The Front Row with MARK NELKE Feb. 19, 2012

Vandals just hoping to find a seat

Like the rest of us, University of Idaho athletic director Rob Spear watches the changing landscape of college athletics with a wary eye.

These days, the spotlight is on the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA, which plans to merge the remaining teams from their conferences into one big league.

They are also looking to add even more teams from other leagues, including the very Western Athletic Conference in which Idaho resides.

However, while fellow WAC members San Jose State, Utah State, New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech have been mentioned as possible additions to the Mountain West/Conference USA, Idaho's name has not surfaced as a potential school for that league.

In the most recent game of conference musical chairs, that could leave the Vandals still standing when the music stops, unable to find a seat.

"It makes me nervous - it makes me really nervous," Spear said recently, while in Coeur d'Alene as part of a booster function.

The new league - call it Conference Whatever - would include Air Force, Colorado State, UNLV, New Mexico and Wyoming from the Mountain West, Alabama-Birmingham, East Carolina, Marshall, Rice, Southern Mississippi, UTEP, Tulane and Tulsa from Conference USA, and Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii, who are in the WAC this year, but will join the Mountain West next year.

And C-Whatever has said it would like to add as little as two and as many as eight more schools.

Should the WAC survive this shuffle with its current members intact, the league would have seven football-playing schools - Idaho, San Jose State, Utah State, New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech, plus Texas State and Texas-San Antonio, which join the league this fall.

Football Bowl Subdivision requirements say a league must have eight football-playing schools, so the WAC will either have to petition to keep its FBS status, or propose legislation which changes the minimum from eight teams to seven. Either way, Spear doesn’t see it as an issue.

However, he said the WAC’s focus is to find an eighth, football-playing school — even better if the WAC could find two teams for a nine-team league. That would help with scheduling, giving each team four home conference games and four on the road. But, there’s slim pickings out west among FBS programs, and Montana of the Football Championship Subdivision turned down a chance to join the WAC a while back.

Of course, the fact that the WAC’s longtime commissioner, Karl Benson, is leaving to become head of the Sun Belt Conference, an even lower-profile league, can’t be seen as an encouraging sign.

Denver, Seattle U and Texas-Arlington join the WAC as basketball-playing schools in 2012, giving the league 10 schools for hoops. When Boise State dumps all its programs except for football back in the WAC in 2013 — or perhaps as soon as next year, or with the emergence of Conference Whatever, maybe never — the WAC would have 11 basketball-playing schools. If that’s the case, Spear said the WAC would probably still play an 18-game conference schedule, with some schools only meeting once, not twice.

Spear touched on some other topics, including:

• Boise State’s return to the WAC in all sports except for football. Remember, Boise State left the WAC for greener pastures; i.e., the Mountain West, last year, and is leaving that for the Big East in football only, probably in 2013. Why welcome them back, especially if it doesn’t include their nationally known football team?

“It was a hotly debated topic among the (WAC athletic directors), but at the end of the day, there were enough votes on the table to make it happen,” Spear said. “Rivalry aside, I need to look at the health of the WAC. I certainly had the opportunity to voice my opinion about the situation.”

What did Spear say?

“I think what a lot of people were saying out there — they left the WAC, why are you going to bring them back in? But when you look at the overall health of the Western Athletic Conference, you need to put certain things aside.”

• The WAC’s TV deal with ESPN. Right now, ESPN pays the WAC $1 million per year to televise football and basketball, which means Idaho’s chunk of the pie is slightly more than $100,000 — a paltry figure.

With Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii — three of the better football teams in the league — leaving for the Mountain West next year, ESPN will likely try to negotiate that figure downward. Spear counters that, with the incoming members, that figure should go up.

“A lot of television rights fees are driven by market,” he said. “We’re bringing in the San Antonio market. We’re bringing in the Denver market for basketball, even though football drives the show. We’re bringing in the Seattle market, so even though we’ve lost some schools, I think we’re bringing in some attractive markets.”

The WAC gets no money from games televised by Altitude TV — only “exposure,” Spear said.

• Bowl tie-ins. The WAC enters this season with just one bowl arrangement — the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise. In recent years, the WAC has had as many as four bowl tie-ins. Spear said the WAC will negotiate backup agreements with some other bowls, in case other conferences don’t have enough eligible teams to fill those bowls.

“I’m optimistic the WAC is still going to have the opportunity to participate in three bowls,” Spear said.

• Playing Washington State in football again. The two teams haven’t met since 2007.

“We’ve had some preliminary discussions,” Spear said.

Part of the holdup is the Pac-12’s insistence that its members play their three nonconference games early, and play their nine conference games after that.

Spear said Idaho already has many of those early weeks booked through 2014.

“So I don’t have a lot of flexibility,” he said. “But I would certainly like to play that game, I think it makes a lot of sense, I think it made a lot of sense to not play it for a while, but I do think it makes some sense to play that game every few years.”

• Playing Boise State in football again. The teams played for 40 straight years before discontinuing the series following the 2010, when BSU left for the Mountain West.

The sticking point remains — Boise State is willing to play Idaho in Boise only, but the Vandals insist on playing home-and-home.

“I think if you’re going to have a rivalry game, then you need to play it home and home,” Spear said. “I think it’s the right thing for the state, I think it’s the right thing for the student bodies.”

• Idaho’s 2-10 football season last year, coming just two years removed from a bowl game appearance. Much was made, in the wake of the 56-3 loss at Nevada in the season finale, that Spear was going to meet with football coach Robb Akey, with the inference that changes needed to be made.

“Coach Akey presented a plan, and he is in the process of putting that plan into place,” Spear said. “I hire head football coaches to make those decisions, and coach Akey has made the decisions. Nobody was happy with our football season last year, but you look at how well we played in certain games, to say that it is entirely broken is not true.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter at CdAPressSports.

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