MOSCOW Believing it's time to move on, the University of Idaho officially accepted an offer to become a member of the Big West Conference in athletics.

UI President Elisabeth A. Zinser announced Wednesday morning that the Vandals will leave the Big Sky Conference and join the Big West, effective July 1, 1996.

Earlier this fall, Big West officials invited Boise State, Idaho, Cal-Poly SLO and North Texas to join the conference in 1996. Idaho was the last of the four to accept.

The reason for Idaho's delay has been because of problems with meeting NCAA Division I-A qualifications in football. Currently, Idaho plays as a Division I-AA program. In order to move to I-A, Idaho must meet certain attendance criteria, including averaging 17,000 fans per home game over the next four years.

Idaho tried to obtain an attendance waiver from the NCAA, which would allow the school to compete at the I-A level while ignoring attendance requirements. The NCAA, however, turned down that request.

Thus, Zinser said, Idaho will compete at the I-AA level in football the next four years to meet the NCAA criteria before making the move to the I-A level. Idaho will, however, follow I-A guidelines once it joins the conference, making it ineligible to compete in the I-AA playoffs following next season. There is some talk still going on between the school and the conference, but it's possible Idaho could be eligible for the Big West title in 1996.

Rather than the content, the timing of Wednesday's announcement appears to be key, especially for football coach John L. Smith, who has run into problems in recruiting for next year with Idaho's unknown status.

'It has been a thorn in our side,'' Smith said. ''From our standpoint, it has been working against us. Now, this is a great shot in the arm recruiting for us.''

The big recruiting challenge, however, is to get fans in the stands at the home football games. Despite having its 13th straight winning season and being 7-0 at one point this year, Idaho's home attendance average was a dismal (and overestimated) 10,200.

Idaho officials say next year's home schedule, which includes Boise State, Montana and Eastern Washington, should help increase attendance figures to around a 12,500 average, leaving the school roughly 4,500 short of meeting the 17,000 NCAA requirement. The school will begin an aggressive marketing plan and will increase seating by 500 in the 16,500-capacity Kibbie Dome. The increased seating will come about with only minor changes, according to Zinser, who said major remodeling on the Kibbie Dome, if needed, won't come any time soon.

Jerry Wallace, Idaho vice president of finance, said a recent study done in the Moscow area should help UI become more aggressive in marketing the games. He said there are about 750,000 people living within a 100-mile radius of Moscow, including Spokane, Coeur d'Alene and Lewiston. The plan is to get more of these residents to the game by offering more.

''We expect our events to be more fun and more meaningful to participate in,'' Zinser said. ''We realize that in surveys and conversation with the students that we have a tremendous opportunity and untapped potential to enhancing events.''

Wallace said one thing that has been discussed is offering bus transportion in the Coeur d'Alene area for fans to make the trip to home games. Also, more special events may be planned around games.

Another key is getting more students to the games. Wallace said the average student attendance for home football games this season was 1,900 and he thinks the school can double that next year. He also said corporations have expressed an interest in buying any leftover tickets.

The attendance issue could become a moot point after the 1996 NCAA Convention. There is much speculation that the major football conferences will join together and form a super-power division, cornering the TV and bowl markets. Thus, conferences such as the Big West will be left out and will be forced to form their own division. If that happens, and most indications seem to point in that direction, a new set of rules will be needed to govern the lower division and attendance requirements will be one of the things that will be addressed.

''Anything right now is purely speculative,'' Idaho athletic director Pete Liske said of the potential changes. ''It's hard to say what will happen.''

While football is at the forefront of the move, UI officials say too much emphasis has been placed on the sport regarding the move.

''People look at this as a football-related deal, which it is not,'' Smith said. ''This is us and we. We are all in this together. It is an athletic department move, not a football department move.''

''The one word I have is awesome,'' UI women's basketball coach Julie Holt said. ''This is a great opportunity for the entire university and the athletic department as well as academics. People have the option to stay the same, fall down, or get better and we are getting better moving into the Big West.''

Zinser said she faxed Idaho's acceptance to Big West Conference officials early Wednesday morning.

''My perception is that this is certainly an early Christmas present,'' Big West Conference Commissioner Dennis Farrell said. ''I share their excitement and enthusiasm.''

The move will leave the Big Sky Confernece with six schools Eastern Washington, Montana, Montana State, Idaho State, Weber State and Northern Arizona. The conference is expected to add two members to replace Idaho and Boise State, with Southern Utah and Portland State heading the list.

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