Idaho Insight: Rob Spear

EDITOR'S NOTE: Last week Pat Hauge had an opportunity to speak with the new Director of Athletics at the University of Idaho, <b>Rob Spear</b>, on an exclusive interview for From the staff at, we wish to thank Mr. Spear for granting us this interview, and for discussing with us the issues currently on the minds of many Vandal sports fans.<br> <br>

[] What are your goals for the first three years as AD and do you currently have adequate staff in the Athletic Department to accomplish them? What would you like to be your first major accomplishment as the official AD?

Obviously my first goal is to stabilize our conference status. I would love for that to be my first major accomplishment. It's absolutely necessary to get our athletic programs into a stable conference. One that has geographic integrity. The Sun Belt is a great conference and their commissioner has been very good to us. But long-term, staying in the SBC is probably not very good for us or for them.

The other thing is increasing Vandal Scholarship membership from 2500 to 5000 members. Our annual budget is very dependent on the success of those VSF contributions. Currently we receive a little over $1 million each year, and we need to get that up to about $1.6 – $1.7 million, and that is critical because the cost of educating our athletes every year is increasing every year by approximately 10%.

And of course facility improvement. A lot of the VAC's early phases have been completed, but we really need to focus on completing the remaining pieces. We need to complete the training room, academic center, etc. before we can focus on other long-term projects.

Do we have enough staff? Probably not but the staff we do have is tremendous. Long-term we need to increase our staffing in marketing and fundraising.

[] Do you think the lack of previous experience as an Athletic Director will hurt you at all in this job?

I don't think it will hurt me….it will make the learning curve a little steeper. But I'm not coming into this job blind. I've been involved in athletics as an athlete and kept involved in athletics while I've been at the University of Idaho. The nice thing about it is that we have great people working here, and that's a key for any administrator. We have solid people in our department like Dee Menzies in compliance, Matt Kleffner in our administrative and financial areas, Tom McGann in facilities, and Mahmood Sheikh in development, those people are critical and they are good at what they do. It's important to have them. You can be the best Athletic Director in America but it's the people that work with you that make you successful. My philosophy has always been to find the best people you can and provide them some guidance to be successful and let them do their job.

[] We hear that most new presidents like to hire their own AD. What was different in this instance that caused you to be hired BEFORE the new president? Did you receive any assurances that the new president will not decide he wants his own AD?

It was a little unusual and obviously risky on my part. But Gary Michael convinced me to do it. I feel very fortunate that I will have Gary's support now and when he steps down. He will be a tremendous spokesperson for the University and the Athletic Department. My decision was a little easier because of all the support I had internally and externally while I was in the interim role. And I just felt it was very critical for us to get stability in our athletic department. I feel very fortunate that I could provide that stability and get us to where we can start moving forward and not have to worry about who the new person was going to be.

As far as assurances, the only one that I have is that I have a 3 year contract. Nobody likes working in an environment where they don't know who the new president is going to be. Now even though I know who the new president will be, I just need to come to work every day and work hard. If I do that things will take care of themselves. It is my plan to be here a long time. I have been with the University of Idaho for 15 years and want to here at least another 15 years!

[] Have you had a chance to meet Dr. White?

Yes I have, I've met with him a couple times. He's been very supportive of our department and athletics and he understands the role of athletics in a university, especially a land grant university. It was great to see him coming from Oregon State which is a land grant university. There are a lot of similarities between the University of Idaho and Oregon State. OSU is in a small community, Corvallis, where they must deal with the population and politics in the Portland area. Just like we must deal with the big population and politics in Boise. There are a lot of similarities and he understands that, and I look forward to working with him.

[] In your opinion, what is the one thing from previous AD's that you will change in the athletic department?

You know, I don't know the answer to that yet. I think it will take some time to determine what I will change. The people that have been in here have done a good job. I think the worst thing someone can do in an administrative position is come in during the first 3 or 4 months thinking that they know what is going on and change everything. I think you need to spend some time (a year) and figure out some things, and just let it evolve.

[] In your opinion, what is the primary hurdle the Athletic Department, and the UI, must overcome?

That's easy….its funding. I think it's critical for us to get our budget to $10 million. However, we must remain focused on completing the other components of the Vandal Athletic Center. Those other components include a completed training room, academic center, Hall of Fame, and some offices that are all part of the original plan. I think we need to focus and get that done. It's going to take funding. We need our people out there to help us, and that's why I said it was critical for us to get our VSF membership from 2500 to 5000 people. So, that to me is our biggest hurdle. If we can continue to address these issues, then I think we can continue to move forward.

[] Has there been a noticeable change in interest since you, and Nick Holt, and Dr. White have come on board?

I feel a lot of positive energy going on. It has been great to have Nick and his staff come on board, and Dr. White, and others. Plus I think my relationships across this campus make a difference. I know our Development Office is making funding athletics a priority, which is kind of a first for them to really recognize athletics as critical to the success of Idaho. Athletics is critical to the success of the University because we bring visibility. We want to make this University proud of the programs that we have and make it the front door of this institution. We want to get kids to come to our campus, which is the most beautiful campus in the Northwest without a doubt. We have positioned ourselves well, and we have great facilities when we look at our academic pieces, having the new college of business building, biotechnology building, student rec center, remodeled University Classroom Centers, and all the others. We're a first class institution academically, and the athletic department can enhance that visibility. I think people understand that now. And with Dr. White coming in and understanding the role of athletics, it's going to happen.

[] Under Mike Bohn, a decision was made to protect the budget as it affected student-athletes and make the cuts elsewhere in the Athletics budget. Some of the cuts were made in areas that should generate more revenue than is spent (i.e. fund raising, marketing ticket sales, etc.). Do you plan to spend the money to make the money? What is your strategic plan for increasing revenues (including support for the new VSF Executive Director)?

It's absolutely necessary to spend money to make money. This next year we have a very challenging budget situation, so we're not going to add any additional staff this next year. But I think with the addition of Rick Darnell, who is our new Vandal Scholarship Fund Executive Director, and the success he brings from his previous positions and ideas that he'll bring forward, we are very confident that we're going to be able to increase revenues. I think once we start doing that and position ourselves with more revenues we're going to be able to hire some key people, and I think it's critical for us to do it.

One of the things the University is doing, as a whole entire group, is understanding the need to work together. For example, our Alumni Office is going to help us out by looking at some additional corporate sponsorship opportunities in addition to what we already have. One of the unique things we've already done as far as fund-raising is getting involved with Consumer First. It's a program where individuals can register their credit cards on-line and we will go out to various vendors and try to get them to participate in this program. What happens is that vendor will actually pay a marketing fee, and that marketing fee will be distributed in part to the user (card-holder will get a rebate back), Consumer First will get some money, and the Vandal Scholarship Fund will get some money. It will be based on a percentage basis, and the program will be launching any day.

[] Will there be any major changes to the approach for fundraising for the VAC and VSF under your leadership?

I don't know if there will be any changes. We will always try to figure out new ideas to raise money, and the Consumer First program is one we've already taken advantage of. But I think it's critical for us to have success in our athletic programs and very critical for us to get into a conference that makes geographic sense. I think if all those things fall into place, then fund-raising will follow. We just have to work hard, we just have to get out there and meet people and get them engaged and get them involved. Really be active with our booster groups and establish some new booster groups.

It was disappointing to me when I came on this job that the Latah County Chapter of the Vandal Booster organization was defunct. We've gotten that re-established, and things are looking good. We just need to get additional Chapters going and get more people involved.

[] Gary Michael has stated that he would like for you to be out on a major fundraising effort in the near future. When is this most likely to occur?

It occurred the first day I took this job. We've been fund-raising since day one, and putting things into place. Gary is very busy right now with wrapping up his presidency. I can tell you that in the near future that we've already identified some prospects and we're going to get out and visit them and get them engaged in what we're doing. I'm looking forward to that opportunity, and that's probably going to happen when we get out and go full-bore sometime towards the end of this semester.

[] Do you foresee a timeline for when a "Campaign for Idaho Athletics" might take place?

It could happen. Given the interest of the University to help athletics out in fund raising and showing that it is a priority is a step in the right direction. If we can get into a new conference sometime soon, it will help. You know, the University has a lot of needs and we can't just focus on the athletics. From my perspective I would like that, but lets face it, we're here to educate students, and we all have to share and work together.

[] What could Idaho do to improve marketing in Moscow, Boise, and the region (i.e., such as selling jerseys like Emily Faurholt's No 4 jersey, Idaho shirts, and simply PR in general), and is that a high priority at this time for you? Wazzu, and even Gonzaga, seem to have beaten us to the punch of marketing the region, including our own backyard.

It's a huge priority for me, especially in the Moscow community. One of my goals is to "Get Our Town Back." I've walked into several establishments in Moscow and Latah County and I see Cougar stuff but I don't see any Vandal gear or Vandal information, and that is disappointing to me. I think we have got to take care of that. We need to get some additional people involved and help us out. If I have to carry stuff into the individual locations I'm going to do it. This spring every business owner in this community is going to know who I am. I think it's important, and we're going to get our coaches out as well.

The nice thing about the coaches we have now is that they are very good at engaging the community. From our men's and women's basketball coaches, football, volleyball, track & field, soccer, they all understand the need to engage the community. And we're going to take advantage of this and it's going to be a concerted team effort to go forward and do it.

[] Have local businesses been stepping forward yet?

Just re-establishing a Booster Chapter here in Latah County is going to make a huge difference. We are working on getting some local business people involved, and they're going to know some additional people in the community who are hopefully business owners. We are going to have various functions to get them involved and get them to appreciate what we're trying to do here at the University of Idaho and Vandal Athletics. That's going to help us tremendously.

[] In reference to Idaho broadcast partner KTIK in southern Idaho, how do you feel about KTIK's sometimes "two-faced" relationship with Idaho (i.e. How can a Vandal "flagship station" be permitted to run derogatory sound bites towards Vandal athletics on a daily basis)? Are we looking for a new station in the Treasure Valley?

We need to keep our options open, but our contractual relationship with KTIK is a long-term agreement. But, do I get disappointed with the comments coming from KTIK? Absolutely. It infuriates me at times. But, sometimes, when people get on this band-wagon of negativity, in the end it comes back to haunt them. I think people are getting so tired of the University of Idaho getting trashed in Boise whether it's because of the University Place project, or Vandal Athletics, or this and that. I just think, long-term, it's going to come around and people are going to start getting tired of it. People are already getting tired of it. And I really think having a president on board who's been hired by the state board of regents is bringing tremendous stability. You can tell it on campus already, there is a good feeling because we have a president and we're not hanging out there. I think it will help us tremendously as far as relationships.

Now will that help us with the KTIK relationship? Probably not. But you know, we're going to turn it around and start winning some football games, and I really feel good about the direction we're going. Once that happens, then it will be a whole different ball-game.

[] Division 1 athletics has become a "facilities arms race" with schools such as UW and Oregon building amazing facilities to recruit the best athletes year in and year out. When will the VAC be finished (completely finished), is an outdoor on-campus stadium a consideration for Idaho, and is there a plan for a one-time or on-going capital campaign (i.e. Campaign for Idaho Athletics)?

The VAC will be finished when we raise all the necessary money to complete the project, and that is critical. There are 2 primary goals. One is to fully fund the VSF program, the other is to take care of the remaining VAC components and get them funded (Idaho has raised $8 million to get the VAC to its current state of completion, needs $5 million to fully complete the project, and it must be fully privately funded), and then we can move forward. We are in the preliminary stages of putting together a long-range facilities plan. We're partnering with the College of Agriculture on this campus, they have the same issues we have. They have some farm operations that are close to the community and close to the campus, and as the campus grows and encroaches on those facilities they need to look at something differently. We're going to work together with them to develop a long-range plan that helps them out, because if you look at where we might build some new facilities it probably would be on some of that farm ground. This endeavor is underway, we've started some preliminary negotiations and we're going to get some people in here and get a plan in place. I think it's important for us to figure out where we're going to go, what we're going to do, what we can do, and then we'll move on from there.

[] Is a change in our football stadium situation, either a change to the Dome or a new stadium, a long-term need?

We have to look at that long-term. That's part of the goal of having the group come in and help us with facilities planning. If it's feasible to do something with the dome, then we might do it. If not, then we certainly have to look at other options.

[] Lets look way ahead. Let's say it's the year 2014. Where do you see the "State of Vandal Athletics" at that far in the future? What is your (our) vision relative to VSF Membership, facilities, conference affiliation, number and type of sports, etc.?

I hope by that time we will have more than doubled VSF membership. Facilities will have improved. Every year we have to improve our facilities. Conference affiliation, by that time (it will probably change several times by then), you will probably see where regional rivalries come back into college athletics. It's really important to have those regional rivalries. Because of that I think you will see us in a conference that makes geographic sense. And, I really think, long-term that you may see us in a conference, at the Division 1 level, where we have some of the old Big Sky schools in there. Montana. Possibly Montana State. Maybe Northern Arizona. Having schools that really are close.

As far as number and types of sports, we just added women's swimming to have a 16th sport. If we add any sports between now and 2014, most likely it would be a women's sport because of gender equity considerations.

[] How important are conference affiliations and regional rivalries with peer institutions (WSU, OSU, Montana, Utah State) and in-state (BSU, ISU) institutions? (Fan support, recruiting ground, marketing, etc).

It's very important to have the right conference affiliations and regional rivalries. Playing schools that make geographic sense helps on a lot of different fronts. We did an analysis when we put together information for the WAC Presidents, and when we play schools that make geographic sense we average 15,600 at home. When we play Sun Belt schools where there isn't a lot of interest we average about 11,400 or 11,500. When you look at that figure, obviously it makes sense. From a recruiting standpoint it makes sense too, because we're going to continue to recruit kids from the northwest. Their family, friends, and parents want to be able to see them play in the northwest. So, being able to have regional rivalries is critical long-term.

[] Is the Eastern Michigan game a home-and-home?

Yes. The return game is 2007.

[] Same go for Hawaii?

No. That will be played only at Hawaii.

[] For many years, Idaho has acted as a stepping stone for head coaching jobs. How do you intend to entice new young coaches, and, more importantly, keep them at Idaho for years to come? (i.e. Mike Divilbiss, Debbie Buchanan, etc).

That is an issue. One of the good things that has happened here in the last few years is we've been able to raise our coaching salaries up to be more competitive. That's always a key, to be able to pay people. I think it's important when we have success in these programs that we take advantage of state board policy where we can negotiate contracts for head coaches for 4-5 year deals, and provide stability for them. Sometimes I think stability for coaches is more important than the financial piece. But that's just part of it. Not only do we need to have longer term deals, we need to continue growing our resources so we can pay them better and give them better facilities.

[] Do you have any idea when the WAC may be looking to make a change?

The WAC does not have to make any decisions right now. They have 9 teams, and they only need 8 to operate and have a viable conference. But it really will depend on what Conference USA does. I know that C-USA met as a group this last week to discuss a process for selecting a new team. They have said they will be very thorough. It will probably be 30-60 days before they actually select a team. We know they're looking at 5 teams. They're looking at Louisiana Tech, UTEP from the WAC, Toledo from the MAC, North Texas, and Temple. We obviously hope they take Louisiana Tech. That would get the WAC out of having any schools in the central time zone. If this is the direction C-USA takes we feel good about our chances to get into the WAC. You talk to different people around the country, they feel very good about Idaho getting in the WAC eventually. But, my biggest concern is that once we get in, we have to stay in. And that means we have to meet the membership criteria, and really the big key to that is the attendance at home games. The criteria is that we need to average 15,000 people (not tickets sold, actual people in the seats) and have at least four 1A home games (for the 04 & 05 seasons, it changes to five 1A home games after that). This is a challenge for us and we have to figure a way to make it happen.

Many thanks to new Athletics Director Rob Spear for taking time out of his hectic schedule to meet with us for this interview. In just a couple months on the job we believe he has done outstanding in many facets, including reconnecting with Vandal fans and alumni. We look forward to the future of Vandal athletics under his direction at The University of Idaho.

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