The Kibbie Dome is like no other venue in college football.
It sits like an enormous barrel half-buried into the University of Idaho campus and, in fact, once was referred to as "a Campbell's Soup can cut in half" by a visiting coach.
It ranks as both an architectural marvel and the smallest home field in the Football Bowl Subdivision, holding about 16,500 fans.
Inside, the roof of laminated wooden beams arches over a field sunken below ground level, and new translucent panels over the end zones allow a flood of natural light. Goalposts are attached to the walls about 5 yards behind the end zone -- rather than from a post in the ground -- with those walls padded for players' protection.
The Dome has been called too small and outdated by some, yet embraced by others who've seen (and heard) it at its packed-to-full-volume glory.
At its best, it's a cozy, home-field advantage for the Vandals, a venue that prompts some teams to send scouts to take photos for coaches and players to study.
At its worst, it's a facility that holds so few people that Idaho projects only about $440,000 in ticket revenue this season -- or about 1.2 percent of the estimated $36 million generated by University of Texas football in 2011.
Located in Moscow, far off the beaten path of major college football, national telecasts and BCS conferences, the Kibbie Dome is just ... different.
"I remember walking into it for the first time and thinking how unique it is," Bowling Green football coach Dave Clawson told a reporter last year about his first game in the Dome several years earlier. "I had never been in a situation like that. The noise is different, and the surroundings of the field -- and the walls behind the end zone -- are different. You have to practice in it to get used to that."
Though the Vandals are going through hard times this year -- with a 1-5 record, including lopsided road losses at LSU and North Carolina -- former Idaho and NFL quarterback John Friesz remembers a time when the Kibbie Dome was always full and ear-splittingly loud.
"It was just a lot of fun, a real experience," says Friesz, a College Football Hall of Famer who led Idaho to three straight Big Sky Conference championships in the late 1980s and still has Vandals season tickets. "You were proud to run through the locker room and come out on the field."
• • •
These days, the Kibbie Dome is symbolic of Idaho's place in the pecking order of major college football.
With the disintegration of the Western Athletic Conference as a football league because of defections brought on by the stampede of schools toward richer conferences, Idaho has been pushed to the side. It might as well have a question mark on its helmets instead of the large block "I" behind the "Vandals" script.
Idaho is preparing to play as an independent next year, is uncertain where it will land after that and is trying to sell itself to leagues that desire teams with larger TV markets and, to a lesser extent, stadium seating capacities. (All this while Washington State, less than 10 miles away, is thriving as a Pac-12 school, and in-state rival Boise State is moving to the Big East.)
Idaho athletic director Rob Spear has architectural renderings for the Dome that could raise capacity about 9,000 or 10,000 -- well over the "magic number of 20,000" that conferences like to see, Spear says -- but he knows that's a tough sell because the Dome isn't filling up now.
Last season, Idaho averaged 11,980 fans per game; in 2010, it was 12,730. Each season, Idaho ranked No. 118 in the nation -- ahead of only two FBS schools -- and far behind No. 1 Michigan, which averages more than 112,000 per game. In its 26-18 homecoming victory over New Mexico State on Saturday, the Kibbie held 14,755.
When Spear is asked what he thinks when he sees six-figure crowds at the likes of Michigan, Texas and Ohio State, he laughs.
"How much money we could have if we could have 90 [thousand] to 100,000 people attending our games," he says.
What it really points out, he adds, is that schools such as Idaho shouldn't be lumped into the same division as the sports behemoths. Now there is the FBS and the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) and nothing in between. He argues there is a need for a second tier among major schools in which the number of scholarships would be smaller and regional conferences could thrive.
As it is now, he says, Idaho fans are split about whether the team should remain in the FBS -- which the Vandals joined in 1995 -- or drop down to the FCS, where it would rejoin the Big Sky Conference and play more regional opponents.
It might make sense competitively and financially, he says, in that attendance and the atmosphere under the Dome might be revived because "what makes a rivalry game is when your fans can go sit in the other team's stadium and their fans can come sit in your stadium."
But just as some Idaho fans love the Kibbie Dome and others wish for something grander, Vandals backers also are split about whether to drop into the FCS.
"There's a divide with our fan base right now," says Spear.
• • •
The Kibbie Dome remains a link to Idaho's football past and its cloudy future.
It opened in 1971 as an outdoor field on the site of former Neale Stadium, a wooden-seat facility built in 1937 that was condemned (and then burned) in 1969.
It took four years to complete the arched roof that looks a bit like the inside of a barrel from below and is made of laminated wood on a framework of tubular steel that rises 150 feet above midfield.
No other dome in the nation was built as a primarily wooden structure, and it earned the American Society of Civil Engineers award for engineering achievement and was the subject of a 1998 book called "Raising the Roof."
Once it was completed, the Kibbie Dome (named for a former Idaho student and benefactor) became a multi-use facility, a rare venue where both the football and basketball teams still play. The Cowan Spectrum emerges inside the Dome during basketball season, when the artificial turf is removed, the court is erected and curtains and bleachers create a 7,000-seat hoops venue. Track and field, tennis and other events are also held indoors.
From 1999 to 2001, Idaho had to abandon the Kibbie Dome for football when the NCAA adopted a rule that teams had to play in stadiums that seated at least 30,000. The rule has since changed, with FBS teams now required to sell an average of 15,000 tickets per season over a two-year span.
Wayne Anderson, a former Idaho quarterback, coach, administrator and longtime fan, played at Neale Stadium and says from the moment the Kibbe Dome's roof was completed, the venue has been a "nice addition" because it's so useful.
Still, some complain about it.
"You have the comments, ‘I wish we could be outside, it's a lovely day,' that type of thing," he says. "But when it's cold and wet, boy they're happy to be in and protected."
In recent years, too, the Dome has gotten a major upgrade. Its once-dark interior was brightened by the banks of translucent panels over the end zones; suites, premium seating and a club room were added; the press box was moved to the opposite side of the field; athletic facilities and weight rooms were upgraded; and the almost-40-year-old roof and walls were made safer.
As part of the project, too, architects and engineers came up with plans -- including the lowering of the field -- that would allow the Kibbie to seat nearly 25,000.
"It's much different now," says Friesz, who lives in Coeur d'Alene, about 90 minutes away. "It definitely brightened the stadium."
Says Troy Warzocha, who covers the team for the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune: "The translucent panels do make it a bit brighter. It's not like you're walking into, necessarily, a mausoleum anymore. From what I'm told, it was pretty dark."
Always, though, the Kibbie Dome has rocked when the Vandals are good.
In the 1980s, playing under coaches such as Dennis Erickson, Keith Gilbertson and John L. Smith, Idaho was winning conference championships and often hosting playoff games.
The sounds of the fans and bands reverberated under the wooden arches and created an atmosphere Friesz remembers well.
"The place got pretty loud, everybody got excited and it was a great place to watch a game," recalls Friesz, who won the Walter Payton Award in 1989 as the best player in Division I-AA. "You're right up on the field for the most part. ... The worst general seating in the place is awful good compared to a lot of other major facilities."
During those years, the Vandals ran up a 12-game winning streak on Boise State, and Friesz remembers beating the Broncos his senior year in the Dome and the slogan -- "Nine is Divine" -- that the Idaho students had that year for the streak.
"Every one of those home games got bigger and bigger each time," he recalls.
Even in recent seasons, says Spear, the Kibbie's small venue generates electricity far beyond its size in big games.
When Idaho brought back Erickson as coach for one season in 2006, Spear remembers the day Boise State came into the Dome and it was so jammed, students were sitting in the aisles.
"When our team came out on the field, I've never heard such a roar, ever," he says. "That moment stands out, like, man if we could do this every time, this would be an unbelievable place to play."