Exclusive Interview: Rob Spear, A.D.

On January 22, Larry Johnson traveled to Moscow to attend the Cal-State Fullerton men's basketball game and to chat with <b>Rob Spear</b>, Vandal Athletic Director, for a <i>VV.com Exclusive Interview</i>. The problems and barriers to the Idaho athletic program are both challenging and unique, in that no other school in NCAA Division I athletics faces the same set of issues. The entire interview is presented here, including several "never before" published topics.

LJ: What was your impression of the University of Idaho's Athletic Programs when you became the Interim Athletic Director?

RS: Not good! Morale was bad and there was a lot of uncertainty in the program. Things were even more complicated because there was no permanent AD, no permanent president, no financial vice-president and horrible financial issues. When I became the Interim; the focus at that point in time was getting through the football season, knowing a coaching change needed to be made. My energies were devoted to finding a football coach that would inject energy into our program. It was obvious that morale was a problem in the department. Although there was a lot of uncertainty with the program and with the University, we were fortunate to have solid programs in volleyball, women's basketball, cross country and track; however we were at rock bottom in football and struggling in men's basketball.

It was obvious that we needed better athletes in our football program. I may be different than most athletic directors in that I pay close attention to what goes on in our strength and conditioning program. The strength and conditioning program is the foundation for success. That is where student-athletes learn discipline, learn how to work and compete at the Division 1 level. It was painfully obvious that our caliber of athlete needed to be upgraded. After I was named the permanent AD, I promised myself that I would not make any structural or organizational changes until I had observed people and processes for 1 year. Now we are going to move forward with a new vision and plan for the future. We need to do a lot of work but I think we're turning that all around.

LJ: What are your largest challenges for your department today?

RS: Well no question we're facility challenged. It's the number one thing. You look at where we're at in relation to the rest of the Western Athletic Conference. We have to improve our facilities. We also need to increase our revenues. We need to increase our budget. We're not going to get any help from the university. We need to do it on our own. We need help from everybody out there. It must come from every individual. Each individual can't look and wait to see if somebody else is going to step up. You have to do it. We have to grow our Vandal Scholarship Fund, and increase corporate sponsorship dollars. Increasing corporate sponsorship dollars is a challenge but doable. We are talking about outsourcing our marketing activities. We have talked to a firm that specializes in marketing athletic programs across the country. We are going to initiate a formal RFP (request for proposal) in the near future. We are very encouraged about this outsourcing concept and the increased revenue potential. But, facility improvement is our biggest challenge, no question.

LJ: What is your definition of success for your programs?

RS: Well, you know, that's an interesting question. I can tell you we just put together a new mission statement for our department. We say that we are going to develop and maintain competitive, integrity-based athletic programs. Unite students, faculty, staff, and alumni in the community. Educate and graduate student-athletes. So those three things right there define success, in my opinion.

LJ: Can you describe the impact on your budget, if the VSF was fully funded and specifically what is the impact to salaries for coaches and to your department, if the VSF was fully funded?

RS: It would be phenomenal. I mean, right now, the VSF generates about $1.1 million annually. We need about $2.4 million to completely fund the Vandal Scholarship Fund. So if you took the difference between $2.4 and $1.1 million you would have another $1.3 million dollars that you could put back into your program. You could easily take $500,000 of that and upgrade your coach's salaries. You could take the other half-million and use that to leverage and maybe debt-finance some facility projects. So if you could fully fund athletic scholarships, it would be absolutely huge. It is absolutely necessary we fully fund these scholarships in the near future.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For example, $500,000 per year could, theoretically, be used in debt-service for all or part of the $10 million required to complete the VAC (Vandal Athletic Center).

LJ: When do you estimate the Vandal Scholarship Fund will achieve full funding?

RS: Well, we're trying to grow it. Our goal is to increase it 15% a year. So, if you look at the rate we're at, it would probably take us 8 to 9 years to really fully fund that program. Hopefully we could do it sooner, but it all depends on the cost of tuition. People do not understand that, when student fees go up on campus, so do our costs back to the university. Fortunately we have been able to stay a little bit ahead in our growth of the VSF in relation to student fee growth. But, I think 8 to 10 years at the current rate. We really need to focus on establishing endowments. If we could endow all of our scholarships things would be a lot easier.

LJ: Where do you see the University of Idaho Athletic Department in 5 years?

RS: Well, in 5 years I think we will be certainly competitive in all programs. I would say we would be in the upper third of all Western Athletic Conference programs. I think we will be there immediately in the sports I mentioned: volleyball, women's basketball, track & field/cross country. Men's basketball and football have a solid foundation. We will recruit younger kids that will be in our programs for 4-5 years. The Western Athletic Conference is really helping us recruit better athletes; just being in the league. It's all about recruiting better athletes to this campus. Obviously we're facility challenged, but we do have a fabulous campus. I'm convinced that when we get parents and their kids here on this campus, and they see the academic side, see our beautiful campus and the great living and learning environment, we can sign these kids. It's just a matter of getting better student-athletes. So I think in 5 years I would like to say we're going to be competing and be in the upper quartile of the Western Athletic Conference.

LARRY JOHNSON / VandalVenue.com
Once a Vandal, always a Vandal! January 22, 2005: Rob Spear, University of Idaho Athletic Director, sings the fight song during a timeout in the Cal-State Fullerton men's basketball game.
LJ: How can Idaho communicate the needs of the department for the alumni?

RS: In our strategic plan one of the main, broad-based goals we've developed is to improve our internal and external communications and engage our campus and community. We have a bunch of different, unique vehicles that we're going to start doing. One of them is we have the Friday Letter from the president. Well, we're talking about doing a Monday letter. It would come out after a weekend is done, from our athletic department and be sent to VSF contributors. They could then share with others. We did a great job last year of meeting one of my priorities of getting our town back. Our community support was lacking and we had no local VSF chapter. We were not reaching out to our community. Now, if you walk downtown and look, our local VSF chapter (now resurrected) has sold 188 of those big, I-Vandal signs that are in windows and businesses. We got out and got our posters hung up. We're making it a Vandal town again. It was starting to become a Cougar town, which is really unfortunate. I think we've made some great headway there. So it's all about reaching out and building our community base here and getting out across the state and region. My goal is I will go anywhere, anytime to talk about Vandal athletics.

LJ: Will there be any hiring to assist Rick Darnell as VSF Executive Director?

RS: Well, we have to eventually. We feel there's a great, great potential in the North Idaho/Spokane corridor. Mahmood Sheik does a great job in Boise. We need a presence like him in the Spokane/North Idaho corridor because we really think that area is growing so fast and, with the road and highway improvements on 95 that are happening, that's an area we need to focus on. We need to have somebody up there, full-time, that can represent the Vandals. It's all about money. If we can get to a point where we can increase our revenues and carve out some dollars for a new VSF person; it'll happen then.

LJ: Will donation levels to the VSF allow donors to get preferred seating in the Kibbie Dome or Cowan Spectrum?

RS: We're having that discussion right now. Every Division I-A program has some structure that ties seating to annual giving levels. We need to move in this direction. We will be smart about this and make the transition as smooth as possible. The NCAA attendance requirement looks like it will be revised to our benefit. It used to be in February when you had to report your attendance to the NCAA. We recently received correspondence from the NCAA that they don't want to see anybody's attendance figures, this year or from any prior year. So that statement, right there, to me means that the attendance issue is going to go away and that will be huge for us. It will allow us to start prioritizing seating and really start getting some value for our ticket. Right now our ticket is undervalued. We're so worried about getting people to come to the games; we don't care how you get there. People are too accustomed to just going downtown and finding extra tickets. But, we need to obviously have a better product to sell and we will, no question. It's going to be neat, this year, having Fresno State, Hawaii and Louisiana Tech coming into our Kibbie Dome. We're going to play every game in this Kibbie Dome from here on out…our coaches love the environment….playing again in Martin Stadium is unlikely. When I met the Fresno State AD for the first time, the first words out of his mouth were, "where are we going to play our game next year?" When I said the Kibbie Dome he said how he really wanted to play in Martin Stadium. The bottom line is these teams will hate the Kibbie Dome. I love it! It is going to be a tough environment to play in. All of these things together are going to allow us to create more value for our ticket and allow us to incorporate the seating priorities that you've talked about.

LJ: This is going to be a tough question. But, some groups of alumni occasionally discuss the construction of new facilities; just like you mentioned it today. Are there any plans to build a football stadium or a basketball arena or a tennis complex?

RS: You know we don't have any formal plans yet. But, we certainly initiated discussions. Just this last week; I had Jan Stenerud...he works for a firm called HNTB…they're involved in facility design. He came out, in gratis, to look at the Kibbie Dome because I wanted a professional opinion on what could be done with the Dome. He brought an architect and they looked at the Kibbie Dome and will provide ideas on what might be done. It may be cost prohibitive to do anything. You can certainly expand it but do you spend $40 million dollars expanding the Kibbie Dome when you could put that into a new facility? Not only do we need to improve our football situation, we also need to look at a new basketball arena. I have a couple of ideas there…and working with some potential donors on doing something there. If you can build a basketball arena, then it allows you to do something different with the Kibbie Dome. Maybe you do take the roof off of it…which would help expand it…or maybe you just go look for a new area. We have identified a couple of sites where we could put a new stadium, but it's not going to be cheap. I was originally told the cost of a new stadium was about $1,000 per seat. Now they're saying it is about $2,000, if you're going to do it right. If you're going to put a 30,000 seat stadium in here, you're looking at $60 million bucks. It's going to have to all come from private money. We'll do it tomorrow, if somebody has $60 million.

LJ: Is there any master planning underway for all facility needs and any outside resources, such as consultants, working on a master plan?

RS: We have started the process. I have met with our Facility Planning group and reviewed the last master plan that was done 10 years ago. It is obviously out of date. The process has been slow and has frustrated me. Plus the Vision and Resource Task Force report came out and stated that the athletic department should not be planning on building any new facilities. Dr. White is taking all this input in and everybody's kind of patiently waiting to see what his decision is going to be on recommendations made by the Vision and Resource Task Force. In respect of Dr. White, and the direction he wants to take this institution, we have been kind of holding back a little bit…but we've been a little bit more proactive, here lately, with bringing in Jan and starting the ball rolling. But, I have to work with the President and make sure he's comfortable with the direction we're going to go here.

LJ: What steps are underway to complete the fundraising work for the Vandal Athletic Center?

RS: Well, we are in the process of identifying individuals that can help us with an athletic department campaign. This is another thing that I really haven't talked over with Tim White. But, it's obvious, if we're going to do something to improve our facilities the way we need to improve them…we have to get some high profile individuals and have those individuals focus on a fund raising campaign for Idaho athletics and have it not tied-in with the rest of the university. Now, is that doable? Hopefully. Is Dr. White going to allow us to do it? I don't know.

LJ: What's the status of the practice field project?

RS: The practice field project is very frustrating. 90% of the money is in place to do it. The majority of the funding is coming from the Dome's turf replacement fund. We are willing to take those dollars and put them out there (points east to current practice field outside office window). Last year the university decided to re-allocate student fees intended for the field project into the matriculation fee area. Also, if you remember, the university decided to hold the project back because they were talking about eliminating the fine arts program, and building a practice field would send the wrong message. We are now working with the third ASUI administrative group since the field project was considered. Two years ago this project was approved by the ASUI, and last year by the State Board of Education. People are starting to understand that the field, once developed, would benefit athletics about 30% of the time, and academics and recreation about 70%. Because the practice field would have field turf with lights, intramurals and academics would be able to expand its programs. We are providing 80% of the revenue, and only will use it 30% of the time. This is a great opportunity for the university but we can't seem to get the university to move the project forward. I have had discussions with the new financial vice president who won't take any action until the students approve the project and the student fee gets reinstated. However, he is rumored to be leaving, so there's all this instability administratively and it's hard to get people to make decisions. Who do you go too? Who helps you make these decisions? We've been very active with some student groups…with some of the groups within ASUI and I think we've done a good job of selling the project and they understand how it would benefit them…But, I think we need to get going on it.

LJ: Last June Gary Michael stated that he would begin fund raising work for new or improved athletic facilities at Idaho. Since Idaho has a new president, is Mr. Michael working with you or the UI Foundation in any fundraising efforts?

RS: We have not initiated anything yet. Gary and I are in contact at least once a month. Gary, right now, is still wrapping up some of his fund raising responsibilities for the new business building. Once he gets that done, he will help us in that effort.

LJ: Are there any plans to tie season ticket sales into any new facility projects such as a football stadium or a basketball arena?

RS: When we get to that point, absolutely. It will be similar to what Gonzaga did in their new arena. They actually sold the seats for X amount of dollars and then, to get certain seats, you have to be at a certain level in their Bulldog Club…then you buy season tickets. That's the direction we're going to have to go, which is consistent with the way the rest of the way Division I programs operate.

LJ: When the presidents of the WAC conference schools voted to invite Idaho to join the WAC did they request or expect any facility improvements and were any facility projects promised to the WAC presidents?

RS: No, we did not promise anything. The thing that we did promise was that we would continue improving our facilities. We're on track with that. The new football locker room and the women's basketball locker room are done. But as a league they are probably going to establish some performance requirements. How will these impact us? I don't know. We will be involved in establishing these criteria and be ready to address them. The bottom line is that it doesn't matter what conference we're in…We need to improve our athletic facilities anyway. There are 1-AA programs out there that have better facilities than we do.

LJ: Can you explain to our readers how entering the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) will affect your programs?

RS: The impact athletically, from a competitive standpoint, will see us immediately compete very well in cross county, track and field, women's basketball, volleyball, and swimming. We will be okay in football. I think Nick needs to have one more, good year of recruiting. The biggest challenge I really think for us is going to be basketball. The Western Athletic Conference has a pretty good group of basketball teams….they sent two teams to the NCAA's last year. That's a big money-maker for the conference. They're interested in all schools being strong in basketball because of NCAA basketball money. NCAA basketball revenue funds conferences. It's not bowl games. The NCAA basketball (tournament) is the biggest payday that you'll get because a unit, right now is worth a $145,000. So, if you have a team that gets into the NCAA tournament, one of the 64, you earn: one unit worth $145,000. As you progress through the tournament and advance you earn additional units.

LJ: That's huge.

RS: It's very huge.

LJ: They (WAC) had 2 teams last year: Nevada and…

RS: UTEP. So I think they earned about 4 units last year. But, as a league, and those units last for 5 years and then they fall off. The WAC, right now, has like 22 basketball units at $145,000 apiece. For comparison the Big West has 7.

LJ: You're right; that is a big payday.

RS: I mean it's the biggest payday out there. So basketball is a concern for us and we really need to do something, facility-wise, for basketball. Whether it's doing something with Memorial Gym or developing a new facility because it's a difficult situation to put Leonard (Perry) in. He is at a disadvantage when recruiting student-athletes. When he brings student-athletes to campus in the fall for the early signing period, football's up (in the dome) and the student-athlete can't see where they play. When he brings them in during the spring, the Cowan Spectrum is taken down again. Recruits can't visually see where they play. Then we have the issue with practice time. We're constantly balancing the academic needs of the university with our needs over gym space and gym time because in the middle of October…when basketball starts and you have the two basketball and volleyball teams going at the same time… you only have 2 gyms.

LJ: Right; and you need 3 (gyms).

RS: We need 3 and there is a third gym, but, it's a small PEB, in the Physical Education Building, and the basketball coaches hate it because it has a smaller floor…volleyball can't practice there…the academic people want to have their say…and, this year, Leonard was practicing his kids… five in the morning. We need our own facility so we can have practice time set at a given time…and be able to practice all the time on the floor that we're going to play. People are always saying geez; you get to such a slow start in basketball. Well, it does have something to do when your arena is not set up until football is over and you're team's been practicing for a month. You're not playing on the same floor.

LJ: Now with entrance to the WAC, coming up in July, can you describe what the change, if any, of the overall mood in the athletic department is?

RS: Oh, it's positive! I mean we're excited because, for once, we have stability. We know where we're going. It's not up in the air that we're always trying to get out of the Sun Belt (Conference) or the Big West (Conference). We know where we're going. We know we're going to be there for a long time and that stability has helped recruiting. Our coaches are excited about it. I was talking to assistant women's basketball coach Jeff Crouse about a young lady that he was out recruiting. When Jeff talked to her coach and asked if she has committed, he was told because we are in the WAC "you have a shot at her"…He didn't have a shot before.

LJ: Perfect example.

RS: There are numerous examples about how the WAC has already helped recruiting. We recently lost a football recruit to CAL…it was between us and CAL….give Nick and his staff credit for getting this kid to look at Idaho, but without the WAC I am sure he would not have visited. Now, look at where we recruit in the Northwest…we recruit out of California…Nick obviously has ties there…but you are going back there once a year to play.

LJ: Sometimes twice.

RS: Almost…we have Fresno and San Jose State in alternate years …but, then you're going to play Nevada-Reno.

LJ: That almost counts as a California game.

RS: So, just to be able to go back and play in your home state makes a huge difference. It is a big thing. It's been positive. I can't tell you how positive it's been.

LJ: This is a tough question; with several stories or just bad press about the University of Idaho, do you foresee an end to some of the negative publicity in the near future?

RS: In relation to athletics?

LJ: Yeah, or just in general…yeah, in relation to athletics.

RS: Yeah, it will go away. You know the whole issue with the Water Center in Boise and that project. I do think, long-term, that facility will be successful. It will generate a lot of external grant money. It will help grow the research program at the university and it will have a positive impact to the community in Boise. So, once that becomes successful, then all that stuff's going to go away. The financial situation at the university is challenging. It impacts us because everybody points their fingers at the athletic department. People will take any negative story about athletics and sensationalize it. It gets old justifying athletics all the time but whenever someone or some group challenges us …it provides us an opportunity to tell our story. Bring it on; you want to talk about the value of athletics? I can talk to you all day about the value of athletics and what we bring to the state; to this community. It's a $26 million dollar economic impact to the community that was done by an independent study (by Steve Peterson)…generates over 500 jobs…it's a rallying point for the alumni…it helps recruit students to this campus…we have 300 students that attend the UI that are enrolled in all 7 colleges. They don't go to the department of athletics school because we don't have one. They enroll in business and economics and letters and science and agriculture. That is revenue to those other schools. People recently have questioned the $2.4 million dollar subsidy from the state. But, we turn around and give the university back almost 2.4 million in tuition and fees. So you tell me who's benefiting? …there's a wash there.

LJ: How can the University of Idaho communicate both its athletic facility and program needs to the alumni?

RS: Well, we have to develop a comprehensive plan to do that and work together. It has to be a university priority. Dr. White has to embrace the concept along with our central development people on campus. We have to work with our alumni office. It has to be a team effort. We have got to develop a plan of how we're going to reach out and get these people to understand the impact that facilities will have on our campus. I am convinced that, if we can get new facilities for football and basketball, being a coach at the University of Idaho is not going to be a stepping stone anymore. It's going to be a huge job and Nick Holt has said: "If we had a new football stadium, this would be the best job in the country".

LJ: He said that to me separately. He told me that.

RS: Yes! He has said…"are there better jobs than Idaho?…Yeah, there are better jobs, but you have to live in places you don't want to live in. Places that are not good places to live". If you had those facilities here, you would attract great coaches and you would attract coaches that would stay here for a long period of time.

LJ: Are any steps underway to retain our current coaches in the next few years?

RS: We're doing the best we can. One of the biggest challenges is trying to stabilize ourselves financially to do this. There has been a lot of fluctuation. We have got to build our budget, stabilize it, so we can start building a reserve up over time. So, when a coach may be leaving, we have something in our back pocket that we can go and counter, or at least help. Right now, assistant coaches are given 1 year contracts. Head coaches in your priority sports; football, the basketballs, and volleyball all have multi-year contracts. We may need to start offering multi-year contracts for assistants. That's going to be dependent upon the head coaches, but we have to find something else that's a little different than what everybody else's offering out there to help retain these coaches. But, the bottom line is money. We've got to pay them better.

LJ: Here's the last question. How long do you plan to work for Idaho as the Athletic Director?

RS: You know, last August I signed a four-year contract and I'll commit to those 4 years. But, I hope it's a long time. I'm in my sixteenth year at this university and I've developed a passion for it. It's a passion that really became obvious, this year, when we traveled all over the country. I mean we went to the Great Lakes of Michigan, experienced the Southern hospitality in Alabama and Tennessee, traveled to North Texas; to the Oregon coast. We went to Hawaii. In all these trips there was one common denominator. It was the people. Everywhere we went the people came out; the Vandal people that were so thrilled that we were in the area. There's a great sense of pride with this university and I certainly have that. I have that passion and pride for this place and I want to be able to make the university and our alumni and community proud of our athletic department. So I hope that I am here a long time.


LARRY JOHNSON / VandalVenue.com
On December 4, 2004, The University of Idaho men's basketball team hosted rival Boise State in the Cowan Spectrum. Pictured with Dr. Spear is George Karl, as he attended to watch his son play for the Broncos. George Karl coached Rob Spear in the CBL. Shortly after this photo was taken, Karl left ESPN and accepted his third head coaching position in the NBA as the new coach of the Denver Nuggets. Prior to working for ESPN as a basketball analyst, George Karl was the head coach of the Seattle Supersonics and the Milwaukee Bucks.

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