VV.com Exclusive: ROB SPEAR

For months there has been a lot of misinformation circulating about a major facilities remodel being considered on the campus of the University of Idaho. Athletic Director ROB SPEAR took some time out of his hectic schedule for an exclusive, one-on-one conversation with VV.com's Larry Johnson about facilities upgrades which will ultimately benefit the entire Idaho campus.

LJ: There's been a lot of talk lately about what is being proposed for a new basketball arena and performing arts center. Can you let us know where the University of Idaho is in that process right now?

RS: Well, it goes without saying Larry that everyone knows that we, being the University, the boosters, State, and so forth, have made the pledge that we are going to be a viable athletic program, in Division I, and it is understood that we have to improve our facilities to fulfill that commitment. When you look at the areas we need to improve……we have to improve them across the board. We need to improve our football venue, we need to improve our basketball venue, we need to improve our soccer field, we need to improve our tennis facilities and, we need to maintain the integrity of our indoor track program; so it becomes complicated. Initially we put together some ideas/concepts so we could provide a vision for what could be done that embraced all of those things.

Now we have hired a professional architect, Opsis / Hastings-Chivetta, to formally evaluate what we can do. So nothing has been decided yet. The architects will provide the professional advice and develop a master plan for all of our facility needs and position us for the future. They will develop multiple concepts and present them to us. We will then evaluate them as a group and determine which way we can go, which way makes sense, which is the most cost-effective, and which is the most feasible. Ultimately we are seeking excellence and intend to be one of the strengths of this great university.

LJ: Where did the money come from to do the study?

RS: 12 individuals contributed $157,000. This was an important first step because we needed professionals to evaluate our initial concepts. Up until then we relied on the services of two architectural students to put these concepts on paper. The exciting thing about this process is that our donors understand how important this is. It hasn't been hard to sell the vision. This is all about what it means to be a Vandal. It's just like Coach Erickson giving back to the University after going out and achieving excellence to the extent he did. He didn't have to come back here. He gets it to. There is something special about being a Vandal. This is all about community, second chances and overcoming adversity. When the study is complete it will provide us with direction, creative solutions, and a future we all can look forward to.

LJ: Some of our readers always think that our facilities projects are tied to demands made by the Western Athletic Conference. Is there any truth to that?

RS: This is not about the WAC, this is about achieving excellence. The goal of excellence led us to the WAC. But yes, there is an expectation of the conference that we will continue to improve facilities, but we needed to do that anyway. It is the only promise we made when we accepted the invitation to join [the WAC]. But the promise is as much to our students, alumni, faculty, staff and community as it is to the WAC. So far we are on track. We have improved our facilities each year. The new practice field is a good example that we did last year. This year we're going to have the new video replay board in the dome that will create a better game atmosphere. Now we need to get more serious and continue to look at how we can improve these facilities long term, you know, 30-plus years.

LJ: Dennis Erickson has only been on board, or has returned to Idaho now, for about 6 or 8 months. What kind of impact has the hiring of Dennis Erickson had on this process and on facilities?

RS: I can't emphasize enough how great it's been to have Dennis on board and how great it is to work with him. I mean, he is the complete package. He is obviously interested in what we are going to do long-term with facilities, and it's important for people to understand that if we do not improve these facilities that we will not have Coach Erickson for the long term. He has bought into our vision. He is as hopeful as I am that people will step up and make something special happen here. Now is the time to capitalize on his presence.

LJ: He has said that publicly and in the media.

RS: He has accomplished way too much in his career to come back to the University of Idaho and have us not progress and improve our facilities. If we improve our facilities to where we are comparable with our peers, I think the sky's the limit, and it's just a matter of us getting a plan out there and getting people excited and all coming together collectively to get this thing done.

LJ: Now what kind of…to summarize the process, you're out looking at what your options are with a professional engineering and architecture firm. Is that correct?

RS: Right. You know…people from the outside look in and they say: Well, it's easy…simple. This is what you need to do: Raise $100 million, build an outdoor stadium, and build a basketball arena and you're done with it. It's very complicated. In fact, it is extremely complicated. First we needed to be strategic in how we promote improvement of our athletic facilities on this campus, and I think we've done that over the last 24 months. We've been working with various groups on campus to keep them in the loop, make them aware of what we're doing, because we need to develop facilities that are going to benefit our entire campus…something that can be multi-use. We are not big enough to have stand-alone athletic facilities that are just used for athletic purposes only. We need to be, again, strategic, do our homework, make sure that we can embrace our students, our alums, our faculty, our staff, our community, and get all those people involved. Of course we also need State Board of Education approval. You have to keep them in the loop along the way. We are not going to stare at these barriers, we believe we can do this.

So we have hired the architect. They have been on campus on two separate occasions and have collected information from a large constituent group. We've involved our students, we've involved performing arts, we've involved the jazz festival board, we involved theatre, we've involved recreation and dance, and we've involved the intramural groups, we've had faculty input, community input and we've had Vandal Booster input. We've been as inclusive as we can so we can get all these ideas out to the architects. After they evaluate all of this information they will the comeback with various concepts and collect additional information from these groups on campus. Finally they will present the concepts and we will need to pick one and move forward.

LJ: Now once you pick one, that's when you'll really look at what a capital campaign would be for that project. Is that correct?

RS: That's correct. We need to make sure the concept we pick is doable financially. Can we raise that money? That is where we're going to have to involve the experts on our campus and figure out what we can raise privately. We also must have a sophisticated business plan if we're going to sell suites and sell seats and do all the things necessary to get the project moving forward. Once that is complete we will need to notify the State Board of Education and get its approval before we can go out for bid for the actual architectural design. Upon completion of the design we will go out for bid for the construction costs.

LJ: And then you'll have to hire a constructor and actually have a building; so we're looking at a few years of process time.

RS: Well, hopefully it's not going to be a few years. I think it's important for us…

LJ: Two or three years?

RS: …to identify a concept and get people excited about that concept and secure a lead gift, and if we can secure a lead gift then we can move forward with the actual design, the design phase, and then move forward through a defined process.

LJ: Are you finding any opposition to such a project right now?

RS: No, because we have done it the right way by being so inclusive. When you look at one of the priorities of this study…..construction of an events center that can be multi-use…. We need to get both basketball programs out of the Kibbie Dome. I think that it's critical that we do that, because it's disadvantageous right now to that program. This year they're not going to be able to practice on their home floor until November 28. Well, the season starts in October, October 15, yet they don't get on their own home floor for six weeks; so we have to get them out and into their own facility. To do that, we have to make sure that we get a lot of other groups to embrace that, and we've been working hand in hand with the Jazz Festival Board because we'd love to have a great venue for our International Jazz Festival that is so well known…renowned across the country…the world, actually…and so far we've been working with them, working with our students, working with some faculty and working with research faculty. A research faculty member expressed interest in having a venue that they could host research conferences like the Goldschmidt Conference. The Goldschmidt Conference is an international research conference that was held on this campus a year ago. If we had a better venue I think they could generate some additional interest in holding some additional conferences that generate revenue for the campus.

LJ: Can you describe how the president's office is behind this project?

RS: You know Dr. White is behind the concept. We could not have moved forward without his approval to go out and hire an architect and get this design process underway. After we evaluate the concepts, we will need to identify whether or not we're going to be able to raise that money, what the business plan is, and getting appropriate state board approval will determine whether or not we move forward with the project. He is behind what we're doing right now and has, at one point in time, called it a transformational project for the whole university. I agree with that assessment.

LJ: Well put. Now, has anybody hinted at locations or seating capacities or anything like that?

RS: We've been working with the architects and we've talked about locations that will be efficient. There are a lot of costs associated with getting your infrastructure to a site, the cost of getting your utility lines, your water, and your gas. It just so happens that around the Kibbie Dome we have the entire infrastructure in place; so we talked about possibly putting an events center on the west end. We've talked about putting it on the north side of the field. It just varies, and we're again working with the architects. It appears that putting it on the north side makes the most sense right now.

LJ: Are there any scenarios where…well, you can see this. The obvious need is to build a basketball arena, and after that you still have to take care of many other venue needs such as the Jazz Festival, indoor track, an indoor place for the football team to practice, and what not. Are there any scenarios that you can foresee where the Kibbie Dome would ever have the roof removed?

RS: You know that's certainly not out of the question. One of the challenges we have with the Kibbie Dome is that it was originally designed as an outdoor stadium. Then it was decided by somebody to put a roof over it, and when they put a roof over it….it really created some challenges for future expansion. No matter what is done, there will be costs associated with getting it up to code and having appropriate lighting. The other thing people need to understand is that the Kibbie Dome is truly a mutli-use facility. It is used by other campus entities way more than Athletics. We have to be cognizant of the Dome's other uses during this process. We can't just take over the Dome and do whatever to it. This would doom the project from the start.

LJ: Is there any discussion…the campus has a Gothic theme to its architecture…so obviously the architects are going to take that into account. When you look at the new buildings on campus, which there are many, the Rec. center, the business building, the Teaching and Learning Center – they're all Gothic styles; so obviously whatever is built is going to have some kind of a Gothic theme in its architecture. Is that correct? Maybe it's too early to tell?

RS: I don't know if it will be Gothic or not, but I know when it is designed and put into place it will fit the campus. It won't stand out as something that doesn't fit.

LJ: Are there any…out of this $157,000 that was raised…are there any donors that are publicly acknowledged?

RS: We haven't yet. There is one that contributed a major portion of that, and at some point in time we will formally acknowledge that individual and all the other contributors. When we improve are facilities and I mean when, these individuals will take great pride in knowing they were the foundation of this project.

LJ: Didn't the University of Idaho raise $125 million in the last campaign…the Campaign for Idaho raised $125 million?

RS: Right and it was a very successful campaign, and although that number is real, it is somewhat misleading because it was not all in discretionary cash. It was $125 million from multiple sources, gifts, grants, in-kind contributions. The majority of this money was earmarked for specific programs and facilities. The President didn't say: Okay, athletics gets $50 million and education gets $25 million. It was earmarked money. One example I will give you is the biotechnology building that was constructed during that campaign period. The building cost about $11 million, maybe $12 million; $3 million was federal money, $3 million was state money, and $5 million was raised privately, and that was all included in that campaign total. So you have a lot of examples where even though the university raised $125 million, right there $11 or $12 million of it was dedicated to a facility just like a certain portion of the $125 million was dedicated to a certain endowment for certain colleges; so it's very misleading to say: Well, you raised $125 million. Why didn't you just give athletics $50 and go do what they want? It just doesn't work that way, because people give to specific interests. We obviously have to have a capital campaign in this athletic department, but when you talk about process, it's very important that we fit into the overall campaign that President White wants for the entire university. We can't be out in front. We have to wait until this whole campaign is decided, what the amount is going to be and get ourselves staffed and go forward; so we have to fit with the university process. But we won't wait forever, the time is now!

LJ: So it's safe to assume that the university is about to embark on another major capital campaign?

RS: Yes, in the near future that is going to happen. I don't know what the dollar amount will be but it will be significantly higher than $125 million.

January 28, 2006 (Moscow, ID) - Former teammates, Rob Spear, Idaho Athletic Director, and George Karl, Head Coach of the Denver Nuggets, watch the Boise State – Idaho basketball game from courtside.
LJ: Yeah. Who knows the amount? Now, the last time we talked you mentioned that the business of the WAC, or a good part of the WAC's business, is basketball with tournament units and TV money. Obviously a new basketball arena would help the business of the University of Idaho as it improves its business within the Western Athletic Conference. Is that correct?

RS: Oh, absolutely. The WAC, and across the country, basketball generates the most money unless you're a BCS school in football, and there's only, as we know, six of those conferences that really share in the big money. We have an opportunity to really develop a very successful basketball program here. I'm excited about what Coach Pfeifer and Coach Washington and his staff members, Brian Hancock and DeMarlo Slocum have accomplished, because we have closed the talent gap already this year. We have some great recruits. They worked hard this summer identifying recruits for next year. I really am excited about that program, about how we closed the talent gap. We still need to get better, but you're going to see a team that looks like a basketball team.

LJ: Would you also say now that you have not only improved the basketball program, but it sounds like you have, with the reality of today's athletic business, you're going to improve the business program of the athletic department as well.

RS: I won't take credit for improving the basketball program. All the credit will go to coach Pfeifer and his staff. Again, we are much more athletic and have improved our talent base. But the business aspect and athletic talent aspect of our programs will improve with new facilities. But I still need to emphasize that any facility improvement will benefit the entire campus. I can't emphasize that enough. Improved facilities will help our entire campus.

LJ: It also means it's going to change your revenue model...change the revenue model for the whole school.

RS: It will change our revenue, right.

LJ: Change the revenue model for the Jazz Festival or any other venue you have in there plus basketball?

RS: Yes it will. People are saying: You should have a 10,000 seat facility but that does not appear to be feasible. Since cost is gong to be an issue I think a 6,000 seat facility is the best. It would actually create demand for our ticket and create value for our ticket. For example, look at our football program, creating value has been a struggle because of the old attendance issues. The old rules at the time required us to have people actually attend the games, and we were so adamant and focused on getting people to come to the games that we were giving away tickets and created no value. Since the rule changed to tickets sold we are now allowing ourselves to create value for our ticket. We have also implemented the priority seating for football. I think indeed you'll see the same thing happen for basketball when we get this arena.

LJ: You said the last time we talked that you were going to improve the value basis of all your tickets and all your programs. So, I could see a scenario where if, let's think down the road a few years, the new facility is built, up and running, and it's hosting Jazz Festivals, graduations, men's and women's basketball games. That means when alumni come to campus in the fall, you can literally attend a soccer match, a football game, a volleyball match, and if it's late in the fall see men's and women's basketball games in the performing arts arena.

RS: Right….don't forget swimming.

LJ: So you would see five or six different sports in five or six different venues in one weekend.

RS: Yeah, absolutely.

LJ: Which you could not do today because of scheduling in the Kibbie Dome.

RS: It's impossible. In the future we could really play a volleyball game on a Thursday night…you could attend a concert on Friday night in the events center. Swim meet on Saturday morning, attend a football game Saturday afternoon and Saturday night you could go watch a basketball game in the new events center because it could be transformed easily from a performing arts center. On Sunday you could watch a soccer game. It would a great sports weekend.

LJ: Is tennis included in this plan and swimming and all that?

RS: Swimming has had some input. I mean, it's going to be an entire feasibility-master plan. Actually, swimming, their facility, right now, is great. It really is. Tennis needs a bubble.

LJ: Yeah. I looked at it [swimming center] last summer and I was impressed. It's been improved substantially in a short time.

RS: In the future there we need to get a separate locker room for the swimmers, that is going to happen, and we need to eventually have diving be a part of our program. First we must get the appropriate diving boards in our swim center. Tom Jager, our swim coach, who obviously has swum all over the world, has said that the swimming venue that we have is pretty special.

LJ: Well, you kind of get a 3-for-1 deal: You get an Olympic champion, you get a good coach, and you get somebody who would be an expert of swimming facilities, given all the pools he's been in. You get a 3-for-1 deal.

RS: That's right.

LJ: Now, do you want to make any forecasts on when you think a shovel would go in the ground on such a project [new basketball/performing arts arena]?

RS: It all depends on getting the fund raising plan to align with the concept we pick and having the appropriate business plan.

LJ: So it's too early to speculate on a start date?

RS: We are not going to be able to start anything until we pick a concept and get an appropriate fund raising plan in place. A major gift is a must.

LJ: Have you also considered naming rights for the facility?

RS: Absolutely. One of the reasons we have outsourced all of our marketing to Learfield Communications, is that they have a subsidiary organization that specializes in naming rights. We plan on engaging them in the process. The other reason we hired is Learfield is to stabilize our revenue source as we rebuild our football and basketball programs. We need to have a stabilized revenue source. I can't afford to have a corporate sponsor drop out. Hiring Learfield, has stabilized our revenue source for the next five years.

LJ: So you get a 2-for-1 deal with them.

RS: We do and they will work on commission (just for the naming rights). They will actually go out and identify companies/prospects to name facilities. There will be several naming opportunities for this project. Obviously the whole performing arts center…the plazas surrounding the center, the court inside the performing arts center…the dome…the field in the dome. So, you have four or five significant naming opportunities that you can go market.

LJ: And I would think there are a lot of people in the corporate America community who would look at that as a venue they would want to put their name on. Because, right now, it [new facility] is like a clean slate. There is really no major facility with a major name on it outside of the Albertson's Business College. So, first-in would probably get the best deal. Do you have an estimate on how much the new basketball facility or stadium remodel will cost?

RS: You know, we don't have a real firm, hard estimate, but I can tell you that it will not be cheap. There are some very misinformed people out there who think you can build an outdoor stadium for $30 million or an events center for $20 million. Those figures are not even close and comparing what has been done on other campuses is not a fair comparison because of the increasing costs. The construction cost increases over the last three years have been shocking. The actual cost of new facilities has skyrocketed because of increased concrete and steel prices and the international demand for these materials. There's no end in sight. We must be proactive and identify a concept, identify some new donors and move forward so we can have something in place for the next 30 years. I can guarantee you one thing about our future facility plan. It will be well-thought-out and will not handicap the person that is sitting in this job 30 or 50 years from now. In order to get his done, everyone must step up and contribute. I can feel it so let's make it happen.

LJ: Well put. Thank you.

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