FYI: Idaho Football is awesome now

I went to the Kibbie Dome to learn more

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

I am currently in Pullman, WA, as part of a reporting trip through the Pacific Northwest. I spent Saturday in Boise, and Sunday in Moscow. These reporting trips are made possible thanks to your subscriptions, and the support of our advertising partners.

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You’ll be forgiven if you haven’t thought much about Idaho Vandals football recently. The squad failed to crack .500 in their first four seasons back at the FCS level, and they spent the bulk of the previous twenty years near the very bottom of the FBS ranks. Since 2000, Idaho had more one-win campaigns (five) than bowl seasons (two).

But this year? This year, the Idaho Vandals are kicking ass.

Over the weekend, Idaho knocked off the #2 ranked Montana State Bobcats, 24-21. But that wasn’t a fluke. The Vandals made the FCS Playoffs for the first time since returning to the FCS ranks last season, and this year, they’ve already knocked off a top-ten Sacramento State squad, gave Cal everything they could handle, and beat the absolute tar out of FBS Nevada. At 6-2, with just one FCS loss, and with a manageable remaining regular season schedule, the Vandals aren’t just thinking about making the Playoff…they’re thinking about a national seed and making a deep run.

Idaho Associate AD Jerek Wolcott told me that the Vandals also sold out their last two home games, a streak that he said hasn’t happened since the 1990s. And while the Kibbie Dome isn’t big, its unique architecture means it can get really loud.

I’ll be honest…the Kibbie Dome is a major part of why I reached out to Jerek and made sure to swing by campus on my drive up to Pullman. From the outside, nothing about the place screams ‘football stadium’, (Andrew Houghton of Skyline Sports described it as ‘a beer can cut in half and stuck in the ground’), and the interior is even more…unique, thanks to the East-West field configuration, big ol’ skylights, and walls at the end of each end zone. It feels kind of like an enormous airplane hangar with astroturf. It rules.

The building became something of a cult icon among players of the NCAA football video game, something that Wolcott is very aware of, and doesn’t try to hide. You can’t take yourself too seriously, after all, when your football team plays in a meme.

I haven’t had the pleasure of actually watching a game here, but I have to admit, the charm of the Kibbie Dome isn’t some its-so-bad-its-good sort of thing, but rather because it’s so unique. You don’t normally think “wow, there’s actually a ton of natural light in this stadium” on account of college football stadiums not typically having ceilings. But once you get your bearings around the size of the dang thing, I didn’t come away thinking any of it was low-rent or slapdash, at least compared to other FCS stadiums I’ve visited. It’s just really different.

Right next door, Idaho recently opened a brand new basketball facility, one that’s a bit more conventionally appealing. The 4,000-seat arena, which opened in 2021, feels almost like it’s inside of an upscale ski lodge. It features a modern television production studio, basketball practice courts, and a massive amount of Idaho timber, including wood harvested from the school’s own experimental forest.

With a sparkling new basketball facility and a football team that’s competing for championships….is there any regret about this whole FCS business? Was it all worth it?

Way back in 2019, in the very earliest days of Extra Points, I remember interviewing Colton Clark, who was then the beat writer for the Lewiston Tribune. He pointed to Idaho having a difficult on-the-field transition to FCS, in part, because of having a mismatched roster full of players recruited to play against Sun Belt competition. Even though the team had talent, it wasn’t disciplined and completely aligned with the task at hand.

After talking to a few other administrators and fans over the last few days, I heard a similar story about the administrative side during that transition. The school announced they were heading back to FCS in 2016, but multiple people have told me that despite what former university president Chuck Staben said at the time, there were coaches and administrators in the department who were against the decision and wanted to find ways to reverse it. Initially, the move was also deeply unpopular with many fans and boosters. The initial on-the-field struggles certainly didn’t help.

But the department looks different now. Staben left and was replaced by C. Scott Green, a Moscow native and third-generation Vandal. Terry Gawlik took over as athletic director in 2019. When Idaho moved on from Paul Petrino, who coached the program in the FBS ranks, they hired Jason Eck, the former offensive coordinator at South Dakota State and a longtime FCS coach. Most other coaches and senior athletic department staff are newer, having joined the department post-FCS transition.

Wolcott told me that beyond the recent sellouts, he believes fans better understand the vision for the department and the program now. After all, he said, the move back to FCS allowed the program to restore many longtime rivalries. “We’re playing Montana again, Montana State, Eastern Washington…these are teams Idaho fans care about.” He would know, having grown up in the area and having spent the bulk of his educational and professional career in the Big Sky footprint.

A move to FCS is not going to pay off financially in the short term, as game guarantees are substantially lower in the FCS, as are conference television payouts. Over a long enough time period, especially as costs continue to skyrocket at the FBS level, Idaho will probably save money, but that isn’t the most important thing.

Now, Wolcott told me, he sees a department that is “comfortable being what we are.” That’s a comfort level with their location, their resources, their history, their rivalries, and their department goals. That may mean playing in the Spiritual Home of the College Football Sickos Committee, down the street from the Idaho Beef Center and the Seed Potato Germplasm Laboratory.

But right now, it also means competing for championships. And that’s a pretty good place to be.

I’ll have more from my trip to Boise, Pullma,n and more, later this week.

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