PAT HAUGE: Will the recent meeting of Conference Commissioners, and in particular the influence of the Big-5 Conference Commissioners, have an impact on college football?
ROB SPEAR: “The Power-5 commissioners have most of the influence, because they have the money. What’s influencing all of this in intercollegiate athletics, from the governance model to the lawsuits, is money. There’s so much money in the system. Coaches are benefitting tremendously. Student athletes – probably the same scholarship they’ve had for years, and they need more. It all comes down to autonomy, and the Big 5 wants that to do whatever they want – they want to be able to pay players more, they want to feed them 24/7. All that amounts to huge financial concerns for colleges and institutions that aren’t part of that Power 5, and actually there are some that are part of that Power 5 that I think are very concerned.
“On August 7th is when they’re going to vote on the Governance model and that is one component. Even though it gets voted on on August 7th, it doesn’t mean it’s formally adopted yet because there is still an override process. If 75 institutions want to say we don’t want this, we don’t like it, and we want to override it, then it goes to override and out to all 330+ institutions. They all have one vote, and they can essentially vote it down.”
PH: So how does the Power 5 get the autonomy they’re seeking?
RS: “They control all the revenues of college football, which is significant.”
PH: So nothing at this point has changed yet?
RS: “It hasn’t changed, but the feeling around the table is that it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen. The autonomy will be granted either through a formal adoption with the new governance model, or the Power 5 creates a Division 4 model and they go do their own thing. Somehow it’s going to happen.”
PH: In the past, you mentioned the possibility of a new FBS conference forming in the west. Do you still see this as a possibility, given the current state of college football?
RS: “I think there is going to be change. My desire is to see a new conference formed out west. I think it makes a lot of sense, because as I look at some of the FBS schools and some of the FCS schools, you can see that competitively there is some parity there. So why not blend some of the top FCS programs with some of the FBS programs and create a new structure. If it’s not a new league, it’s a new structure.”
PH: Do you see something like that happening on the horizon?
RS: “It’s impossible to predict where this is going. There are some things you know that are going to happen, like autonomy for the Power-5. But the after effects once it’s granted -- we don’t know. You just don’t know what to expect when you’re starting to pay players, and it’s up to the full cost of attendance, which will vary by institution. What you will see through all this -- where you can feed the athletes 24/7 -- you’re going to see it go back to what it was like in the old days. You’re going to have athletic dormitories and apartment complexes just for student athletes, with a chef, in the apartment complex. That’s where this is going.
“At a school like Idaho, can we afford to do that? We can’t. So how is it going to impact us? But more importantly, how is it going to impact the have-nots within the Power 5 conferences? How is it going to affect the rest of the teams in the rest of the FBS conferences? What’s going to happen with the FCS programs when the Power 5 refuses to play them in football? That’s probably going to happen, because to get into the College Football Playoffs you have to show strength of schedule, and if you have an FCS team on your schedule I think that hurts you. So I think you see fewer FCS vs FBS games.
“I think the playoff is going to go from 4 to 8, so what does that mean for FCS? I don’t know that answer, but I can’t believe that’s healthy. They rely on money games like we do.”
PH: With the Big 12 currently at 10 teams, do you see a possibility of more shifting out west, with teams possibly moving up and openings being created in the Mountain West?
RS: It is impossible to predict, but right now I don’t see any movement.
PH: Most of us are looking forward to watching Idaho continue FBS competition this fall and the opportunity the Sun Belt Conference offers. Can you talk about how you will use this opportunity to continue building the football program in the years ahead?
RS: “It’s huge! I’ve said this before Pat, one of the reasons I think we’re in a great position [playing FBS football in the Sun Belt, and the rest of the programs in the Big Sky], is because we have stability. A conference schedule for football is critical.
"In the future we are going to structure our non-conference schedule where we are going to play a lot of schools out west. We’re also going to play a conference schedule in the Sun Belt, where Coach Petrino has great ties into the south. So he can go into the northwest and convince a kid to come to Idaho and play at the highest level outside the Pac-12. He can also go down south and say, ‘Come to Idaho if you want a college experience that is away from home, and I can get you home to play in front of family and friends four times a year.’
“Those are extremely big positives that we can use to build from a recruiting standpoint, which is the lifeblood of the program. That’s what is going to drive success, being able to recruit.”
PH: I’m sure being in a conference is key to Coach Petrino’s rebuilding effort…
RS: “Again it gives you opportunities to recruit. You can sell that you can come here and we’re going to win a conference championship, you can be an all-conference player. When you’re an independent those things aren’t available to you. And also, the Sun Belt looking forward is going to have four bowl tie-ins every year.”
PH: Do you still feel strongly that the APR sanctions are going to be lifted next year? Is Idaho still headed in the right direction?
RS: “We absolutely are headed in a positive direction. We’re moving in the right direction and yes, we’re going to get out from under it.”
PH: Dezmon Epps was removed from the team recently, is this going to affect our APR?
RS: “It depends where he is academically. If he transfers out with above a 2.65 GPA, which I think that he has, then he won’t cost us an APR point. But if he costs us one he costs us one. I think that decision by Coach Petrino is what should have happened a long time ago in this program, because once you show that there is going to be discipline and accountability, and that nobody is immune to doing the right thing, that just strengthens your program.”
PH: Idaho’s membership as a football-only member in the Sun Belt is guaranteed for 4 years, through the 2017 season. Also as part of the agreement, the Sun Belt board of governors will vote every 2 years, starting in 2016, whether or not to extend the agreement. Can you talk about the factors or expectations of growth for your program that will impact the decision?
RS: “You have to be a member in good standing in the Sun Belt, and you have to become competitive from a football standpoint, and that will dictate it from there.”
PH: Is there any expectations regarding expansion of the stadium, or growth with the program?
RS: “No. People need to get away from stadium size. It has absolutely nothing to do with it. It has never been discussed, and never been mentioned as any requirement. The expectations are that we have to be a good member, and we have to compete.”
PH: Does membership in the Big Sky for all others sports have a similar arrangement, including a periodic vote for extension?
RS: “No, but in reality a board of directors can do whatever they please. But there’s no contractual arrangement that says, ‘After four years it’s this’ or ‘After two years it’s that.’”
PH: How did the move to the Big Sky Conference for the non-football programs come about? Did you approach the Big Sky to move Idaho’s Olympic sports there, or did they come to you?
RS: “I approached them.”
PH: In a recent article in the Idaho Statesman, Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton was quoted as saying the following: “As fans and their political base - and that's their alumni and quite frankly legislators - start to get used to us and the Big Sky teams coming to Moscow and start to enjoy that, at that point in time ...it may be a lot easier transition." Can you address this statement?
RS: “Well, it’s been obvious from day one that the Big Sky and the current Commissioner would love to have Idaho back playing football. At the time we negotiated moving our other sports back to the Big Sky, we didn’t have a home for football.
“Now we do.
“We have had open and honest discussions about the future of the Big Sky and the number of football teams they have. I also think, going back to how this sorts out across the country with the Governance, the lawsuits, and if there is an opportunity to blend some FCS and FBS programs and form a new league, that’s the future of the Big Sky in my opinion.”