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BOWL ELIGIBLE? Work in progress: Idaho hopes to put together winning program piece by piece
Rob Spear is an optimistic, enthusiastic man.
The Butte Central graduate and former pro basketball player in the old CBA owns the qualities that make him the perfect match for Idaho’s struggling athletic department.
“Our needs are great, no question, to get where we need to be,” Spear said of the Vandals’ quest to be a Western Athletic Conference power. “But where do you start?
“From 1982, when this East end (of the Kibbie Dome) was put on, until 2004, Idaho did nothing. On their athletic facilities, we did nothing.”
Since 2004, work has been done. There are 140 yards of SprinTurf in front of the Kibbie Dome, giving Idaho, a former Big Sky Conference power, an excellent practice field. Inside the dome, new, athlete-friendly turf has been installed.
“Believe it or not, we had an Astroturf field that was here 16 years,” said Spear, in his fourth year as Idaho’s AD. “People asked, ‘How did you get it out of here?’ and I said, ‘Hell, it crawled out on its own.’ It was unbelievable.”
The Kibbie Dome itself remains problematic. There has been talk of taking the roof off it, but that involves money, and takes away one thing it is excellent for - indoor track and field.
For now, the plan is to expand it, from the ground down. Lowering the field would improve sight lines and other moves would leave room for expansion by as much as 4,000 seats.
That would put capacity at 25,000, which Spear can live with. A winning football team could fill the place, and the Vandals, boasting one of two domes in the Football Bowl Subdivision, might have a competitive advantage.
“We have to find a niche, and the dome itself is a niche,” Spear says. “Long-term, we decided to use the dome-first strategy.”
Yet Idaho is in juxtaposition with former Big Sky foe Montana in that it has no “events center.” Spear wants to get basketball out of the Kibbie Dome, either into a new events center to be built adjacent, or possibly into a renovated, expanded (and venerable) Memorial Gym.
“We need to improve our basketball situation,” he said. “We need to privately raise the dollars and have a plan.”
Dollars are the key. When Idaho left the Big Sky its operating budget was $4 million. It was at just $6 million in 1999. Now it stands at just over $16 million, but that still leaves Idaho in the lower third of the nine-team WAC.
And more money is needed. The Kibbie Dome spent three seasons as an outdoor facility before the dome was dedicated in October of 1975. The walls are wood; Spear has the feeling the structure was never up to fire code.
“We’re going to replace those end walls with a glass structure, so it ties in with our weight room,” he said. Later he added, “You think it would’ve been struck by lightning by now.”
Spear can look east at Montana and see a university that trumps his in facilities. But before the Grizzlies could think about joining Idaho and Boise State - and former Big Sky Conference foe Nevada - in the WAC, they’d have to catch them in other areas.
“We’ve redone the locker rooms for women’s basketball, volleyball, the football locker room,” Spear began. “What’s going on right now is the expansion of our training room. We have 16 sports (Idaho added women’s soccer and swimming), so it’s too small.”
It’s been a long road for Idaho, which jumped out of the Big Sky with Boise State in 1996. The Vandals have lacked the overall success of Boise State, which claimed a classic Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma in 2007. Their differences in success haven’t surprised many people.
“The vision of the school president at that time, Bob Hoover, is he wanted us to align ourselves with our peer institutions,” remembered Spear, who’s been at Idaho 19 years. “I do think - I don’t know this for sure - that it was a case of, ‘If Boise State’s going to do it, darn it, Idaho’s going to follow, too.’ ”
Spear said he was ambivalent about the move at the time. It didn’t matter to those in charge that the Vandals lacked the facilities and a population base that Boise State enjoyed, he said.
Twelve years later, Spear is addressing one problem in the hopes it helps offset the other. He refers to “The Flutie Effect,” where a school gets a boost in enrollment from successful athletics. The term was coined after applications to Boston College jumped 30 percent in the two years following Doug Flutie’s 1984 Heisman Trophy season.
An Associated Press article in March quoted two independent researchers who found such a link does, in fact, exist. Spear looks up the roads to Washington State or Gonzaga, sees the effect their basketball teams have had, and feels success could be just around the corner.
“I liked the article because it was done by academics,” Spear said. “It says, you know what, when you have success athletically, it helps enrollment. We haven’t had success in those key revenue sports, and consequently ? ”
While Boise State’s enrollment has jumped several straight years, Idaho’s has fallen in each of the last five. To Spear the correlation is obvious. The Moscow campus is the lone research university in Idaho, is the state’s land-grant school and boasts Idaho’s law school. It has a lot going for it.
Now add a kick-butt football program, and watch things take off.
Spear is working the phones and the boosters, continuing to raise money. He’s trying to balance the nonleague schedule between money games (at Nebraska in 2010 for $850,000) and winnable ones (University of North Dakota at home in 2010 and 2011).
He wants, more than anything, a winner, and Idaho hasn’t had a winning football season since 1999. He wants a better game-day experience for the fans, and wants it on campus; Spear rues the days when NCAA rules mandated the Vandals play home games at Washington State because Martin Stadium could hold 30,000 fans.
Nobody said it was going to be easy. For Spear, the only direction to go is straight ahead.
“Administratively and within this department, we’re certainly saying we’re not looking back and we’re moving forward,” he said.
By Fritz Neighbor