Idaho has accepted an invitation to join the Sun Belt Conference as a football-only member, effective July 1, 2014. New Mexico State will also join the conference as a football-only member, while Georgia Southern and Appalachian State will be added as full-fledged constituents.
The Idaho State Board of Education voted unanimously on Wednesday to allow the university to join the conference.
"We're very excited to be here today and announce that the University of Idaho is joining the Sun Belt Conference for football-only membership," athletic director Rob Spear said. "It's something that we've been working towards for quite a long time, since we announced our independent status back in August. It's going to provide great stability for our football program."
The Sun Belt will have 12 football members with the additions in 2014, which allows it to split into two six-team divisions and hold a conference championship game. Sun Belt members will play either eight or nine conference games a season, commissioner Karl Benson said, although that has yet to be decided upon.
"This does take us to 12 football playing schools and it is our intention to conduct a football championship game, although we aren't ready to discuss any of the details or any of the arrangements, although I think I've made it very clear that one of our goals was to get to 12 football playing schools so we could conduct a football championship game," Benson said.
Spear said he originally reached out to Benson about a year ago and the two have talked once a month since then, as both expected conference shifts.
"I think the Sun Belt's in a good situation. I think they have a lot of access to a lot of schools in their region of the country," Spear said. "They have the ability to expand and invite additions. One of the only questions we had was, 'OK, what happens if you have more movement in the conference?' They certainly have plans to invite other institutions to their conference. I think they're in a pretty good spot."
Idaho was an attractive match for the Sun belt for a variety of reason, but the commitment to be an FBS program may have been the strongest.
"They are an existing FBS ... member, they've invested a lot into their program," Benson said. "[They] have made a commitment to be an FBS in football. The renovations and the additions made to the Kibbie Dome the last few years has established and created a much better football environment in the Kibbie Dome for the Vandals."
The Vandals, who were members of the Sun Belt Conference from 2001-2005 before joining the Western Athletic Conference, will play the 2013 season as an independent. Spear said that he made a concerted effort not to lock Idaho into a schedule for the 2014 season to maintain flexibility if an opportunity to join a conference were to arise.
The financial motivations for a school to be an FBS program are reason enough to not drop to the FCS level, Spear said. He stated the belief that Idaho would bring in $1 million dollars minimum in revenue by year three and four of joining the Sun Belt. Spear also mentioned the belief that more FCS programs are "opening their eyes" to moving to FBS because of the financial repercussions.
One potential logistical issue with the Sun Belt is travel, as the majority of the conference is located in the southern part of the country, ranging from Texas to Florida. But Spear said he has no concerns with travel.
"It was an issue raised by our state board of education," he said. "We pointed out to them our travel situation the past few years, especially when we were in the old WAC, going to Hawaii, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State. So traveling four times a year down in the south is not a big issue.
"The challenge for us, I think, and important to us, is to get our nonconference scheduling more in the west, and I think we'll do that."