Idaho's schedule features nine road trips

Given half a chance, coaches and athletic directors will whine like tired 2-year-olds about their football schedules. But every one of them had better step off and pipe down when comparing their 2004 run with Idaho's.

This is sheer Vandal-ism:

  • Nine road games, including five in a row to start the season. (First home game: Oct. 9.)

  • Four non-conference games against 2003 bowl teams.

  • Three odysseys from the Rocky Mountains to below the Mason-Dixon Line, plus one to Michigan, plus (well, at least here's a perk) one to Hawaii.

  • All for a rookie head coach.

    "Those road games are brutal," said athletic director Rob Spear, who assumed the position in January and inherited the brutality. "We are all over the country this year. When we're playing nine road games, it's kind of hard to justify."

    The first three games have produced three losses by a combined total of 128-22, but the program has been hit even harder this week by the murder of redshirt freshman Eric McMillan. Two suspects have been arrested, but the pain is fresh -- and the road games keep coming.

    Here's how the Schedule From Hell happened:

    Every other year, Idaho draws the short end of the Sun Belt's seven-game league schedule, with three home games and four on the road -- and this is that year. To complicate matters, the Sun Belt molds its conference schedule around teams' non-conference slates, which is how Idaho wound up without a home game until October. He said the first schedule the league put out had the Vandals at home against Utah State Sept. 11, but that later was switched to a road game.

    (Luckily for Spear, the schedule wasn't final before he hired Nick Holt, a USC assistant, as his new head coach last winter. Otherwise it could have been a deal breaker.)

    The Vandals had four non-league road games, against Boise State, Oregon, Eastern Michigan and Hawaii. Their fifth non-league game, at Washington State, had been sold to cook the attendance books: the location went to Pullman and the gate went to the Cougars, in exchange for a six-figure guarantee and the opportunity to count the attendance toward the NCAA-mandated 15,000 minimum Division I-A season average for "home" games.

    "The only way it was a home game for us is that we wore black jerseys," Spear said. "Nothing else."

    When you're Idaho, scuffling by at the bottom of the I-A food chain, you get used to playing a majority of your games on the road against vastly superior teams. The kickbacks go a long way toward keeping the entire $9.4 million athletic program afloat -- although the price of a guaranteed game is going up sharply, and Spear believes Idaho is not being suitably compensated.

    Spear pulled out the contracts and read off the guarantees: $210,000 from Washington State -- not a bad deal, given the proximity to the Idaho campus in Moscow; $245,000 from Oregon -- not enough, in Spear's mind, given the travel; a mere $75,000 (but a chance to win) at Eastern Michigan; all travel expenses paid for the trip to Hawaii; and nothing for playing old in-state rival Boise State.

    Next year Spear has a $400,000 deal set with Washington -- the kind of payday that makes it palatable to go take a beating.

    "We need to, in the future, get the thing situated with a few big payday games," Spear said. "And then the rest are home games. We need to do a better job in this athletic department of getting some early home games."

    (This is the fourth time in the last six years that Idaho has opened with at least three straight on the road.)

    Spear estimates that a trip outside the local area, requiring at least one night in a hotel plus plane travel and meals, costs $150,000. That's why he's pushing for higher guarantees in the future.

    "If we're going to go play a team in the SEC, the payday probably needs to be a minimum of $650,000," he said.

    Flying across country for that kind of windfall is fine with Spear. It's the marathon trips to play league games that don't make sense.

    That's why Idaho is leaving to join the more geographically consistent Western Athletic Conference next year. The Vandals will be back in a league with rival Boise State and will be near two other opponents, Nevada and Utah State. There will be no more need to visit Murfreesboro, Tenn.

    "It's going to be great for us in the future in the Western Athletic Conference," Spear said.

    If the Vandals can survive the present.

    Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.