GVN EXCLUSIVE: Idaho AD Rob Spear

RECENTLY GOVANDALS.NET SAT DOWN WITH IDAHO ATHLETICS DIRECTOR ROB SPEAR for an exclusive interview. During our conversation we discussed what exactly happened with the WAC shakeup, the current position for the WAC and - more importantly - the University of Idaho, and we also discussed facilities - what's been done, where things are going, and what needs to be done to keep the ball rolling.

What happened with the defections of Fresno State and Nevada from the WAC to the Mountain West Conference? Can you walk us through the process of what transpired in August?

"Well, it was a discussion that started in the middle of July when we were trying to find home football games and away games in 2011 to replace Boise State. We received a phone call from Karl Benson, and he said we need to talk about ‘The Project.' We were moving quickly down the road to enter into an agreement with BYU, which would have been a six year agreement that would have provided BYU access into the WAC for all sports, with the exception of football. We in turn worked on an agreement where we would provide BYU football games over the six year period, heavy on the front end in 2011 and 2012 where we would provide them with six football games, and then on the back end those football games would have been weaned down to two or three. The agreement was going great. We put together a resolution that all of WAC schools agreed to – seven of the eight signed it, the only school that didn't sign it was Nevada, but they had agreed to it verbally online. WAC legal council said that based on the by-laws and the way the WAC conducts meetings it made this resolution a legally binding document.

"We were moving with the understanding that this was going to happen quickly. I called an emergency internal staff meeting to announce what was happening, because I wanted them to hear it from me. I was pretty certain we were going to get this done. Then at the last minute Fresno and Nevada elected to leave the WAC. I was shocked because it was clear for them to break the resolution it would cost each school that left $5 million."


That decision happened at the last second?

"It did happen at the last second. I believe it was Friday the 13th, where the actual agreement was reached to enter the resolution to show a sign of solidarity amongst the eight WAC schools. Fresno's president actually was the one who really stepped up and got the schools on board to sign the resolution and move forward - that we were all going to be together and move forward. Then you know what happens on Tuesday of the next week. We knew -- I knew – that the Mountain West was going to make some kind of counter-offer. I thought originally that they would do it to BYU and make some concessions in TV, which BYU wanted to have. They were very disappointed with the current TV deal in the Mountain West and they wanted a new deal. I thought they might actually reach out and give them the Texas TV deal.

"Well, they didn't. They went and offered Fresno and Nevada. Actually, a member of a WAC institution contacted three schools and asked about their interest. They contacted Utah State first and the president said, "We have this resolution and we're not interested." He in turn contacted the other two schools, and the other two schools said thanks for the heads up. Low and behold, when the other two schools were approached, obviously they said there was interest and then the Mountain West formally extended them an offer and they chose to move to the Mountain West."


What is the current status of the WAC? What kind of commitment is there between the six remaining schools? Are you all committed to the WAC, or is each school in a survival mode at the moment while you're trying to figure out what the next move is?

"That's a great question. I would like to say 'Yes, absolutely, all schools are committed to the WAC.' But I think a lot of schools have some political capital they need to rebuild, and I think that's why you see Hawaii talking about independent status, but I have my own opinions about that. I think Utah State is covering their bases, saying maybe there is some Mountain West talk. Louisiana Tech, you don't know about them. I think they would love to get rid of some of the travel that they have. As of right now, we've had several conference calls and all six schools are committed to rebuilding the WAC. Where we go from here, I think there are three different scenarios you look at. One scenario is you do nothing and you wait for additional conference realignment to occur, because you don't want to jump in and take schools you might regret. The second scenario is you go after existing FBS schools. And the third scenario is you take some up and coming FCS schools and rebuild our league and move forward.

"What I'd like to see happen is I want the WAC to be aggressive. I want us to reach out and start rebuilding now. We can't wait around for three or four months. It's detrimental to your recruiting. We just need to get this league put together and move it forward, because everybody would agree that when you get into the WAC it makes programs better. It made us better."


Were there a number of scenarios that the WAC considered in setting this up? Such as, if the BYU proposal doesn't work, then we're going to go after these schools. If those schools don't work, we'll go after these schools? Or was it all contingent on this BYU arrangement?

"It was all contingent upon what happened with BYU. So, I guess you could say we had all our eggs in one basket. But, we did have discussions that if the deal with BYU worked, maybe there was an opportunity to have more FBS schools show an interest in joining the WAC."


Can the WAC exist as a conference, even down to six schools (or even five member schools), until the other FCS schools can get up and moved into the Division 1A level? Or does this conference cease to exist after 2012 if no replacement schools are brought in.

"There is an NCAA requirement that says you need to have a minimum of six members that have been together for five years to have a viable conference. Well, we've just made it with the schools being in the league for five years and we have six of them. If we lose one more school, then according to NCAA legislation the WAC will not be a conference. I really think at that point in time the WAC could file an appeal to the NCAA, and I like our chances. You'd have a league that's been in existence for 48 years, and I think the NCAA needs to be somewhat sympathetic towards that and grant a waiver.

"Now, to be a member of the FBS, which is another piece of the puzzle, you have to have eight football playing schools. We have checked, and we could still receive BCS funding with only six schools, but you wouldn't be considered an FBS program with less than eight football playing schools. If you're going to be a football playing conference, to have bowl eligibility you have to have eight football playing schools. That's why keeping Fresno and Nevada in for two more years is important, because it gives you the opportunity to rebuild."


Bringing this to Idaho, what is the University of Idaho's position? We've gone through this once before when the Big West folded, and Idaho had to circle the wagons. Is Idaho truly committed from top to bottom to (a) Division 1A and (b) to the WAC?

"Well, we're committed to the WAC, and we're committed to being Division 1. We've worked way too hard to walk away from that right now. So we'll exhaust every opportunity to stay at Division 1. Ideally we would rebuild the WAC and be part of that. Like I said, I'm optimistic that we can rebuild the WAC, and I think we can become – what I've been telling everybody – is the class of the WAC. I've been telling our coaches that. We have a great opportunity here; we can rise to the top of the WAC. We can go to bowl games every year. We can challenge and earn those qualifying births to the NCAAs. A lot of that is dependent upon keeping the conference together long enough to rebuild it. So, as far as a commitment standpoint, we're committed to this thing, and we'll exhaust every option to remain here."


What if the WAC dropped to 4 members or fewer – Hawaii goes indy, La Tech moves to reduce travel costs, USU goes to MWC – is Idaho talking about this scenario?

"It is certainly one in the back of our mind, and it certainly is not a great scenario. I would think that if it came to that point your State Board of Education would mandate which way you would go. But I do think with some pending conference realignment that there is going to be an opportunity to be in a division 1 conference. It's all speculation. Can I tell you what it is? I don't know. Is the Big Ten done? Nobody knows. A lot of people think they're going to continue to expand and become a super conference. If they go do that, they're going to take schools from the Big East. If they do that the Big East goes to Conference USA. Conference USA digs in maybe to the Sun Belt and the WAC, maybe the Mountain West. What happens with TCU? I can't imagine they're thrilled right now being in the Mountain West [this was before the 2010 season started, shortly after Utah and BYU - two of the strongest programs in the conference - announced they were leaving the Mountain West]. I've seen things where their football coach is eluding to things happening on their end. What are those? You've heard rumors where the elite of the Mountain West and the elite of Conference USA are talking about joining up and combining to form a new conference. It's all speculation. How do you know?

"I like to control what I can control. In this case, I think it is important for the WAC to move forward sooner rather than later. And I think it's important for us to control what we can control. And right now lets focus on winning more football games, continuing to improve our facilities, generate more revenue, and then conference realignment will take care of itself."


Maybe it's mostly a case of semantics, but you've been mentioning "Division 1". Is Division 1-AA, or FCS, an option?

"At this time it's not an option. The President and I have talked about it – it's not an option."


There's a lot of talk within the fan-base about game day facilities at Idaho, and it's impact on scheduling home football games with regional rivals. BSU is openly talking about not wanting to come up here for a multitude of reasons, one of them is facilities. Washington State won't play here. And now BYU very publicly said they won't come up here for a football game. In the case of wanting to align the University of Idaho in a position of strength in the future, what considerations are you making to enhance the football game day facilities, or build a new one?

"Well, it's one step at a time, and I think we've made great progress with a facility that was going to be shut down if we didn't do anything."


Can you please expand on this? I want our readers to understand what dilemmas went into the decision to repair the Dome first.

"Well, the state fire marshal said – and there was a book about 2 inches thick about violations we had regarding not being in compliance with life safety, not having the appropriate egress, etc – this University COULD NOT afford to have this facility shut down because of the multi-use nature of it."


Was the University officially told to fix this, or it was going to be shut down?

"Absolutely! If you need me to get you the documentation I'll get it for you, but it was in that documentation that they were going to shut us down, and we couldn't hold ANY event there. So, the University decided we needed to fix this facility and make the situation right. We needed to take care of the egress. We needed to upgrade the life-safety issues. We needed to address the fire code issues. And that's why the University elected to put the money into the Kibbie Dome.

"Now, we would be kidding ourselves to think the University would have taken that money and put it into a new outdoor stadium. That would not have happened."


Because…

"Because, one, we would have been putting all of those resources into a facility that would be used six or seven times a year max. Next, you would have to have University approval to get it through the process. And then you would have to get the approval of the State Board of Education. I find it very unlikely, even if we did receive approval from the University, that we would ever get approval from the State Board of Education [given the looming repairs required to the Kibbie Dome at the time].

"It was important for us to partner on this Kibbie Dome part, to enhance the game day facility, and it's going to be done. It's going to be done by the fall of 2011.

"Does that address the attendance size? Absolutely not. Are we going to sellout the BSU game this year? Yes we are. Are we going to sellout tonight's game [Thursday night season opener against North Dakota]? No, we are not. Until we start selling that thing out on a consistent basis I have no leverage to tell the president that we're going to build an outdoor stadium, or that we're going to increase the capacity here.


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"The thing about the University of Idaho that people need to understand is we have a balance between academics and athletics. The President has an extremely difficult job to make sure we keep that balance, because we pride ourselves on our academic performance. We have 81 National Merit Scholars on this campus, second in the northwest ONLY to the University of Washington. He has to be very careful, and there are no University resources to dedicate to build an outdoor stadium or athletic facilities. We have to privately raise the resources.

"Now, if someone wants to give us the millions of dollars it will take to build a stadium, I'll start building it tomorrow. But it all has to come from private sources. It will not come from the institution. The reason the institution stepped up to do the life safety in the Dome is because they had to. Because if we lost the use of the Kibbie Dome we don't have commencement, we don't have the Jazz Festival, we don't have a place to play basketball, we don't have a place to play football, and all the other things that happen on campus. We basically had a gun to our head."


What is the process to get a major facilities project kicked off?

"The first hurdle is to get it through the University system. You have to understand, any project you want to get done you have to get it on the Master Plan through facilities first. Once it's on the Master Plan, then it's part of a group of projects that has to be vetted through the University. Then, it must be approved ultimately by the President and his leadership cabinet. Once you get it through that process, then you have to send it to the State Board of Education and get it approved there. So, it is a long, time-consuming process. You don't just decide to build something and go ahead and build it. There are a lot of different hurdles you have to jump."


Let's say you did have the millions of dollars in hand required to complete the project, is it likely to get approved by the SBOE?

"If you had the millions in cash, which is what the SBOE wants, then I think you have a heck of a shot to get that done. It's just like our premium seating project. We had enough cash and pledges to do the project ($6.7 million), but the SBOE almost didn't approve that project because the University had to take a bridge loan to pay for the project [covering expenses while donations are paid over a five year window], and then they'll reimburse themselves through the pledge payments when they come in.

"It's complicated, it's not easy."

"When I walked in and looked at the needs, they were tremendous. And you ask yourself, ‘where do we start?' Well, we decided to start from the inside out, and that's why we took care of the facilities the athletes use on a daily basis. We finished those, and we still need some improvements in some areas there. Then we decided with the University taking care of the Kibbie Dome life-safety issues, we'd be crazy not to partner with that and try to create some premium seating so we can generate some more revenue.

"Now if people think I don't want to move forward when we're done with this, we're not done. It's a stepping stone. I view it as a non-conference game, where you need to get that win so that you can play someone else bigger. That's what we're doing with this project. I think there's still doubt out there that we're actually going to make club rooms and suites and premium seats. That's going to happen."


You probably had to assure your donors in the last 2-3 weeks that this thing is still a viable project in lieu of all the conference realignment activity?

"Well, it is a viable project. Our people are bought in. We're gonna get this done, and I think it helps position us for the next conference re-shuffle."


From a revenue point of view it's pretty much going to double your football revenue, right?

"It will, it will. Is it utopia for what we want? Absolutely not. But, is it a step in the right direction? I think it is."


Well, you tell any athletic director – in the situation Idaho's in, which is quite unique - that we're going to double our football revenue right now on our way to something else. People will say, "That's a good move." But, again, you have to know Idaho's situation to understand that, because the situation here is so unique compared to anyone else.

"Well, the situation… it became more critical to generate more external revenue as soon as we could because of the state economy and the institution… you know people have to understand the State Board of Education, again, caps on what state money can be put in an athletic program, and those caps determine how much institutional money can be put into an athletic program. So, when state support shrinks, institutional support automatically shrinks. So, you take that plus the increased fees we had to pay – what we call general and administrative fees – plus the increased fees we have to pay for us to use our facilities, because we don't own them. I have taken, over the past three years, over a million dollar hit – a million dollars. And, we have to make it up and make it up fast because it's not coming from the institution, because it can't come from the institution. I think it's bad policy on the State Board of Education. I think those policies need to be rewritten. And, I've always advocated that you take away the caps.

"But, say there's no state money that can be used in an athletic program. I'm fine with that. But, don't restrict the university from trying to move in a strategic direction."


Back in 2005 Larry did an interview with you, and you talked about facilities when you were just getting started at Idaho. And, at the time you mentioned that you had looked into a couple of potential stadium sites. Is that something you actually fleshed out? Do you have an idea, a location, in mind?

"Yeah, there are two locations. One was right where the outdoor track is. Now, since we are upgrading those facilities, it's probably not likely. But, the next one is on the west side of our facilities. There's a property the university owns out there. It sits in a natural bowl. It seems to be an ideal spot, if you wanted to construct an outdoor stadium."


You had 27,000 people at your bowl game. The last 2 or 3 BSU games you've sold standing room only tickets - people stand for the privilege of watching a ball game on this campus. And last year you had your first ever non-BSU sellout with the Colorado State game on ESPN (a truly commendable achievement, and a first at Idaho). There is a strong probability that you could get more people here for a Boise State game and maybe others. Is there any pressure to increase seating?

"So, I would ask you this. Where were those people for our other games? When they start showing up for our other games, and we have standing room only, then it's a different conversation with the university and facilities, and the State Board of Education. You tell me how I can possibly go to the State Board of Education and, even internally, I have to get it vetted internally… How do I justify increasing our capacity when we're only selling out one game every other year?

"And, people are gonna say why don't you play Washington State home and home. Washington State doesn't want to play us. Now, let me back up a little bit on this whole thing of BYU not wanting to come here and Boise not wanting to come here. Don't think it's just about stadium size. That's a convenient excuse for people. Our football program has gotten a lot better. When that dome is full, nobody wants to come and play us here in the Kibbie Dome, because anything can happen in there.

"So, to me, our program's getting better and we got a heck of a home field advantage. That's a reason people don't wanna come in here and play. Don't kid yourself. You know, using the stadium as a size… is a total excuse in my opinion."


Do you have the exact numbers on how many season tickets you've sold this year? I know the percentage is fantastic, but we would like to know the exact figure, or a close estimate.

"We have sold 35% more - probably approaching 40% more - season tickets this year than last season. People always say, ‘Hey, we sold the dome out when we were in the Big Sky.' Well, no, ya didn't. You won a Big Sky Championship in '93, but you had 1,700 season tickets [exact figure 1,735 season tickets in ‘93]. We won a Humanitarian Bowl in 1998, and in ‘99 we're up to 2,055 tickets [this includes comps]. We get Erickson's first year, that was a pretty good year, but that included a big faculty pride ticket push [and again, comps]. But, this year in actual true season tickets, we're at about 2,800 and, we think, that number is the biggest we've ever had in season tickets. That's paid season tickets [no comps, which previous ticket numbers always included].

"If we could add another 2,200 season tickets to that we are doubling our revenue for the year. And that doesn't even include the seat back, if they were VSF members and had to pay that. There's still tremendous revenue potential in the Kibbie Dome, as is."


Any chance that if you got to the point where the three sections on the south side of the stadium were sold out that you would turn around and start selling the middle sections on the North side as season tickets?

"You know, we've talked about it. I want it to be… I want to be accommodating for our students. But there's all kinds of opportunities to create additional reserved seating in the Kibbie Dome to maximize your revenue potential. But, like I said, you know, let's get all the people that come to the Boise game, and all the people that were down in Boise for the bowl game to come to every home game here. I know it's a sacrifice, because travel from Boise up here is not easy, coming from Seattle's not easy. And, we ask a lot of our fans.

"But, I need some leverage to go to the President and say, ‘Hey President, I can't turn away people anymore.' And, if I'm turning away business, then he's gonna say, 'Let's get this thing and let's get something built.' But, until that happens, I don't have a lot of leverage. I have the plans. I have the ideas. But, what I think we're doing right now is a great first step.

"And, I want to emphasize, in this whole thing, don't think we're done. You know, this was a first step to just basically save the dome… allowed us to generate revenue while we continue to figure out what we're going to do long-term.

"And, the other thing we need to have happen too is that this community [Moscow and the surrounding areas] itself has to grow. We've gotta get this to where the community, and the chamber, and the county commissioners, and the city council, they've gotta be pro-growth so we can get more population here, so we can generate and grow this institution."


Speaking of President Nellis and taking a business case to him. How committed is President Nellis in all this turmoil and conference re-alignment?

"He's very hands-on. He's very engaged and he's very involved. He's done a wonderful job. He understands the value of athletics. But, he also understands the need to balance, like I talked about earlier regarding balancing the academic parts of this institution, which I never want to see go away. Because I think that is so important - because I sell quality education all the time. I had a young basketball recruit in here [his office] today, talking with her and her family, and I'm selling the 81 National Merit Scholars, and I'm selling the quality of the institution because at the end of the day that education is so important. Now, I don't want to see that sacrificed. So, there's always going to be a balance.

"I think he does a great job of balancing that out.

"Obviously, I want more money. Do I like being short a million dollars from where we used to be? I hate it. And, I think it's unfair. But, then I also know that it's tough to find money when there is none. So, we need to increase enrollment and that's why those student fees are so important. But, there's a balance there too. We need to raise student fees, but we need to keep it affordable for students too."


So, you've probably had some difficult discussions with President Nellis but, is Idaho as an institution committed to the effort to remain Division 1-A, and is the University giving you the resources needed to keep building your program at this level?

"Well, I would like to see the institution work together more than we do. I think we have an "us versus them" attitude too much on this campus. And, part of it's driven by the financial needs of every area. I mean, I alluded to the fact that I have to pay additional charges to rent the dome and use the space. Parking costs go up on an annual basis. But, everybody's trying to offset their loss of state revenue and institutional revenue. So, we start charging everyone to death, and it's a vicious cycle; a vicious circle.

"But, we need to find a way to become more efficient and work together. And I still do think that the university needs to clearly define the role they want athletics to play."


Is that something you and President Nellis talk about?

"We talk about it. I probably talk more about it to our budget person than to the President himself. But, I still think we need to find a balance for the university and what role we play in that."


There has been discussion of an Events Center (or Memorial Gym remodel) sometime in the future – something to fix basketball. Is that something that you are building towards now? And, is there a possibility where a new facility for football – your biggest revenue source and the basis of most of your scholarship donations - could move ahead of an Events Center on this campus?

"Yes, we have a need for a new basketball facility, no question. You know, a lot of people think that we need to have an outdoor football stadium. We just got done talking about the challenges of convincing the university administration and the State Board of Education to do that.

"I think I have a much better case to go forward to the university and the President to build an Events Center because this campus needs an Events Center. You know, we use the Kibbie Dome for everything. I think it would be great for our students to have concerts. And, it would certainly help our basketball situation; it helps this community; it helps the economic impact to the community. And so, when I look at how I can possibly move forward with facilities, and taking the next step, I have a heck of a lot better chance to go and sell an Events Center than I do an outdoor football stadium."


The basketball facility, it's in the master plan? And there are University resources set aside to fund this project?

"No, no resources by the university. This is the feasibility study we funded that shows an event center right there (points to color plan view of future North Lawn site) on the North side of the Dome. And, that's really been defined – this will be the location.

If and when we do it, that's the first step in the process. This piece is on the university master plan to say: At least it's on the master plan. So, I don't have to fight the battle of going and getting it on the master plan. It's there.


The home run that you guys hit with corporate sponsoring… you've got LiteHouse, you've got a new luxury area. It's your first-ever corporate sponsor in the history of the school at that level. Can you describe what kind of an impact that made for your program?

"The corporate sponsorship of Litehouse Foods is significant. It's really pushed us over the top. And, we need more of that [corporate sponsors]. We not only need Litehouse to step up, we need banks to step up, and we need other corporate entities to step up, and I think having the visibility we're getting now, with being on TV and people seeing the logos on the field, I think it opens up new opportunities for us.

"Of course, we always have to work through the University, and we have to go arm-in-arm in some cases. With the Litehouse deal we had to get permission through the university to make our pitch to them. So, it's all a process.

"Yeah, we got it done."




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