Highland-Century football (copy)

The Highland High School football team runs onto the field before a game on Oct. 11, 2019, at Idaho State University’s Holt Arena in Pocatello.

Idaho State University won’t play football this fall.

The university announced its plans in a press release shortly after the Big Sky Conference officially said Friday morning that all conference football games are being postponed to the spring of 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, it’s unclear whether conference teams have a path towards playing non-conference games in the fall, but Idaho State preempted that debate with its press release.

“Idaho State will not play its previously scheduled conference and non-conference football games this fall,” the ISU release said. “We are working to arrive at agreements with schools for the non-conference games to address the missed games in future seasons.”

Idaho State was scheduled to play Fresno State, Northern Iowa and New Mexico in non-conference football games this year.

The move also impacts local high schools, which won’t be allowed to play football games at ISU’s Holt Arena in Pocatello this fall, ISU said. Pocatello, Century and Highland high schools all use Holt as their home field.

Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 said it hopes to still move forward with its fall sports season including football despite the fact that Holt can’t be used until spring.

“We are saddened by ISU’s decision to suspend the football season until spring, but we understand the issues surrounding this tough decision,” Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 said in a statement. “We appreciate our partnership with ISU as our educational and athletic partner and know that will continue into the future.”

Friday morning’s announcement capped a wild few days of speculation and reports over what the Big Sky would decide to do with its fall season.

Sources had told the Idaho State Journal late Thursday that the Big Sky Conference football season was being postponed until the spring of next year.

The Big Sky confirmed the move in its press release Friday morning.

“Due to continuing concerns related to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the Big Sky Conference is postponing its fall 2020 football season to spring 2021,” the conference’s press release said. “The conference’s Presidents’ Council convened Thursday and voted to move forward in this manner.”

Conference teams, including Idaho State, will play an eight-game conference schedule in the spring.

ISU Athletic Director Pauline Thiros said that the possibility of having fans at the games was a big factor in moving the season.

“The conference ADs have been meeting at least twice a week evaluating this,” Thiros said. “We want to do our best to preserve opportunities for our student-athletes. ... A couple of things just became evident, that with football, the inordinate size of the crowds that attend the games is a public health risk in our states right now. Crowds are really not feasible (at this time) and that was a major determining factor.”

The season had been in limbo for months as the NCAA and conferences waffled on whether to cancel, postpone or move ahead.

The Big Sky’s Presidents’ Council met Thursday and took advice from the conference’s athletic directors before making the final decision.

“Difficult decision for us as a conference,” Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill said in a Zoom call with the media Friday. “We took a lot of time, a lot of input from a lot of people. We feel really good about us keeping the health and safety of our student-athletes and coaches at the forefront of our decision. Following the protocols was just not going to work for our institutions.”

He continued, “It’s never easy to do this, never easy to tell our student-athletes they’re not going to have a season the way they planned, but we’re in very unique circumstances right now and we have to make some unique decisions.”

Idaho State had already seen its scheduled opening game, set for Aug. 29 at New Mexico, pushed back into September, and then likely canceled — along with the Bengals’ Fresno State game — when the Mountain West Conference set a starting date of Sept. 26.

The ISU football team was originally scheduled to start fall practice on July 31 but had pushed that back to Friday, Aug. 7, amid the uncertainty. It’s now unclear when ISU’s fall workouts will start after Friday morning’s announcement that the school’s football season will be postponed. With a decision made, the Bengals now at least know what they have to prepare for.

“Every August for 30 years, 31 years, I’m ready for long hours and being grouchy, and players are ready to go out and have long, hard days of camp,” ISU head football coach Rob Phenicie said. “We let (the players) be disappointed for about five minutes, and then we said, ‘Good, let’s go, this gives us an opportunity to get better.’ You just have to rewire your mind. There was probably more of a sense of uncertainty around the team due to the fact that there was so much uncertainty going on.”

He continued, “Once we finally got word, it was like, OK, now we can move on, we know exactly what our direction is.”

Some Idaho State players reacted to the news on Twitter. Bengals wide receiver Xavier Guillory posted a peace sign emoji with the comment, “Still have the same work ethic. I stay ready so I don’t have to ever get ready. See you in spring y’all.”

Although Idaho State won’t play non-conference games this fall, other Big Sky Conference schools might still have the chance to. The Big Sky Conference said the matter is still under review.

Shortly after the initial announcement from the conference on Friday morning left that door open, the University of Idaho said that it was planning to still play non-conference football games, while Montana State University’s football team began its first practice of fall camp.

“We’re still working through that,” Wistrcill said about the non-conference game issue. “We’re going to do a little review here as a conference over the next few days (and) get our presidents’ committee back together next week sometime to make a final decision on non-conference play. There’s way too much being worked on right now for us to kind of speculate on how that’s going to work out.”

With the decision to move to the spring, the Big Sky hopes to drive the discussion towards having the FCS playoffs in the spring as well. With its decision, the conference took the number of eligible FCS teams playing in the fall below the 50% mark that the NCAA Board of Governors declared Wednesday was necessary to have a fall championship.

The Big Sky was the first of the three major FCS conferences — the others are the Colonial Athletic Association and the Missouri Valley Football Conference — to declare its intentions to play in the spring. Previously, the CAA had canceled its fall season while allowing teams to make their own independent schedules, while the MVFC had not yet made a decision.

“We hope it has a significant influence,” Wistrcill said about the Big Sky’s decision to postpone its football season. “We believe we’re the best conference in the country for FCS football, and we hope to drive that decision (to move the FCS playoffs to the spring).... I think now that we’ve hit the 50% factor and there won’t be a championship this fall, we believe that the CAA will join us, hopefully the Valley will as well, in pushing for this. I have every indication that can happen, as far as early returns from the NCAA about, yeah, let’s find a way to make this happen.”

Wistrcill conceded that a playoff in the spring might have a reduced number of participants, down from the established 24.

The Big Sky’s Friday announcement did not affect other fall sports.

In late July, the conference pushed back the starting date for fall Olympic sports — volleyball, soccer and cross country — to Sept. 18, and for golf to Sept. 14.

In its Friday morning press release, the conference stated that “other Big Sky sports that compete in the fall will continue to be reviewed with a final determination made at a later date.”

“We are going to monitor that situation real carefully,” Wistrcill said. “You are dealing with smaller population groups (than with football). So it’s easier to test, easier to track.... It’s under consideration whether those sports will play.”

Change Affects Season-Ticket Holders, High Schools

In its press release, Idaho State said that season-ticket holders will be offered a full refund, or have the option of applying their payment to a spring schedule.

Meanwhile, local high school coaches reacted to not being able to use Holt Arena this fall.

“A lot of teams like to go into the dome late in the year when it’s cold and snowy,” Highland head football coach Gino Mariani said. “There’s going to be some fallback on this and we’re going to have to re-evaluate where we’re playing.”

Mariani said that Highland was planning to play at the school’s lower field. The Rams will host Thunder Ridge there on Aug. 21, replacing a matchup against Mountain View that was canceled.

In a Friday evening press release, Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 said that fields at Highland and Century will be used to host all three of its high school football teams now that Holt Arena is unavailable.

The Rocky Mountain Rumble, an early fall showcase featuring high school football teams from Idaho and Utah and traditionally held at Holt Arena, is in the process of being moved to Madison High School in Rexburg, although that hasn’t been finalized yet.

“This will be the first time in pretty much ever (that high schools won’t play at Holt) from my understanding,” Mariani said. “Since it was built, I think the high schools moved into there.... We’re going to deal with it and go forward, and we’re just happy to be playing.”