Cal Poly head football coach Tim Walsh is plenty familiar with the newest member of the Big Sky Conference.
Idaho plans to drop to the Football Championship Subdivision beginning in 2018 and intends to join the Big Sky, school President Chuck Staben announced Thursday morning.
For Walsh, who applied for the Idaho head coaching job in 2006 after spending 14 seasons at Portland State, expanding the conference will further establish the Big Sky as the premier league in the FCS.
“It’s going to make the conference that much stronger,” said Walsh, now in his eighth year leading the Mustangs. “The one thing I do know, is you bring back someone who won nine Big Sky championships, it’s going to benefit our conference.”
The Vandals will remain at the Football Bowl Subdivision level for the next two seasons as part of the transition to the lower division. The move was expected after the program struggled for a number of years with competitiveness and conference stability at the higher division and is pending approval from the Idaho State Board of Education.
“Our relevance will be complemented by our football program, not defined by it,” Staben said.
Walsh said it was unclear how the Big Sky will approach scheduling a 14-team conference when the 2018 season approaches. In the meantime, he believes adding an FBS-level program to the conference will help Cal Poly with recruiting over the next two seasons.
Idaho first made the jump to the FBS in 1996 along with fellow in-state member Boise State. But the Vandals struggled at the higher level with finding a stable conference that made sense geographically and the increased expenditures. The Vandals are a combined 71-162 in their 20 seasons playing at the FBS level and have only twice reached a bowl game.
The football program has also fallen into the shadow of rival Boise State as the Broncos have become nationally relevant.
“To become successful enough to affiliate with any FBS conference would require unjustifiable and unsustainable expenditures,” Staben said. “Competing as an independent with an extremely uncertain conference affiliation would be irresponsible, especially when we have the alternative of joining one of the most prominent and stable FCS conferences.”
Idaho’s decision came after the Sun Belt announced in March that it would go with 10 teams and drop the Vandals as a football member. The Big Sky reached out and offered Idaho a chance to return to the conference beginning in 2018. The Vandals competed in the Big Sky until making the move to FBS and the rest of Idaho’s athletic programs are Big Sky members.
To be eligible for the FCS postseason, Idaho will see a reduction in the number of available football scholarships from 85 to 63. It’s part of the reason why the school is making the transition over two years.
“By having the two years to get there we will make sure we are where we need to be scholarship wise so that first year we can go into the playoffs and be successful there,” Idaho football coach Paul Petrino said.
Added Walsh: “In the short term, I think they will have an advantage (athletically). But in the long term, I think they’re going to have some rebuilding to do.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.