In November 2004, Nick Gier and I co-wrote a position paper related to University of Idaho athletics entitled “Back to the Big Sky,” a segment of which was published in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News on Nov. 15, 2004.
In that paper, we analyzed what it cost the UI to move from the Division I-AA Big Sky Conference — with which it was affiliated from 1978 to 1995 — to join Division I-A in 1996. In response, former UI Athletic Director Robert Spear claimed it would be “financial suicide” to return to the Big Sky Conference. UI participated in Division I-A football from 1996 to 2017. Based on a $15,000 consultant’s study, then-President Chuck Staben moved the UI back to the Big Sky Conference in 2018.
During the last nine years under Coach Paul Petrino, the Vandals won 33 and lost 66 games. As part of the Big Sky Conference for the past three years, the Vandals went 15-25. Average attendance for home games at the Kibbie Dome steadily decreased over the past two decades. The UI administration and fan base were not pleased with this record, hence Petrino’s recent exit.
It should be noted that Petrino this year received an annual base salary of $446,214, the highest among Big Sky coaches. The salary of the UI’s new head coach, Jason Eck, has not yet been publicly disclosed.
A quick review of the “List of Defunct College Football Teams” on Wikipedia shows some 68 Division I Schools and 125 non-Division I Schools. Included on the list are the University of Illinois at Chicago, which ended its football program in 1973, University of Vermont in 1974, University of Texas at Arlington in 1985, University of California at Santa Barbara in 1991, and Western Washington University in 2008. The undergraduate student populations of these institutions range from 28,600 at the University of Texas at Arlington to 10,700 at Vermont. Currently, the statewide undergraduate population of the UI is about 9,000 students.
Gonzaga University, which ended its football program in 1941, is on the list. Over the past two decades, Gonzaga’s basketball program has become a national powerhouse. Undergraduate applications rose nearly 300 percent during this period; Gonzaga’s fundraising has soared.
In the words of Gonzaga alumni and donor Phil McCarthey, “We saw a bit of a sleeping giant. We saw a bit of an opportunity. We had the vision, not that the basketball team could be No. 1, but that it could be better.” (See “Enrollment, endowment soar with Gonzaga hoops success” Spokesman Review, March 29, 2017.)
The UI has not and will not be able to compete in football in either Division I-A (now the FBS division) or I-AA (FCS). The number of players at the high school level is steadily decreasing due to the dangers of the sport.
Because of these dangers, it is costly to field a team and pay huge salaries to a head coach, his assistants (Petrino had eight) and other support staff. It is a disgrace and exploitative to send a UI football team to play “money” games against such opponents as Indiana University (89,000 undergraduate enrollment) to keep the program financially solvent.
I encourage the UI to follow the Gonzaga model. Focus on building a nationally competitive basketball program that earns income through media contracts and coverage of games in the beautiful new arena.
Graden is a professor of history at the UI. His views are his own and do not represent those of his department, college or the university.