Future bright – Idaho joins Sun Belt Conference as football-only member for 2014 season


Just a year after the crumbling of the Western Athletic Conference, the University of Idaho has found a new football home. 

Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson made the news official Wednesday that Idaho will compete as an independent in 2013, then will join the Sun Belt for the 2014 season and beyond.

“The University of Idaho needed a conference home, and the Sun Belt is providing the University of Idaho and New Mexico State with a conference home,” Benson said.

Idaho was left fending for itself when the WAC disintegrated as a football playing conference early in 2012, but Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear was steadfast in his stance that Idaho would remain an FBS program.

It’s going to provide great stability for our football program,” Spear said. “I’m most excited for our student athletes. They’ve endured some trying times with having conference instability.”

The Sun Belt was Idaho’s football home from 2001-2005, when its Olympic sports resided in the Big West. Idaho then consolidated all of its sports in the WAC. This time around Idaho will house its non-football sports in the Big Sky while football competes in the Sun Belt. Non-football sports will compete one final season in the WAC in 2013-14.

As for independence, it originally was a two-year plan, though that was before the pendulum of conference re-alignment started to swing again — just as Spear had anticipated.

The Sun Belt is losing Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic and Florida International to Conference-USA.

Spear said he was careful not to lock Idaho into too many scheduling contracts in 2014, giving Idaho the flexibility to enter a conference, as appears to be the case.

Benson and Spear have communicated on a monthly basis since Benson’s departure from the WAC to the Sun Belt — communication that helped this move come to fruition today.

“As I left the WAC there was conversation then over what the WAC was going to be from a football standpoint,” Benson said. “It’s been on a monthly basis in terms of what our plans were. A year ago when we settled on the structure, and said we would re-consider again this year.”

Being an existing FBS member with commitment to its facilities was one of the things Benson said was attractive about adding Idaho to the Sun Belt’s western footprint.

“They’ve invested a lot in to their program and have made a commitment to being FBS in football. The renovations and additions to the Kibbie Dome, they’ve created a much better football environment,” he said.

Idaho will enter a western division consisting of New Mexico State, Texas State, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafeyette and Louisiana-Monroe.

Travel concerns, Benson said, are exaggerated. There will be a travel subsidy for teams from the eastern division flying out to Moscow — there will be a travel cycle making it four years for Idaho to host each of the teams from the eastern division.

Four games on Idaho’s 2012 spring slate were played in southern territory, and Spear echoes Benson in claiming it’s nothing to fret about.

“This last year we went to Ohio, we went to North Carolina, we went to Louisiana twice,” Spear said. “There is significant travel and we’re used to it, so I don’t think travel is an issue at all.”

What could help with that is having only eight conference games. Idaho will make a concerted effort to play most of its out of conference games in the western U.S., Spear said.

It could help that Idaho won’t require as many money guarantee games in a conference. The Sun Belt has a television deal with ESPN, and Spear anticipates an additional $1 million in conference revenue compared to when Idaho was in the WAC.

ESPN may be intrigued by the kinds of match-ups the new Sun Belt will produce. One of those — between Idaho and Western Kentucky — could pit Vandal coach Paul Petrino against brother and longtime coaching companion Bobby Petrino.

Sources at Western Kentucky denied a rumor Wednesday that said Bobby’s Hilltoppers will bolt from the Sun Belt Conference to join Conference-USA.

Idaho’s first-year headman would relish an opportunity to be thrown into the same ring as his older sibling.

“That’d be pretty exciting, that’d be a great deal,” Petrino said. “They’re on one side and we’re on the other. Hopefully we’ll be playing for the championship.”

With an abundance of ties in the south, Petrino expects the Sun Belt move to aid in recruiting efforts, as the program will continue to pick up a few players from that region every year.

“When you’re going to go back there and play more, I think it’ll help get a few more,” Petrino said. “Definitely when we go back there we’re just looking for speed, we’re not going to take a whole bunch of guys, but if we can get two or three with great speed that will always be nice to get.”

On the current Idaho roster, seven players call Florida and Texas home, two states that also house current Sun Belt universities. One more of those, senior Trey Williams, is native to Mississippi.

Five of those players, including offensive lineman Cody Elenz, will be around for the transition, and depending on scheduling, could travel “home” for away games

“Obviously it’d be nice for my family and friends to watch,” Elenz said.

The team will add some more southern flavor this fall, with three more players from Florida and one from North Carolina.

In Idaho’s only season as an FBS independent, the Vandals will meet three future Sun Belt Conference opponents. Idaho opens the 2013 fall campaign with a trip to North Texas Aug. 31, visits Arkansas State in Jonesboro Oct. 12 and will host Texas State Nov. 2 on Dad’s Weekend.

Sean Kramer and Theo Lawson can be reached at arg-sports@uidaho.edu

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