the only programs running for the hills and away from the WAC. Utah State and San Jose State are expected to announce this week that they are leaving for the greener pastures of the Mountain West Conference, while Louisiana Tech is expected to announce on Friday its move to CUSA.

The departures leave the WAC's future in serious doubt. The conference was already reeling from the loss of Boise State one year ago and preparing for the exits of Hawaii, Fresno State and Nevada, which are wrapping up their final year in the WAC before heading to the Mountain West. The conference will be left with only two football schools, Idaho and New Mexico State, and at least appears to be no longer viable.

In an interview Friday, Idaho athletic director Rob Spear said the WAC had hired a consultant to assist with membership, although Spear declined to say which schools were being targeted.

"Even though this uncertainty is out there, the WAC is being as proactive as it can and at this point in time is identifying schools and targeting schools for future membership," Spear said.

Spear said Idaho's first commitment was to remain faithful to WAC, "but we have also looked at other options across the entire country about how we would position our athletic programs."

Those options may be limited. Idaho's geographical location isn't a fit for most conferences and its football facilities will be considered a detriment by others. Going independent in football or dropping to the Football Championship Series level are among the few cards left on the table for Idaho. While a move down to the FCS level would be unheard of, UI President Duane Nellis acknowledged it is at least a possibility.

"We will just have to see what the circumstances are -- I'm not saying it's completely off the table," Nellis said, adding Idaho has a history and rivalries in the Big Sky, which is home to programs such as Montana, Montana State, Idaho State and Eastern Washington University.

Spear, however, appears reluctant to consider the drop. He said of the 51 original land grant institutions across the country, 49 play at the Division I level, and 42 of those play at the Football Bowl Series level.

"If you are a land grant institution, I think you want to remain as an FBS football member," Spear said.

With the future of the WAC out of his and Idaho's control, Spear said the program must focus on controlling what it can, that being fielding successful teams and upgrading facilities.

While the Vandals struggled on the football field last year with a 2-10 record, Idaho's other programs have boasted solid years. The Vandals currently are atop the WAC Cup standings. The athletic department facilities, while having seen some improvements, still are lagging.

"We need to continue to improve facilities here -- that's the No. 1 thing we need to continue to do no matter what league we're in," Spear said.

"... I always have more ideas than money, but I'm happy about what we've been able to do. The Dome (upgrades), the outdoor track, the team rooms, the locker rooms, the strength and conditioning center, we've done a lot, but we still need to do a lot more. That's what I talk about when I say controlling what we can control. These macro issues out there, I wish I could control them, but we don't have any control over them."

In recent years the university has made improvements to the Kibbie Dome and just put the finishing touches on an improvement project to the campus' outdoor track and field complex. Football, however, drives college sports and more upgrades are still needed to the Kibbie Dome, which currently has a capacity of 18,000, ranking among the smallest FBS stadiums in the country. Spear said the athletic department funded a study to explore the cost of adding additional seating and expanding capacity to 27,000.

Increasing the Dome's capacity is feasible, but Spear acknowledges without increased attendance his hands will be tied.

"We can have the plan to expand, but it doesn't give me a whole lot of leverage with the president to say that we need to do this without having sellout crowds in the Kibbie Dome," Spear said. "Together, this community and this university, we need to rally around this program and get people to attend our games."

In addition to upgrades to the Kibbie Dome, Spear's "big dream" is to construct an event center with a capacity of 5,000-7,000 adjacent to and north of the Dome. The center would be home to the Vandal basketball team and other university and community events. Spear declined to provide cost estimates but said it's "not something that is going to be cheap."

"I think it's something the entire campus can benefit from, and the community," Spear said. "... It adds up, and if you added an event center, and you could have more than just athletic events -- you could hold concerts, you could have home shows, rodeos, circuses, monster truck shows, whatever -- I think it would be a huge benefit.

"... At the same time I understand we have to have a balance at the University of Idaho and right now the priority is a science building on this campus. I understand that because nobody embraces academics more than me, but we still need to have these plans out there and be aggressive and try to figure out how we can continue to improve those facilities. ... The most important thing is to have a plan and to communicate that plan to people because it is going to take a huge significant private fundraising component to get all these things done."

Even if the WAC survives, the conference is sure to take a hit financially. With the recent departures, most notably Boise State, and the conference's diminished ranking among NCAA football's non-automatic qualifying conferences, the WAC's TV contract with ESPN had already been reduced by 80 percent, according to Spear. That translates into roughly $450,000 in lost revenue for Idaho athletics, which has an overall budget of about $18 million, Spear said. That contract is sure to lose more value.

"It's a big hit to our budget," Spear said.

Unfortunately, no matter how Idaho and the WAC come out of the latest round of conference realignment, the threat of the next round of realignment will still exist for the foreseeable future.

Currently, there's talk of instituting a playoff system that would create a "Final Four" in football, but what that would mean for the smaller, non-BCS conference schools and the current bowl system is unclear.

"I think everything that is happening out there is creating a situation where you're going to separate the BCS schools away from everybody else," Spear said, adding that the process started with the NCAA allowing athletes to be paid $2,000 stipends. "Basically the message we're getting is if you can't afford it, don't do it. Well, that's all setting up a situation where you're going to separate schools away from one another, so what does that do to the overall structure? If the big schools form their own league, maybe it's the BCS, FBS, FCS, I don't know. I think there's a lot of things that can take place in the next couple of years."

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