Flanked by football coach Paul Petrino and Athletic Director Rob Spear, Idaho President Chuck Staben confirmed at a press conference Thursday morning that the Vandals will join the Big Sky Conference in football in 2018, pending approval by the State Board of Education.

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Flanked by football coach Paul Petrino and Athletic Director Rob Spear, Idaho President Chuck Staben confirmed at a press conference Thursday morning that the Vandals will join the Big Sky Conference in football in 2018, pending approval by the State Board of Education.

“I understand the magnitude of this decision and the strong opinions that surround it, both for and against, but joining the Big Sky Conference is the best possible course for our athletics program and for our university,” Staben said. “We have carefully weighed our options and concluded that competing as an independent with an extremely uncertain future conference affiliation would be irresponsible when we have the alternative of joining one of the most stable FCS conferences.

“The Big Sky allows us to renew traditional rivalries and offers our athletes the opportunity to excel, just as they do in our other Big Sky sports programs.”

The announcement came as no surprise. Idaho, whose football team competed in the Big Sky Conference from 1965-95, made the jump to the Western Athletic Conference in 1997 but has struggled to keep up financially in college football’s top division.

The Vandals’ athletic department made $19.6 million in revenue in 2014-15 – the least among all schools with FBS football programs.

As Spear said during Thursday’s press conference, “it was impossible for us to afford to stay at this level.”

All Idaho sports programs aside from football returned to the Big Sky in 2012, after the WAC stopped offering football as a sport. The football team however, competed as an independent in 2012 before joining the Sun Belt in 2013.

The Vandals were backed into a corner in March, when the Sun Belt decided that it would not renew Idaho’s football-only membership past the 2017 season.

The Big Sky extended an invitation to Idaho with a May 4 deadline, and after much deliberation, which included hiring an independent consultancy firm to evaluate the Vandals’ options, the decision was made to go back to the FCS.

The Vandals now embark on a two-year transition to get in compliance with FCS-level NCAA rules. For instance, they’ll be limited to 63 football scholarships (instead of 80) from 2018 onward.

“To be eligible for the playoffs, we have to have 63 scholarships. We have a transition plan and we have to accommodate the needs of our current student-athletes and to ensure the future growth of the program from a recruiting standpoint,” Spear said.

Even though Idaho will have to decrease the number of football scholarships it offers, Spear shook off the notion that the Vandals might have to cut programs to maintain Title IX compliance and said that at this time there were “no plans to eliminate sports at the University of Idaho.”

Petrino said he met with his team Thursday morning to inform them of Idaho’s decision to drop to the FCS level.

“I felt like the response at the team meeting went very well. I’ve been meeting with each player individually this week, and I told the freshmen and sophomores that if they need to talk more one-on-one, they can meet with me through the week and throughout the weekend,” Petrino said.

The other obvious question, of course, was whether Petrino, who has coached at Illinois, Utah State, Southern Mississippi, and Louisville, is even interested in staying at Idaho now that the program’s days in the FBS ranks are numbered.

His response: “Yes I am. I am looking forward to it.”

Idaho is thought to be the first football team to ever drop from the FBS to FCS level. However, Staben countered that notion in his conference, pointing to the University of Chicago’s decision to leave the Big Ten in 1946 as a similar situation. (The Chicago Maroons have since dropped down to Division III and they now compete in the Southern Athletic Association.)

“We want to focus on the student-athlete and focus on a great experience for those who come here to play football, and ensure that every time our student-athletes step on the field, they will be competitive,” Staben said. “Our student-athletes in other sports are competing successfully for championships in the Big Sky. We believe our football team can also do that from 2018 on.”