BOISE, Idaho — Idaho has been cleared to compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision as an independent, joining schools such as Notre Dame, BYU, Army and Navy as schools without a conference.
The Idaho State Board of Education voted 5-1 Friday to let Vandal athletic officials begin the challenge of filling its schedule for the 2013 season and beyond as the school prepares to exit the ailing Western Athletic Conference.
The board's vote also gives the UI permission to negotiate terms for rejoining the Big Sky Conference for men's and women's basketball, volleyball, track and other Vandal teams.
"We believe playing as an independent in football is the best solution," Duane Nellis, UI president, told the board Friday. "It allows us to develop an attractive schedule for fans ... keep our FBS status" and keep the school eligible for the big revenue generated by college football.
Idaho joined the WAC in 2005, but the league has been hit hard by conference realignment and the exodus of some of its marquee teams, including Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada.
The conference will play a 2012 season, but for football this year is likely the last. Utah State and San Jose State will be joining the Mountain West Conference next year, while Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio are moving to Conference USA. New WAC member Texas State is poised to join the Sun Belt Conference after this season.
The WAC's woes forced Idaho to consider alternatives, and after the Vandals were rejected earlier this year by The Mountain West Conference, athletic officials, convinced they wanted the team to remain an FBS competitor, made independence the focus.
Athletic Director Rob Spear and Nellis argue Idaho build a full and competitive schedule that keeps the Vandals relevant and fans and alumni happy. The challenge for Spear is convincing competitive teams to play at the Kibbie Dome, 17,000-seat indoor stadium in Moscow in north-central Idaho.
NCAA football rules require Idaho to schedule at least five home games per season, of which four must be with FBS schools. The Vandals also have to play at least nine games each season, with 60 percent against FBS schools.
So far, Idaho's 2013 schedule includes games against Wyoming, Mississippi, Northern Illinois and border rival Washington State.
By going independent and keeping its FBS status, Spear said the football team stands to bring in at least $1.5 million each year, money he said will be used to help support other programs.
For the other teams, the Big Sky represents a reunion of sorts. Idaho was a charter member of the conference, but left in 1996. Conference officials have said publicly they support bringing Idaho back into the fold and renewing geographic rivalries with schools like Montana, Montana State and Idaho State.