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Paul Petrino

Coach Paul Petrino and the Idaho football program announced it is returning to the Big Sky Conference for the 2018 season.

BILLINGS — Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Fool me three times? Scrap the program.

That’s today's message for the University of Idaho — and a cautionary tale for the football programs at Montana and, to a lesser extent, Montana State.

Last week, the Vandals made the (sort of) unprecedented move of dropping from NCAA Division I-A, er, the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) formerly known as Division I-AA.

An alphabet soup realignment puts their football team back in the Big Sky Conference where it belongs in 2018, in the process reviving a Little Brown Stein rivalry with Montana that once was nearly as intense as the Grizzlies’ wild brawls with Montana State.

Idaho’s perilous journey to the brink of football oblivion is testimony to ego and proof of the old adage about being doomed to repeat history if you don’t learn from it.

Ego is the lesson Montana and MSU should heed.

Not so long ago, before the Grizzlies entered their current six-year stretch of relatively modest success, tailgaters puffed their chests outside of Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Delusions of grandeur emanated from one of the nation’s most picturesque football settings as Montana routinely steamrolled through the Big Sky and entered postseason play as a national title threat.

And why not? From 1986 through 2009, they averaged more than 10 wins a season. The Grizzlies’ 119 victories from 2000-09 were the most of any college team at any level.

The Griz were 21-3 against overmatched Montana State, in a game where record books are presumed to be cast aside due to uncaged emotions.

That stretch began as former Big Sky compatriots Idaho, Boise State and Nevada ascended.

Eventually Griz faithful thought: why not us?

The buzz peaked in 2010 when the Western Athletic Conference extended an invitation to UM.

Imagine the giddiness in Missoula. Imagine the stewing in Bozeman. Imagine the big-brother/little-brother verbal jousting in every Montana town.

Wisely, the Griz declined.

Unwisely, the Vandals had let their egos run askance, even with a history lesson for guidance.

Old-timers might recall that Idaho was a charter member of the Big Sky in 1963, but previously competed in the old Pacific Coast Conference with future Pacific-12 schools Oregon State, Oregon, Washington, Washington State, USC, UCLA and California, along with, yes, Montana (1924-50).

The Vandals were so woefully outgunned — Houston trounced them 77-3 and 77-6 — they were briefly demoted from the University Division (now FBS) in the late 1960s. 

By the 1980s, though, Idaho was a dominant force in a Big Sky that still had an alluring brand and seal reflecting the dramatic mountain backdrops connecting the eight members. From 1984-91, even as Boise State embarked on an internal “Pac-10 2000” campaign, the Vandals thumped the hated Broncos seven consecutive years.

Seriously.

So when Boise State began backing up the moving vans, Idaho alums bristled. The lawyers and engineers and environmental scientists who’d earned their degrees in Moscow from the state's premier academic institution, but now lived in Boise, couldn’t bear a glorified community college thumbing its nose at them at the grocery stores or in line at the post office.

And so off the Vandals went to play against the fan-scintillating likes of Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe and Middle Tennessee in three nondescript leagues before fading into the invisibility of independence. One winning season from 2000-15 exacerbated the collective yawn on the Palouse.

Montana fans with visions of bowl games still dancing in their heads might argue that the Griz aren’t Idaho, and Missoula isn't Moscow. They would be correct.

The Vandals are 55-27-2 all-time against Montana.

Talk of Montana elevating has quieted of late, which makes it a non-issue for MSU. But Idaho’s return to the Big Sky should only strengthen the resolve to stand pat. It restores a portion of an attractive brand obliterated when the league foolishly chased the TV money of Spokane, Portland and Sacramento.

Egos in Moscow and Boise are bruised today, but Montana, Montana State and Idaho State will be a much better draw than this year’s fare of Troy, New Mexico State, South Alabama and Georgia State.

The Vandals will discover that Sept. 1 when Montana State shows up with more boosters than the other four combined.

The Griz and Cats will always be top tier in the Big Sky. Isn’t that a cut above Mountain West's bottom tier or Sun Belt invisibility?

If not, you could’ve fooled me.

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Statewide 406 Sports Editor

Jeff Welsch is executive sports editor for 406 Sports and The Billings Gazette.