Flashback: In early 2013, New Mexico State Aggies football was facing one of its darkest periods in school history. The Aggies are a program that has the longest bowl drought in NCAA history (going on 56 years) and at the time, had just been orphaned in conference affiliation.
The Western Athletic Conference (WAC) had disintegrated as a football conference after the 2012 season, as part of a broader wave of conference realignment. All of the football-playing members of the WAC had jumped ship to greener pastures in the Mountain West Conference, Conference USA, or the Sun Belt Conference – with the exception of New Mexico State and the Idaho Vandals.
Both teams were stranded and forced to spend the 2013 season as FBS independents. Both were forced to play brutal schedules under first-year head coaches (Doug Martin at NMSU, and Paul Petrino at Idaho), with both the Vandals and the Aggies going 2-10 that year. Luckily, the Sun Belt threw a life raft to both schools, offering both Idaho and NMSU football-only memberships in the conference starting in 2014.
This past March, the rug was pulled out from under the feet of both schools.
In 2018, both NMSU and Idaho’s football-only Sun Belt memberships will expire. Within the past year, the Sun Belt decided to add a new member from the FCS (Coastal Carolina) in 2017 and to create a conference championship game, following the leads of the other FBS conferences (it should be noted that the Big 12 and the Sun Belt were the last two conferences to add a conference championship).
In the process, both NMSU and Idaho were kicked out of the Sun Belt after having a grand total of two seasons to make an impression to the powers-that-be. In an ironic twist, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson was also the former WAC commissioner, and he was the one giving both programs the axe.
This was after NMSU President Garrey Carruthers and Idaho President Chuck Staben made their cases to stay in the Sun Belt via PowerPoint presentations to the conference administrators back in early March. There were allegedly supporters of both the Aggies and the Vandals among the presidents of the Sun Belt schools, but in the end, the vote was unanimous – goodbye, Aggies and Vandals.
Again, the Sun Belt’s rationale was to have an even number of teams. As of right now, there are 11 Sun Belt football teams (including Idaho and NMSU). Add Coastal Carolina to the mix next season, and you’ll have 12; subtract NMSU and Idaho and you’ll be back at 10. This was in response to the NCAA’s decision to allow championships to conferences that have only 10 members (the previous limit had been 12, leaving out the Big 12 and the Sun Belt).
Up at Idaho, Staben made the devastating decision for the Vandals to drop down from the FBS to the FCS, joining the Big Sky Conference (which the Vandals are in for all other non-football sports).
This was an unprecedented move. Idaho football had spent 20 years at the FBS level and only had two bowl games to show for it, but a Division 1 team had never moved down a level. This also has numerous ramifications for Vandal football:
- Numerous long-time program boosters have threatened to withdraw their financial support for Idaho football.
- The Vandals will have to fire one assistant coach as part of FCS protocol.
- The Vandals will also have to reduce their roster by 22 players. FCS teams have only 65 players on scholarship, as opposed to FBS programs, which can have up to 85 and generally average 83. This means that within the next year, Coach Petrino and his staff will be forced to under-recruit in order to be compliant with the FCS scholarship limitations by 2018.
Recent emails between Staben and Idaho athletic director Rob Spear have came to light. These emails show Staben as being reluctant to fight for the Vandals’ FBS future, and already having made up his mind about dropping down to the FCS even before the Sun Belt officially announced its decision. Seeing the writing on the wall, it appears that Staben was ready to throw in the towel and hope for the best at the FCS level.
This was in stark contrast to Spear, Idaho’s longtime athletic director. Spear has been at his position in Moscow for over a decade – he was the one who hired Petrino and successfully maneuvered the team through the brutal 2013 campaign before accepting the Sun Belt’s initial invitation. For what it’s worth, Spear seemed to be optimistic that another conference would be willing to pick up the Vandals in the near future and reportedly urged Staben via email to err on the side of caution. (Note: these emails were legally obtained as part of an FOIA request by reporters at the Lewiston Tribune.)
In the end, it didn’t matter. At the press conference where Staben announced Idaho’s decision to step down, he claimed that it was a mutual decision among all parties involved. Spear’s body language at the adjacent podium suggested otherwise, although he has declined to comment on the situation since then.
Over 1,500 miles away, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a different decision was reached. Both Carruthers and athletic director Mario Moccia agreed to keep the Aggies at the FBS level, go independent again, and cross their fingers that a new conference would pick them up. This surprised some observers, with many predicting that the fates of Idaho and NMSU were tied to each other.
Could there be another seismic shift in the national landscape as far as conference realignment is concerned? Quite possibly.
The Big 12 stated over the summer that they are open to the idea of expanding back to 12 teams (the conference currently fields 10 teams in football). The most logical choice – both geographically and in terms of gridiron competition – would be the Houston Cougars of the American Athletic Conference, with possible interest from a school out west. BYU is currently an FBS independent who has shown interest in moving to a Power Five conference after spending previous years in the Mountain West. Both Houston and BYU would be interesting candidates, with BYU the more obvious choice for a football-only membership (they’re in different conferences for Olympic sports).
If the American loses Houston, they would likely poach a competitive team from Conference USA or the Sun Belt. Some likely C-USA candidates would be Western Kentucky, Southern Miss, or Marshall, while the Sun Belt’s most likely suitors would be Troy or Arkansas State.
Conference USA’s most recent additions were UTSA (2013) and Charlotte (2015); they currently field 13 teams in football (including NMSU’s closest regional rival, UTEP). If, for example, Western Kentucky jumped to the American, C-USA would be less likely to consider expanding, as they would be going from 13 teams back down to 12. Also, UAB is reinstating football in 2017 after a three-year absence, so instantly restocking C-USA with a brand-new team would be unlikely – unless, of course, C-USA is open to having 14 teams in two divisions.
How about the Mountain West? Hypothetically, if the Big 12 snatched Boise State, where would the MW turn to find a new member? The answer could once again lie with a rival team. In 2013, University of New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs went to bat for his rival school, petitioning the MW to add NMSU, but he was ignored. Would the conference be more open to expanding in two years?
It’s worth noting that NMSU is much more competitive now than they were in 2013, when Coach Martin inherited a rough FBS independent schedule, not to mention a dumpster fire from predecessor DeWayne Walker. With one more full season left before going independent again, can the Aggies make a case for themselves to join the MW or any other conference?
I can’t imagine that the Aggies will roll over and play dead (and they haven’t so far this year). There’s a healthy chip on this team’s shoulder, both now and heading into their final Sun Belt season in 2017. Idaho has already raised the white flag, but NMSU hasn’t, choosing to stick it out in the FBS and hope that someone is sympathetic to their cause. It’s a daunting task, but it took guts to go for it, and both Carruthers and Moccia deserve credit for that.
Let’s hope someone outside of Las Cruces takes notice.