PARK CITY, Utah — For the last two decades, the road to the Big Sky Conference football championship has run parallel trough I-90.
Until Southern Utah’s Big Sky title last fall, a combination of Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington won at least a share of every Big Sky Conference since 1995. Montana distanced itself from the rest of the league with a streak of 15 Big Sky titles that included winning at least a share of the league every season for 12 straight. Between 1995 and 2009, the Grizzlies advanced to seven FCS national title games, claiming national titles in 1995 and 2001.
This decade, it has been the Eagles and the Bobcats that have dominated the landscape. MSU won three straight Big Sky crowns for the first time in school history between 2010 and 2012. Eastern Washington has claimed at least a share of four of the last six BSC crowns and owns the league’s last national championship. EWU shared the 2010 league title with Montana State before ripping off an impressive run to the national title six years ago.
The fervent fan bases, the superior stadiums, the ability to capitalize on the talent provided by each school’s recruiting territory; all can be pointed to as factors of the rise of the three schools. But what would the Big Sky look like if not for the departure of three powerful members two decades?
In 1992, Nevada began the exodus from the Big Sky. The Wolfpack played for the I-AA national title in 1990 and qualified for the national semifinals two other times before making the jump. The departure sparked the idea in the Emerald State as well, with both Boise State and Idaho making the jump to the I-A ranks following the 1995 season.
Boise State claimed the I-AA national championship in 1980 for the Big Sky’s first football national title in the Division I era in the third season of the subdivision. Idaho State would follow with its lone national title the next season and Montana State would claim its only national title of the Division I era in 1984. But it was Idaho, under the direction of head coach Dennis Erickson followed by Keith Gilbertson, who established themselves as the most consistently dominant program in the Big Sky in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“I played when they were in (the Big Sky) and they were the power, not Montana or any of these other guys,” said Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum, a linebacker at Eastern Washington in the late 1980s.
Idaho owns eight Big Sky banners overall, third in league history behind the Montana schools despite not playing in the league for 20 seasons. Behind the star play of conference legends like quarterbacks Doug Nussmeier and John Friez, the Vandals claimed Big Sky titles in 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1992 while advancing to the playoffs 11 times, including two I-AA semifinal appearances.
“Being from North Idaho, it was a big afternoon when you got to go see the Kamiah kid (former quarterback Ken Hobart) go sling it around the dome or watch a Montana State alum (Dennis Erickson) coach the Vandals,” said Montana State first-year head coach Jeff Choate, a native of Saint Maries who coached high school football in Chalis, Twin Falls and Post Falls before jumping into the college ranks. “Back in those days, the Kibbie Dome was packed every afternoon. It didn’t matter if they were playing Montana State or Montana or Eastern Washington or Boise State or Nevada. I remember seeing some unbelievably competitive, awesome games. Those are some of my earlier memories understanding that’s what college football is.”
In 2018, the Vandals will make their much-anticipated return to the Big Sky after a generation of trying to find their footing in the FBS.
Chris Tormey led Idaho to a 27-18 mark in four seasons in the Big West before giving way to Tom Cable. Since that hire 2000, Idaho has had six head coaches, including a one-season comeback by Erickson in 2006. The Big West became the WAC and the struggles continued to mount. Idaho qualified for just one bowl game in the last 18 years, winning the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl. Since 2000, Idaho is 66-134.
When the WAC dropped football in 2012, the situation became even more challenging. Idaho played as an independent for the 2013 season before joining the Sun Belt. Earlier this year, the Sun Belt announced Idaho and New Mexico State would not be invited back following the 2017 season. It remains to be seen what New Mexico State’s future is but Idaho is coming home.
“Idaho fits geographically and fits in so many ways,” said NAU 19th-year head coach Jerome Souers, an assistant at Montana from 1986 until 1997. “Having seen it when they were in the conference, they were a dominant team in the conference during their tenure here. Bringing those traditions back can only be for the good of the conference.”
“Idaho was an incredible team in this conference for a lot of years,” added Eastern Washington ninth-year head coach Beau Baldwin. “They are going to be tremendously tough. They are right down the road from us. It adds another rivalry piece for us both playing and recruiting”
Moscow, Idaho and Cheney, Washington are 70 miles apart. The Vandals’ return puts a Big Sky school right in Baldwin’s backyard. The Vandals also have deep rivalries with Idaho State and Montana dating back to the beginning of the Big Sky. UM and UI even have a trophy, the Little Brown Stein, but the teams haven’t played since 2003, a 41-28 win by the Griz in Missoula.
“From our aspect, their return is huge because that was a big-time rivalry and a lot of fans, especially the older fans are excited about having them back in,” Montana second-year head coach Bob Stitt said.
Idaho also brings a strong academic influence back to the league. The state’s land-grant institution offers one of the best engineering programs in the region.
“Idaho has always been a really good academic institution and it helps us as Montana State because we already recruit a lot against Idaho because of the engineering programs,” Choate said. “There’s a lot of familiarity between our two schools so having another really strong academic institution enter the Big Sky is going to benefit us at Montana State. I think with the scheduling, regionally it’s unbelievable for Eastern Washington and Idaho State and Montana and Montana State. It’s another original Big Sky member coming back to the fold and I think that helps our league very much.”
It remains to be seen what stipulations are placed on Idaho, one of a few schools to transition from FBS to FCS. The Vandals have been operating with 85 full scholarships for most of the last generation but will have to cut to 63. Playoff eligibility and the way the return affects scheduling remain unknown but the competition Idaho will bring to the gridiron is not in question.
“They’ve been funded at a different level as an FBS program. I think (athletic director) Rob Spear and the athletic department there has done a great job of updating the facilities. Anybody that hasn’t been in the Kibbie Dome in awhile will be pleasantly surprised. Their facility looks completely different,” said Choate, who will coach his first game as a Division I head coach in the Kibbie Dome on September 1. “I think on paper right away, they will have an immediate advantage.”
Photos courtesy of University of Idaho Athletics. All Rights Reserved.