Vandals to Return to Big Sky Conference in 2014-15 - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather

Vandals to Return to Big Sky Conference in 2014-15

MOSCOW, Idaho – The University of Idaho accepted a membership invitation from the Big Sky Conference for all sports – with the exception of football, which announced its 2013 independent schedule.

"We are pleased to announce the renewal of our partnership with the Big Sky Conference," said University of Idaho M. Duane Nellis, who signed the agreement – at the league's Oct. 16 meeting at Park City, Utah, to move the Vandals to the Big Sky beginning with the 2014-15 school year.

"As one of the six charter members, our relationship with the Big Sky is a long and storied one. Our student-athletes won team titles and individual championships, and were honored for their academic successes during our original 32 years in the league. We look forward to the same on-field and in-the-classroom achievement as we rejoin the Big Sky."

Director of Athletics Rob Spear and Nellis agreed the renewed regional rivalries are a significant piece in the Vandals' conference status, as is maintaining their NCAA Division I status in all sports. They also applauded the Big Sky's commitment to excellence and reputation as a competitive, successful and robust league.

"The Big Sky is a conference rich in its history and successes," Spear said. "Returning to the Big Sky allows us to renew regional and historic rivalries. Some of these rivalries date back more than 100 years and are a significant part of our legacy as Vandals.

"We are appreciative of our time in the Western Athletic Conference but at this point, we believe this is the best move for our programs."

The landscape of the Big Sky Conference translates to less travel for Vandal teams, which reduces time spent out of class as well as travel costs.

The Big Sky embraced the return of the Vandals.

"We welcome The University of Idaho back to the Big Sky, a conference where it excelled athletically and academically for more than 30 years as a flagship member,'' Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton said. "For decades Idaho enjoyed very successful athletics teams across the board in the Big Sky Conference. We expect the Vandals to enjoy success in our league again."

Vandal coaches Don Verlin (men's basketball), Jon Newlee (women's basketball) and Debbie Buchanan (volleyball) endorsed the move.

Said Verlin: ""I'm really excited about the regional rivalries that the Big Sky Conference has to offer. The Big Sky has shown over the last few years that they're competitive on the national scene and they've produced some very good players – Damian Lillard went sixth in the NBA Draft this year."

Said Newlee: "I love the move to the Big Sky. It's going to get us back to our rivalry games and create more fan interest. The league is very strong from a women's basketball standpoint. It's a talented league and obviously I know it well.  I think it's a great move for us and a great move for all of our sports at Idaho."

Said Buchanan: "It's the right move for our athletic department. It's something Rob has been working on for a while. For volleyball it's probably in some ways more competitive than the WAC right now. From a standpoint of student-athlete welfare, our students are going to be in class more and we're not going to be on the road as much. That will also help us from a recruiting standpoint."

As the bulk of the Vandals' sports return to the Big Sky, the Vandal football program will become one of six independent programs in the nation. Also playing as independents are Notre Dame, Navy, Army, BYU and New Mexico State.

Spear announced in August that the Vandals would explore independent football status. Today he announced the 12-game slate, which includes five home and seven road games.

"Over the last several years, we have invested a significant amount in FBS football," said Spear, adding the challenge of putting together an independent schedule is very complex and challenging. "There are many, many moving pieces. In the end, though, I believe we have the balance we need in our football schedule for next year – competitively and financially sound."

As part of the move to independent football status, Spear announced a back-up agreement with the Idaho Famous Potatoes Bowl is in the works.

"A tie-in with a bowl game is a key component for our football program," Spear said. "Not only are bowl games rewards for a season-well played but they are a rallying point and cause for celebration for our alumni, fans and boosters."