Twenty years ago, amid a series of tectonic shifts in the organizational landscape of college sports, a conference called the Big West invited four universities into its fold. This was a blatantly desperate attempt to maintain the Big West's viability as a football entity. Each of these four teams would be making the leap from either the Division formerly known as I-AA or from Division II, and two of them hailed from the same sparsely populated state: the University of Idaho and Boise State.
What happened over the next two decades is an object lesson in both the enduring possibilities and the false promise of chasing after big-time football success. Five years after stepping up to the Big West, Boise had won a pair of conference championships and departed for the Western Athletic Conference after the Big West wound up dropping out of the football arms race altogether; ten years after their ascension, the Broncos went 13-0 and won one of the most memorable bowl games in college football history. Today, Boise remains perhaps the most feared and respected "outsider" FBS program in the country.
And Idaho? The Vandals went 9-3 in 1998 and won the Humanitarian Bowl, but things gradually regressed from there: they jumped to the Sun Belt Conference after the Big West dropped football, and then to the WAC, and then back to the Sun Belt. They went through five different coaches before landing on current coach Paul Petrino (who is 6-29 in his first three seasons); they've had one winning season this entire millennium. And a few days ago, after the Sun Belt declined to renew Idaho's membership following the 2017 season, university president Chuck Staben made an unsurprising and yet still startling announcement: the Vandals were giving up on the major-college dream altogether. They would join the Big Sky conference, and drop from the big-money Football Bowl Subdivision to the not-so-big-money Football Championship Subdivision.
This is not a common occurrence. In fact, Idaho is the first school to ever drop back down from the FBS to the FCS. (The only other Division I school to drop football in recent years was the University of Pacific, in 1995.) In an editorial for Inside Higher Ed, Staben likened Idaho's move to that of the University of Chicago, which dropped football in 1939 after serving as a charter member of the Big Ten Conference and winning national championships under coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. That comparison may have been a bit hyperbolic, given that Idaho's never really had any major-division success, but the larger point Staben was trying to make is one that could become increasingly relevant in the years to come.
"I think our situation has potential implications for dozens of universities that play big-time college football and says a lot about the state of college athletics," Staben wrote. "Idaho chooses to leave the football arms race and focus on excellence in competition and athletics."
Once the Southern-based Sun Belt decided to end its partnership with a miniscule, struggling Western institution, Idaho did not fit in naturally to any FBS conference. They could not compete viably as an independent (as they'd tried for a year in between the WAC and the Sun Belt), and the university likely would have wound up spending more money on football than it was taking in. At some point, it stopped making sense, and Staben became the first university president to recognize that those risks were simply not worth the reward, and that perhaps Idaho could make a name for itself on the FCS level instead.
There are other schools like Idaho, trapped in that purgatorial realm between big and small. At Eastern Michigan, whose football program has a tiny following and has had little-to-no on-field success in recent years, the faculty senate and student government both have urged a move from FBS down to FCS. A similar motion during a faculty senate meeting at the University of Massachusetts was dismissed by the school's chancellor as "a waste of this important body's time."
Let's say this move works for a school like Idaho, and becomes a test case that doesn't impact the school's bottom line as much as people imagine it might. Is it possible this could break the spell?
"Most of all it is ego, simple ego," Ohio University professor David Ridpath, an expert on college athletics issues, told VICE Sports. "Hard to say, but I believe that Idaho will still succeed as an institution. In three to five years, will they have lost enrollment, donors, marketability, and if so can that be attributed to dropping to FCS? Even if it does happen, I don't think the causal connection will be there, plus I don't think it'll happen. I believe Idaho will be able to say and show that the sky hasn't fallen, and I think being more competitive in football will actually help those things."
I think Ridpath is likely correct. College football is on the verge of tremendous structural change, particularly if players begin to get paid, and particularly if the major conferences break off from the mid-majors. But I will also admit, as a fan of the sport, that if college football winds up stratifying and barring those mid-major teams from competing in the playoff or major bowl games, I will miss the aspirational nature of a story like Boise State's. Because while it is a terrible risk, and while it may be unfair to the student body at a school like Eastern Michigan where students are expected to carry at least some of the cost of that risk, there is something about the underdog that lends a certain amount of soul to a sport that often feels as if it's a craven arms race.
"The big boys are what we care about," Ridpath said, and for the most part, I know he's right, particularly in regard to college football. But amid this sudden infusion of common sense, I hope there's at least a beam of light for the little guy in there, somewhere.