Despite massive changes across the nation affecting every conference, the roller-coaster ride of conference realignment doesn't appear to be slowing down any time soon. The Big 5 (SEC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-12, and ACC) landed lucrative TV contracts in 2012 and are in the driver's seat with all of this, with more changes on the horizon. The Big XII has only 10 teams and the Big Ten is rumored to be considering expanding, which could kick off more shifting among the Big 5 conferences.
Outside the Big 5, the Big East will be looking to rebuild itself while a number of mid-majors may be invited to join the Big 5, which will kick off another round of realignment that could affect mid-majors across the country.
As previously reported, Idaho is preparing for facility expansions in the coming years that will impact football and basketball. With a new football coaching staff, Idaho is taking the challenges that FBS independence will create in stride, having inked a manageable and intriguing schedule for 2013 with an eye towards the future. Idaho's Olympic sports rejoin the Big Sky Conference in 2014, dramatically reducing overall travel costs for the department while the school navigates a changing FBS landscape in the years ahead with the primary goal of finding a single FBS conference home for all Vandal sports Idaho's top objective.
In this, the third installment of our recent interview with Idaho Director of Athletics Director Rob Spear, we discuss conference realignment, scheduling, and more.
PAT HAUGE: Congratulations on finalizing what looks like an excellent football schedule for 2013. Are you happy with this schedule, and is it a schedule that works competitively and fiscally for you?
ROB SPEAR: “I wouldn't have entered into it if it didn't work financially and competitively. I really would have liked to see us not have to play Ole Miss and Florida State, but that's just the way it worked out and we needed to find another money game, and find somebody we could play in that November time frame; that's why we ended up with the Florida State game. I think when you look at the overall schedule -- North Texas, Wyoming, Northern Illinois [on the road]. We've got Temple at home [Homecoming], Fresno State at home, Arkansas State, and Texas State -- it is attractive, especially given our timeframe to put it together.
“We have New Mexico State just one time now [originally Idaho was going to play NMSU twice this fall, home and away] because we worked with the Sun Belt to address the defections of Middle Tennessee and, Florida Atlantic to Conference USA. Because they are departing this July, the Sun Belt schools needed football games. So we agreed to schedule Texas State at home instead of us playing New Mexico State twice. Instead of New Mexico State coming to Idaho, the Aggies will go play Louisiana Lafayette, which is actually a better schedule in the long run than playing somebody twice in the regular season.”
PH: It's impressive that you’ve got Idaho on The Palouse for half the schedule [five home games plus Washington State in Pullman]. Have you started negotiations for a 2014 independent schedule?
RS: “Oh yeah. I'm looking at it right now; we have six games scheduled. Two of them are home games and we are negotiating with some other schools. But at the same time I am going to be a little careful because I do have expectations that there is going to be, as we know already, some additional movement and the possibility of us finding a football conference home in 2014.”
PH: That feeds into my next question. Obviously conference realignment is nowhere close to being done, but does the apparent breakdown of the Big East Conference, at least the elimination of the west division anyway, affect your plans? Does it affect what you were thinking was going to happen?
RS: “Well, you know we'd love to get into the Mountain West. However, with Boise's decision to remain in the Mountain West, and with San Diego State staying as well, it gives them 12 football teams and makes any additional expansion by the Mountain West unlikely. Of course, a lot depends on how the Big East is now going to rebuild itself. We don't know how that's going to work out. Until the Big East finalizes a new television package, I am not sure you will know what their future plans are. Not knowing what the television package is going to be worth makes it difficult to rebuild the league. So does the Big East go take some Conference USA teams? SunBelt Teams? Is Northern Illinois on their radar? The MAC has been pretty stable, other than losing Temple.
“I do think that we need to monitor it closely and see what happens. The right dominoes have to fall for us to have some conference opportunities.”
PH: I've lost track of some of the most recent conference moves and rumors.
RS: “That is easy to do! There are constant rumors about the Big 12 [which is currently at 10 teams] expanding, and as we already discussed the Big East and all the dominos that will start if and when they expand.”
PH: Is that something you’re expecting to happen this year?
RS: “It could. Not sure if the Big 12 expands, since they are now appealing an NCAA rule that requires twelve teams for a conference championship game. The Big 12 is asking the NCAA if they could have a conference championship game with only ten members. Again, it is all to maximize revenue. If they go to 12 teams, it must make sense financially.
“The Sun Belt wants to go to 12 teams and create a conference championship for those reasons. It will be interesting to see what the NCAA does. Their decision could influence if conferences expand to 12 or more teams.”
PH: Is membership in the Sun Belt Conference something you have discussed with them? Is membership in the SBC a possibility for the Idaho program?
RS: “It is a possibility.”
PH: We’ve heard the MAC mentioned over the years as well. Do you think membership in the MAC is a possibility for Idaho?
RS: “It is a possibility. Given the fluidity of conference realignment, you should never rule anything out.”
PH: Is there discussion of some Big Sky schools moving up to FBS? With more realignment on the horizon, can you see a new FBS league forming in the west, or do you see the MWC being affected by the next round of realignment?
RS: “Not to my knowledge. I do think there needs to be another FBS conference out west. Again, I don’t think you rule anything out.”
PH: Let's talk about moving the Olympic sports into the Big Sky. Can you talk a little bit about what that means for your department, moving your Olympic sports to that conference?
RS: “I think it's a positive amongst our coaches. It allows us to play regional competition that makes a lot of sense. It's going to help reduce travel time. It's going to help take care of our student athletes, and it's going to be a better league than the rebuilt WAC. I don't mean any disrespect to WAC in its future, but we feel that the Big Sky Conference and playing against those schools is better than being in a rebuilt WAC.
“I think it's a positive for us, and I really think it's going to help our attendance because there is a lot of tradition with some of those schools. I also think those schools are close enough to travel and help your attendance.”
PH: If football was invited to an FBS conference, could you see a situation where you would keep the Olympic sports in the Big Sky and have football in a different FBS conference, if the FBS conference was not in our region (i.e. the MAC, or Sun Belt)?
RS: “We would have to evaluate that when it presented itself. But it would have to be a pretty compelling reason for us to move those sports out of the Big Sky. It would need to make geographic sense.”
PH: How is the recent change in the ticket policy – this is the change that happened last year to improve your access to UI Alumni – how has that changed the sales and marketing for Vandal Athletics and football ticket sales? Are the changes in the marketing policy fully implemented at this time?
RS: “I wouldn't say they are fully implemented. It helped us expand our contact base, but when you go 1-11 in football it doesn’t matter how many people you're able to contact. The product was unacceptable. So, we won't see the effects of that change until we can put a better product on the football field, in my opinion. And a better product is on the way. Paul Petrino has done a remarkable job recruiting and changing the culture of the program in just 70+ days.”
PH: On the facilities front, we’ve heard a lot about the new scoreboard going into the Dome this fall. Can you talk about that a little bit? How big will it be, where will it be situated, and what its impact will be for your entire department?
RS: “It is another positive step that will add to the atmosphere in the Dome. I am glad this is coming close to fruition. We still need another level of UI approval, and SBOE approval. When installed it will approach 30-feet x 50-feet and will be located where the old scoreboard was on the east end.”
PH: Since the last time we talked, has there been any movement on the Events Center or Dome Expansion fronts since the last time we talked?
RS: “President Nellis has formed a committee, which is a great step forward.”