A year ago, I was wandering the vast parking lot outside of the University of Idaho's Kibbie Dome on the Thursday before Labor Day. It was cooler than you'd expect for a late summer day, but that didn't prevent fraternities, alumni groups and some fans who'd come down from Coeur d'Alene via tour bus from enjoying the first tailgate of the Vandals' season.
There was some hopeful talk about the upcoming campaign, but it was tempered, as you'd expect from a fan base who had just endured three consecutive seasons that yielded just one, solitary win each. But amidst the light-beer sipping in the parking lot, as well as those enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere of the then-new Idaho Fan Zone, there was another topic — were the Vandals' days as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) numbered?
Surprisingly, the consensus of those I spoke with, many of them longtime fans, was something along the lines of "I hope so." What the hell was the point of being the worst team in big-time football, having to go on the road to play big-time schools just for the program-sustaining paycheck? Why were they in the Sun Belt Conference, flying off to far-flung schools like Louisiana-Monroe when they could go back to the glory days of the Big Sky and let their fan base enjoy easy road trips to Cheney or Missoula or Portland?
This understandably frustrated fan base was one that saw some progress last season. The Vandals went 4-8, which would be enough to incite riots at powerhouse universities. Those four wins, however, couldn't delay the inevitable.
In April, a month after learning that the Sun Belt would not be renewing Idaho's membership following the 2017 season, the university announced it would become the first school in the FBS era to drop down to the FCS level; Idaho would join the Big Sky in 2018.
"We will be successful in the Big Sky Conference and will build a vibrant football culture that is an excellent front porch for our university," said Athletic Director Rob Spear.
Given the results from my terribly unscientific and entirely anecdotal survey of people who — almost to a person — were enjoying pregame refreshments, this move may be welcomed. There are, of course, vocal detractors. Nevertheless, here are some moments from Idaho's experiment with big-time football as we head into the penultimate season before the Vandals head to the Big Sky.
1996: The Jump
In 1996, Idaho left the Big Sky, where the Vandals had found a level of dominance from the mid-'80s to 1995, making the Division I-AA playoff semifinals twice. The program also became a seemingly unlikely breeding ground for successful head coaches, with Dennis Erickson, Keith Gilbertson and John L. Smith all passing through Moscow. Transitioning to what was then called Division I (now FBS), the Vandals joined the Big West Conference.
1998: Early Success
Two years into the big time, Idaho would enjoy one of its best seasons in program history, winning the Big West Conference behind coach Chris Tormey with a 9-4 record. The Vandals traveled south to Boise for the second edition of the Humanitarian Bowl, where they beat Southern Mississippi for the school's first-ever bowl win. In 1999, they kept up the momentum with a 7-4 record. Then came coach Tom Cable, who didn't find success in Moscow, but became the head coach of the Oakland Raiders just five years after leaving Idaho. He's now the assistant head coach for the Seahawks.
2006: The Return of King Erickson
Dennis Erickson made his career at Idaho. At least that's how a lot of Vandals fans think of the guy who debuted in his first head-coaching gig at age 34 and led Idaho to I-AA success from 1982 to '85 before going to Wyoming, then Washington State, then to Miami, where he won two national championships. After two not-so-good stints in the NFL, including four seasons with the Seahawks, sandwiched around four years of success at Oregon State, Erickson, surprisingly, returned to Idaho.
"This, hopefully, is going to be my last job," he said at a press conference announcing his hiring.
It wasn't. He led the Vandals to a 4-8 record in 2006, then went off to Arizona State. Idaho fans were not pleased with this.
2007-12: The Robb Akey Roller Coaster
After winning just three games in his first two campaigns, Robb Akey, a former Washington State defensive coordinator, took the Vandals on a memorable run in 2009. That season, the Vandals went on a five-game winning streak and finished 8-5, good enough for a trip back to the Humanitarian Bowl. There, they scored a last-second touchdown to knock off Bowling Green.
From there, though, things didn't go well. In 2011, the Vandals won just two games and in 2012 just one, before Akey was fired in the middle of the season.
Present Day: A Tale of Two Programs
To understand how differently things could have gone for Idaho, compare the Vandals to their bitter (that's an understatement) in-state rival Boise State. Both teams left for Division I in 1996 and joined the Big West. Since 2000, the Broncos have won 176 games, the most in that period of any team in football. Idaho's 46 victories is close to dead last. As Idaho heads toward a better fit in the Big Sky, Boise State is eying a potential move to the Big 12. ♦
LAST SEASON'S RECORD: 4-8 (3-5 Sun Belt)
PRESEASON COACHES POLL: 8th in Sun Belt
NOTABLE RETURNING PLAYERS: QB Matt Linehan, P/K Austin Pehkow, WR Callen Hightower
NOTABLE NEWCOMERS: QB Mason Petrino, RB Isaiah Saunders
HEAD COACH: Paul Petrino (4th season: 6-29 overall, 4-12 Sun Belt)
SEASON OPENER: vs. Montana State, Thu, Sept. 1, at 6 pm, tickets at govandals.com.