Interview with Rick Darnell

A week ago writer and photographer Larry Johnson sat down with <b>Rick Darnell</b>, Executive Director of the Vandal Scholarship Fund, for an exclusive one-on-one interview. Many thanks to Mr. Darnell for agreeing to this interview, and for his candid answers to a number of tough questions regarding the future of Idaho athletics.

LJ: First question, what was your impression of U of I athletics before you arrived in Moscow?
Ah, that's a great question. My opinion of the U of I prior to arriving was definitely a university with great tradition and academic standards as well as a place with some great future opportunities. It was very intriguing. It was a university that was trying to go from 1-AA to Division 1 and had a plan, through Vandal Victory, and had some success there. However, there were some challenges that you know every university has today and there was some cautious optimism. But, the thing I would like to add is (talking to professionals around the country that are my network) they said Idaho is a great opportunity to make an impact and a great place to learn. It is a place that's very special, and a place that's got a lot of momentum going for it. It was very exciting to apply.

LJ: What were your thoughts about the University of Idaho prior to taking the position of the executive director?
Idaho's a very special place to me. I'm very fortunate because my family had a great experience in Idaho. My mother, Nancy Darnell actually went to high school in Moscow. My grandfather, Harlan Hodges and my grandmother, Helen had a wonderful experience when my granddad was the Men's Basketball coach from 1954 to 1959. For me, it was an opportunity to really get a chance to see a university that I heard wonderful things about and learn about the great traditions and people.

LJ: What do you perceive as our strengths and our weaknesses?
RD I think that our weaknesses are that there is an enormous amount of potential here. It's a living, learning environment and I really believe in that concept. It's a special place, but nationally not many people know about Moscow or Northern Idaho. But when we introduce recruits and corporations to Idaho, the fifth growingest state in the country, and show how special our land grant institution is; it's a sellable product. I also want to stress the word product when it comes to student athletes; we are one of the top universities in the country to graduate their student athletes and it's a great product to sell. So I think that there is a lot of potential. The strengths, I think are in the answer I gave. We just need to do a better job of marketing and selling our product.

LJ: How are you attacking our weaknesses?
RD: Great question. I think there's a real hard commitment for the Vandal Scholarship Fund, Vandal Athletic Center, and our development efforts to work directly with our marketing team so that there's a true partnership. That's the number one. Second, I think that we're very much in line with trying to deal with leaders in the state from a regulatory standpoint as well as from a corporation standpoint to make sure that we're on target with what we offer as an athletic department and university. If we can maximize our media and marketing opportunities, we can get our "positive" message out there and we can win more fans, increase enrollment and enhance our corporate partnerships. We must educate people on what are the strengths and future direction of the University of Idaho.

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LJ: What does the invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference next year mean to your position and the University of Idaho in general?
I think it is much more than my position. I think it's more so for the University of Idaho. First and foremost, there are folks that were in one of the best conferences in the country, when they went here, and that's the Pacific Coast Conference. We are now returning to the upper echelon, which the University of Idaho had a strong tradition in the past, and that will give the university more opportunities from an academic standpoint as we align with the Western Athletic Conference. It's going to give the university, in general, an opportunity to be seen by new folks so we can enhance enrollment and educational opportunities as well as participate athletically in our region.

LJ: Here's a tough question. Why do you think that VSF membership has been flat to negative over the past several years when you look at our alumni base?
I'm still learning the answer to that. I think that there's a lot of history there. We have a large number of Vandal boosters when you look at the Sun Belt Conference and the Big West Conference. We are very comparable to the Western Athletic Conference. But, the neat thing is, when you look at historical data we've had more boosters. When we have those folks come back on board, we're going to be the leader in the Western Athletic Conference and to me, I think that's the exciting part is getting everybody back on board.

LJ: Based on our VSF history and your goals for the VSF, when do you anticipate the scholarship fund being fully funded?
While I'm on duty, working with AD Rob Spear and President White, that is our top goal. We plan to fully fund athletic scholarships. But, that's a two-part question. We really want to make the change. Back in 1947, when it (VSF) started, the focus and that goal has always been there and we're going to achieve that goal, but we're going to do it through endowments and that's why we have this charge, right now, of trying to create 125 new endowments. If we can increase our endowment dollars, and double them, in the next 5 years that will be a great step forward so that we can put our annual dollars more to our programs.

LJ: OK, let's see. What can you do to educate the UI alumni, employees, and friends of the university as to the value of donating to the VSF?
RD: I think the number one thing that we can do to educate is there are many places you can make an investment today. You can make it in a corporation. You can make it in other non-profits. The wonderful thing about the University of Idaho is that, when you are associated with the Vandal Scholarship Fund, it's going directly to a student's education. Our product has done a phenomenal job. Our product is going to graduate 91% of the time or higher, when they complete their eligibility. They're going to maintain over a 3.02 GPA and our product is going to go find a job and bring more opportunities to more students at the University of Idaho. Your investment makes a "real" impact and pays off!

LJ: What does it mean to the athletic department when the scholarship fund is fully funded?
It is a tremendous opportunity, once it's (VSF) is fully funded for us to grow our revenue and other resources. We definitely want to expand our opportunities and our programs. The sooner we can address scholarships the sooner we can take care of other things. I would like to add that, right now, we still have ten million dollars (in planned spending) that we have to complete in projects for the Vandal Athletic Center and that is a major component. The sooner we can address that we can get the bigger and better issues that people are very excited about and we've got a short term goal to address all that.

LJ: Most, if not all universities, link giving-levels to the placement of football and basketball seats. When do you anticipate a new football stadium, with increased priority seating, to allow the UI to benefit and are there any plans to modify the open seating methods in the Cowan Spectrum as Leonard Perry develops his program?
A great question. We are looking at priority seating as an option. We need to start initially with what we have and that starts in the Kibbie Dome and that definitely starts in our Cowan Spectrum. The first stage in that is educating our donors and educating our season ticket holders about the importance that if you are a season ticket holder then you need to be a VSF member. But more importantly, what's the true purpose and value of having priority seating? As we educate people, on that program, and people buy into it and understand the value that they are receiving, then they have a better opportunity when we try to do bigger and better things so that we don't have to re-educate on that area. We can just focus on…where do you want to sit?

LJ: Please describe your position for those of us that are unclear about your responsibilities?
My title is Executive Director of the Vandal Scholarship Fund. That's a 503(1) (c). It is the specific fund raising arm, created in 1947. Our donors give to this non-profit organization. We then transfer a check to the university Athletic Department. The athletic department then submits a check to the university President to cover the 200 scholarships that are required by the NCAA. Specifically, these gifts are invested in the university and distributed to each of the seven colleges by the University President. In addition to that I also work with Tom Morris (Marketing and Promotions) and it is a pleasure to work with him. He is a great teammate. When we're talking to people as an individual prospect, we have an opportunity to talk to them about their corporations, and their companies. It's a pleasure to work with our business manager, Matt Kleffner, and everybody. But it's truly a job where I get to interact with our student athletes and our fans. It's a privilege to do that.

LJ: Do you have any plans to add professional staff to help you cover the vast expanse of area where UI alumni reside?
Great question again. We do have a strategic plan of how we would like to incorporate new people. But, it depends on us being fiscally responsible and that's the number one theme. Until we're where we need to be and we can justify those positions, we're going to stay with where we are today. But, once we can afford them, and we know they (new people) can produce and we find the right person… we're not going to hire just anybody…then we'll step to the next level. Mahmood Sheikh does a wonderful job in Southern Idaho and Kate Jorgensen does a terrific job in Moscow. I work with some great professionals.

LJ: OK, final question. We're hours away from the kickoff with the Washington State football game. What's your prediction for today's' score in football and the volleyball game against Cal State Northridge?
RD: Vandals win. That's what I predict. In Football, we are young but improving daily. In Volleyball we have a special team, one which is making an impact nationally.

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