Larry Johnson: It's been about a year or six months since the last time we talked. How are things going in the world of Robb Akey and his new take of the football team?
Rob Spear: "Robb has just been a tremendous addition to our athletic program. He brings a positive energy. He's motivated. He is a person with high character, and all those things are evident when you watch him coach and interact with players and how he treats all the people on staff and how he's willing to go meet the Vandal Nation, which will happen here after spring ball. He's been awesome…the best way to describe it."
LJ: How do you think the football players have reacted to Robb Akey?
RS: "Positive. He met with them… his first team meeting and he said he really had three rules. His first rule is 100% of them will graduate, and a lot them thought, 100%? He said, yes, 100%. He has made it evident that that's a high priority of his because he is sitting out… I think… at last count… seven football players… sitting out spring ball because of academic reasons. I don't think that would have happened in the past; so he is actually making progress in having kids understand the importance of academics. He talks about how they're going to be successful on the football field, and if you watch our practices and you watch the coaching and teaching that's going on, that will happen. It's not going to happen overnight. You look at our team right now, we have some critical needs at defensive line… the quarterback situation is still wide open. We need some help at wide out, and we do need some help at another cornerback position at least. I think that some of the new kids that are coming in the fall… I would expect five or six of them to play immediately."
LJ: You probably are the only athletic director in America who has hired three football coaches in less than 24 or 28 months. Obviously stability is a big factor, and you've spoken about that publicly. Is there anything else, besides Robb Akey and his buyout clause, which guarantees some stability for a couple years where things can settle down? Is there anything else you are doing to create stability within the football operations?
RS: "Well, to me it's all about perception, and we need to start being perceived as a Division I athletics program - and the biggest perception piece is how we look. A big component of that is facility improvement. We are able to take some of the BCS money we received and we have improved our office situation for the football coaching staff. We are going to utilize some of that to enhance the team room downstairs, and of course we do have, finally, the feasibility study that provides a direction where we are going to go with facilities. For us to keep coaches and create stability, we have to improve our facilities. It's a pretty simple thing. We improve our facilities, we're going to keep coaches and attract better coaches."
LJ: Part of improving facilities is also improving your revenue models, your revenue streams. What's being done to immediately improve revenue streams?
RS: "That's a great question because our first priority when we look at how we're going to improve facilities and generate revenue is we're going to focus on the Kibbie Dome. We are very fortunate that we have hit a year where the governor has actually recommended to the legislature a $50 million appropriation for life safety improvements. That was passed, and now it's going to be sent to the Permanent Building Fund Committee of the state. We have to make a case for that, but we are very confident that we will be able to receive some state money for the life safety improvements in the Kibbie Dome. That is the first phase. We have life safety issues and we have to address them. We have to fix them. Now it's very important for us to be efficient in the construction process. You take the Kibbie Dome… lower that field 12 feet, like we talked about, improve our sight lines, create additional seating… probably 3,600 to 4,000 seats… have suites on the north side, and then probably put a club area on the east end of the dome and create an environment. Of course you're going to replace the east and west ends as part of the life safety improvements, but we want to create an environment that promotes the game day experience. It's important for us to be efficient, take the life safety money, privately raise the other money for the Kibbie Dome improvements… get that done… without any debt financed cost to the university or to our athletic department. We sell the additional tickets, we sell the suites… we provide a better game day experience that helps us grow our revenue. That way we can put money back in the program."
LJ: So Kibbie Dome improvements… What would be the schedule, estimated completion of the suites and the lowered field?
RS: "Well, that's something we've been evaluating and discussing, and we probably won't have a firm answer on that until we actually hire an architect to do the planning and design work for the Kibbie Dome enhancements. We would hope that somewhere after the 2008 football season that we could start. Most likely, we will have to wait until the end of March  so we can accommodate our basketball programs… the jazz festival… our indoor track team. From that window - from March through the end of August  - we are hopeful that we can get a majority of that done to where we can at least play a football season. We might have to play a football season without the end walls on there, that would be okay. We could live with that."
LJ: So you're planning the work for the summer of 2008 and therefore your new revenue stream could begin in football operations of 2008?
RS: "Actually for the '09 fiscal year; but yes, starting in the summer of '08 we will be generating a new revenue stream."
LJ: The other big facility need is obvious and glaring, and we've talked about this in the past - basketball and a basketball arena which can be a dedicated arena and performing arts pavilion for the school.
LJ: When would construction on a basketball arena begin?
RS: "Well, we're not going to be able to construct anything until we have money in place to do it. That's just the way the university has decided we need to operate. Everybody knows why that is, because of what happened with University Place. We have $1.6 million in federal money that was appropriated for the planning and design of a performing arts center on this campus. That project [previously planned performing arts arena] was actually terminated by the president."
LJ: The original performing arts center?
RS: "The original performing arts center. We are hopeful that we can utilize that $1.6 million in planning money for a performing arts center on the north side of the Kibbie Dome. Right now we are going through an internal process to communicate the need to transfer those funds to this project. Once that's done and approved we will be able to go into planning and design to actually figure out what we can do, how much it's going to cost, and the time frame. It's an exciting time because we do have progress and we do have the vision of what we're going to do. The frustrating thing is it's going to take time."
LJ: The University is talking about a large fund raising campaign of which a significant part of those funds would go towards athletic facilities. When will that campaign begin?
RS: "It should kick-off shortly, Larry. When you go into a large campaign there's obviously going to be a silent phase when you want to get out and get a couple of major gifts. I do know the university is committed to that. They're really ramping up the staffing. They're going to hire 11 or 12 new development officers across the campus, of which we will get one. We will restructure ourselves and move at least one person into a full-time fundraising role just for facility fund raising."
LJ: What about the other facilities such as tennis and indoor track. Where does tennis stand in facilities these days? What kinds of improvements are planned? Let me preface that. There was a time in one of the VSF newsletters that you mentioned that tennis had to play at WSU recently because there's no home court due to conditions. What's the status on changing the situation for tennis?
RS: "We have outlined for tennis a plan that would evolve over time. The first thing that we need to do is take care of the six outdoor courts that we have over alongside Memorial Gym. Those courts have a serious subsurface problem. They have been resurfaced and they continue to crack. They need to be dug up and a whole new subsurface placed. We need to take care of those six outdoor courts. Once we do that, that will provide a stable environment for outdoor tennis. Then we need to look at finding a tennis bubble to "bubble" three of those courts. Then over time we would develop probably an indoor track/tennis facility somewhere down the road on campus. Immediately we need to take care of the outdoor courts and look at "covering" at least three of them. That will take care of our tennis program for the near future. For the long term we'd probably look at a tennis/track structure."
LJ: Let's talk about the football schedule. It seems that it takes a long time for the WAC to release its schedule, which makes it difficult for the school to start pre-selling tickets or selling tickets early, which then curtails your ability to get revenue this year, 2007. Why does it take so long for the WAC to release its schedule when other conferences do it much sooner?
RS: "Not only does it prohibit us from selling tickets, but it also impacts our ability to go secure charters for football travel. The longer we wait the more expensive it is. So, we are at a disadvantage that way. It takes so long because the WAC has a television contract with ESPN. ESPN contractually has until February 1 of each year to determine what games are going to be selected for TV. That impacts the WAC schedule because, as you know, ESPN televises a lot of WAC football games during the mid week – Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Until the WAC knows what game ESPN is going to select, they can't put together a schedule, because if you're having a team play on a Tuesday night, then obviously they're not going to play on the preceding Saturday or the following Saturday. So, that throws the whole schedule into flux. The other issue is the nonconference schedule. Right now the WAC allows schools to schedule nonconference games from the beginning of the season to the end. Some conferences say, ‘Hey. You need to schedule all your nonconference games in the month of September.' I think long-term that's the direction the WAC has to go so that they understand from October on… that's when you're going to play conference games. But we have schools that are playing nonconference games in October, we have them playing them in November; so you take the nonconference scheduling of other schools, the ESPN television, it really compounds the scheduling for football, and we don't get it in a timely manner."
LJ: The soccer facilities at Idaho… are there any improvements planned for that facility?
RS: "One of the things that we're looking at right now is when we lower the field in the Kibbie Dome and enhance that facility… we're looking at the possibility of somehow being able to play soccer inside. That's one solution. Another solution is to place a soccer field on the west end. That would be a long term solution. But in the near future we're going to continue to play on the field down just north of our facility here."
LJ: You have Memorial Gym under your watch which is an old and historic building. What kinds of improvements or changes are planned for the Memorial Gym?
RS: "Well, the facility improvements in Memorial Gym are something that are down the road. Again we talked about how facilities work on this campus, and it's important for people to know that this building we're sitting in right now we don't control. It's controlled by our Auxiliary Services group… the same with Memorial Gym. We have to go to another entity on this campus for scheduling, how we use the facility, and certainly if you're going to talk about renovating facilities you're going to have to go through that other entity. Memorial Gym right now… I know Coach Buchanan loves it for volleyball. It's a great volleyball venue, and she's going to continue to play her games there. But Larry there's nothing in the near future for any enhancements to Memorial Gym."
LJ: Now, do auxiliary services then control all of the athletic facilities as far as maintenance and changes and improvements?
RS: "They do."
LJ: So that's the Kibbie Dome, Memorial Gym, the swim center, all of that?
RS: "All of it."
LJ: Then the ticket office is also not under your purview; so that is also run by, I think University Events or something… is that correct?
RS: "Right. That's also under the Auxiliary Services organization. They are an entity that reports to them. We made great strides two years ago at least locating it up here in the Kibbie Dome so we could have better conversation, but long term we need to really look at that organizational structure."
LJ: Recently you were quoted in the Argonaut that it would take a grass roots effort to get facilities projects or get fund-raising going, and some buy-in was still required. Please describe how that's going and how buy-in is working these days.
RS: "It's going well. That's part of the reason that it took so long for a feasibility study to be completed because I wanted to be very careful and make sure that we engaged all entities on this campus - and some off campus - of this planning process, because we need to have everybody on board. If you're going to have a grass roots effort, it's important to have everybody buy in. I think we've done a very good job of getting buy-in. What we've just concluded and I shared with you earlier is the priority. If you look at our needs, and if I look at our needs in aggregate, it's overwhelming what we need to accomplish. We need to be focused and take bite-sized pieces that are going to help us improve our facilities, but increase our revenue. Thus, we're going to improve the Kibbie Dome first and create some opportunity to generate revenue from that facility. We are, right now, in the planning process. We've come to a consensus that we are going to focus our efforts there. We are ramping up our fund-raising activities, and it will probably most likely kick off the Friday of our spring game where we're going to invite 45 or 50 prospective donors and share this vision with them and get their buy-in… because it is important, Larry, that we move quickly, generate these dollars so that we can - assuming that we're going to be able to get some state money for the life safety-improvements - that we partner and pull that money together so we're as efficient as possible in construction and enhancement of the Kibbie Dome."
LJ: Many schools raise money by selling the naming rights to different facilities, and Idaho currently has no facilities that are named under any of those provisions other than the Kibbie Dome is named after a donor. Is Idaho making any moves to bring corporate sponsors in, or to sell naming rights to these new facilities and therefore get more money sooner?
RS: "Absolutely. That's a big component of our fund-raising plan, to establish naming rights and, at this time, I think we have identified over 30 different naming opportunities that we will have available, and that's key for us while we're out there generating money. And we are hopeful that we get this life-safety money, because nobody is going to want to have their name put on a smoke exhaust fan for the Kibbie Dome. If we can separate those things out and have state money take care of those things and create some significant naming opportunities within this facility and outside it, that's a big component on how we're going to generate the money for improvement of these facilities."
LJ: So you also mean to say that naming rights would apply to new basketball/performing arts facilities and all the others - tennis, track, etc. Where is Dr. White with the overall picture; his position and his direction as far as athletic facilities are concerned?
RS: "Well, he's been very engaged and very involved in leading the process to identify the priorities that we are going to undertake. He understands the situation. He understands that we've had 30 years of no facility improvement with the exception of the strength and conditioning center. He understands that. He understands the needs. He understands that we need to focus; so he's been totally behind identifying the priorities… for the initial phase of fund raising. When you break out the project, Larry, I said there are four phases to it. The first phase is the life-safety. The second phase is improving the dome to create a better game day experience. The third phase is the events center. The fourth phase, when we get to that stage, is either "bowling" the west end on the Kibbie Dome, or making the decision at that time of possibly taking the roof off and then going up."
LJ: So "definitely" Dr. White is engaged as you said, and does he feel that there's a sense of urgency to this?
RS: "There's no question. Everybody says that there is a sense of urgency."
LJ: Can you explain the role of Chris Murray and the UI Foundation? He has been somebody that was recently hired by the university. May alumni don't know who he is… he apparently has some role in fund raising. What's his role in all of this?
RS: "Chris is going to play a big role in this fundraising endeavor, and he has really been part of this planning process on how we're going to prioritize the projects. He understands that we need to have bite-sized pieces here, and he understands that we have to hit a home run. We have to get something done quickly and do it now, because we need to satisfy external constituents. They are growing restless… as am I."
LJ: Let's talk about a subject that's a little bit painful these days, which is basketball. Men's and women's basketball had some really tough seasons, and men's basketball is going through a rebuilding effort. How would you like to describe where they are in their rebuilding processes, and what should our alumni and fans know about those processes?
RS: "Well, we can evaluate each program separately, but the driving force in our lack of success has been the competitiveness of the WAC. It is a tough basketball conference from top to bottom. That being said, we need to be able to recruit student athletes who are going to be able to compete at that level. The women's basketball program has made great strides in this off season by signing what I will call difference makers. Mike's done a great job of signing kids who are going to come in and be contributors next season, and I really look for that program to turn the corner. The men's basketball program… they initially did have an outstanding recruiting effort early in the season. Now we've taken a hit, and we'll probably take a couple more hits. [NOTE: Since this interview, Harvey Perry - a touted transfer from the University of Washington who was enrolled at Idaho this spring and planning to play at Idaho next season - has been confirmed to have left the program] We had at one time the third best recruiting class in the WAC, and we ended up losing one of our star recruits. What's happening Larry, quite frankly, is there is a lot of negative recruiting out there against Idaho, and they bring up things about the challenges we have here, such as lack of facilities, etc. We need to overcome it. I do think that George and his assistant coaches, Leroy Washington and Brian Hancock, have done a great job working through the challenges and identifying players. We will continue to improve our talent level. I am excited about the hiring of Mike Score. Mike is a great recruiter and has international ties. This is an area we need to explore."
LJ: When we talk about sense of urgency, though, obviously a basketball facility would help George and Mike Divilbiss in recruiting.
RS: "There's no doubt. You look at our basketball situation. The basketball season starts in the middle of October and lasts until mid March, let's just say. That's a five month period. Out of those five months, our basketball teams play on that home floor 2-1/2 to 3 months. We have football that impacts it. We have other commencement activities, the jazz festival; so we're displaced out of that facility for quite some time; so having a venue just for basketball is a priority and it's a critical need for the long-term success in that, but we refuse to use that as an excuse."
LJ: What kind of role will you and Rick Darnell take in some of the fund-raising for facilities?
RS: "We're going to be front and center. Rick's responsibilities will change from the scholarship portion to being charged strictly with raising capital for our facility improvements."
LJ: The Vandal Scholarship Fund [VSF] always raises the subject of fully funding the Vandal Scholarship Fund, and it seems to be a hard issue to describe to some people. The impact of not funding the Vandal Scholarship Fund when we're trying to build facilities at Idaho - trying to make short term improvements and improve revenue and everything else - what's the best way to describe how the Vandal Scholarship Fund impacts that?
(Larry Johnson / VandalVenue.com)
LJ: Let's shift to the 2007 football schedule. Are there going to be any changes in how the game day experience is going to change for fans this fall? Any new things planned?
RS: "What we've done as a department is we have formed an external operations group that involves a lot of the entities on campus. We've always had that group functioning during the football season, but we've expanded to have a committee that meets every two weeks all year long, and that committee is charged with identifying ways we can improve the game day experience. I really think we took a step forward last year. I know I visited some of the tailgating that happened out on the west end, and I thought it was phenomenal. I thought it was a step in the right direction. As long as we continue to promote that and have the RVs come in and create that atmosphere, we want to do it the same, but we want to continue to improve as well. That's part of the challenge, and the goal of the external operations group is to figure out how we can continue to improve that game day experience."
LJ: Idaho opens the season at USC, and that game was booked three coaches ago. It almost seems like the game was booked 10 years ago, it seems to long ago. But how do you feel about Idaho opening at USC this fall?
RS: "We have to use it as an opportunity. I view one of my roles as an athletic director is that I need to provide a great student athlete experience. Part of that experience is allowing our student athletes, or providing the opportunity for that student athlete, to go play against a premier opponent. Last year we played Michigan State. Those kids will talk about that experience for a long time, just like they will talk about the experience of going down to Los Angeles and playing USC. USC is a game where we need to take advantage of every opportunity to engage the alumni in that area. That's another goal that we have. When we play games in a certain location we need to make sure that we are reaching out to those alums. This gives us a great opportunity to reach out in the Southern California area and engage our alums, and we'll let them know where we're going with our athletic department and our university."
LJ: Are there any premier opponents in future schedules?
RS: "What we're trying to do philosophically is play one BCS or top tier team every year and then have schedules where we possibly play an I-AA, and then two other games where we will play against maybe a Mountain West opponent or a MAC opponent. We are still faced with the decision where we have to have guaranteed paydays to make sure we balance the budget. You ask about the impact of not funding the scholarship fund fully. Well, if we completely fund that scholarship fund, then maybe we don't have to go play a USC or play a Michigan State. Maybe we can have more home games. In the near future we are going to have to play at least one of those games. Again I think it can be healthy for a program when you provide that student athlete experience and that challenge, but we have to be very careful that we're not playing three of those games in nonconference or two of them. We want to have more of a schedule where we can be competitive. We have tentatively scheduled Arizona to start the 2008 season, and we're going to play the University of Washington probably to kick off the 2009 season. But we're going to try to stay regional, try to stay on the west side. Now in 2010 we're looking for a game. We'll see what's happening. I'm not locking us into a game in 2010 because I really expect that the Western Athletic Conference's television package is going to improve. Right now we have a television package that is not even close to being competitive with some of our other peer conferences. The television package pays the WAC $900,000 a year."
LJ: The whole conference?
RS: "The whole conference. The WAC also voted in an inconvenience fee for schools playing at home on a non-Saturday, a fee of $100,000 to offset their loss at the gate. If I was on the receiving end of $100,000 I'd probably be for it, but right now I'm opposed to it because when you have six of those games that occur on non-Saturdays that's $600,000 that comes off the top; so there's $300,000 that the rest of us share. That's not a lot of money. The WAC has hired a consultant. Their analysis indicated that our television at a minimum is worth $5 million. We're tried to renegotiate it with ESPN… we weren't successful the first go-round. I think there's going to be a new negotiation started, but we are hopeful that as a league we can get that package up to $4 or $5 million. You look at that impact, Larry, and what that will mean and what the inconvenience fee … if we had a $3 million package I think that we would probably generate around $225,000 to $250,000 for our department. That is huge. That is significant; so I don't want to lock us into a long-term game in 2010, because I'm anticipating that we're going to generate more revenue. I'm anticipating by then we will have the Kibbie Dome fixed and will generate more ticket revenue. Maybe we won't have to go play those games."
LJ: Let's talk about the impact…Idaho's been in the WAC for a couple of seasons and really two full football seasons, and about to start a third season. It's always been a dramatic change for Idaho … and a significant change. How best would you describe that, now that two seasons have gone by and it's obviously a different conference, different level of competition and everything else… what's the best way to describe the change of operating in the WAC versus the last conference?
RS: "Well, the first thing that comes to mind is it's just a lot better league from top to bottom, and it makes geographic sense. We're playing teams that we did have rivalries with in the past: Nevada Reno, of course Boise State. I think Utah State we have a nice rivalry with. We're playing teams that make sense. Now that being said, the Western Athletic Conference is a tough conference. It is extremely tough. We see it in basketball. We certainly see it in football. The biggest thing that strikes me, Larry, when we travel to the other schools, is when we compare our [basketball] facilities with theirs and we're not even close to where we need to be. Not even close."
LJ: But there's obviously improvements in revenue and TV exposure and marketing and ticket sales because of being in a conference that makes more sense.
RS: "Those are all positives. No question. I think being in the Western Athletic Conference has given us exposure. We need to take advantage of that. I really believe that this facility plan that we have is a result of us being in the Western Athletic Conference. Even if we weren't in that league, our facilities are still not even close to where we need to be."
LJ: Are you finding any opposition to building facilities from any groups still today?
RS: "No, I think we have - like I said - we've been careful up front to engage a lot of people. I think there is an understanding on the importance of improving facilities. There is an understanding of what a successful athletic program can do for a university. All we have to do is look south and look at what Boise State has accomplished. Our hats are off to them for what they have been able to do, but the successful athletic program our people on this campus have seen… what that has done for that institution academically, financially, politically. It's just been a very positive thing for that institution."
LJ: What can Vandal fans do today to help you out? What can the alumni do today to help you out?
RS: "Well, money. Show me a problem that money wouldn't solve and I'll show you a real problem. It's all about resources, Larry, and how we stack up and how we're able to compete. I can show you a slide where we're at in relation to the Western Athletic Conference, and I'm sure you've seen this. We are at the bottom of the league in revenue, and is there a correlation between success and money? Well, you look at the schools that have the most revenue… they're the most successful in our league. Schools that don't have the revenue are the least successful. I don't think that we need to be at the $20 million range like Hawaii and Fresno State. We need to at least be at the average. Like I've always told our people here, if we could have another $1.5 to $2 million in this athletic program I know that we will operate as efficiently as we can and we can be competitive."
LJ: Do you mean $1.5 to $2 million annually?
RS: "Annually, yes. Now the challenge we have is it all has to be generated through the scholarship fund, through corporate sponsorships, because the way the state funds athletic programs, the state board of education has a cap on how much state money can be put into a program and how much institutional support can be put into an athletic program. Right now we're at the cap. If Dr. White wanted to give more money for our athletic program, he can't."
LJ: But alumni can?
RS: "Alumni can."
LJ: Idaho is planning some new turf for the Kibbie Dome. Where does that project stand and what kind of turf is going to be in the dome?
RS: "Right now we are awaiting the results of the RFP [request for proposals] that was issued. We will have that and we will review that Thursday… actually, April 12. [NOTE: Since this interview was recorded, this project is progressing on schedule] We have an evaluation committee that includes myself, Robb Akey, Barry Steele, Ray Pankopf, from our facility area, Terry Evans from the events side, and we will evaluate… and the criteria that we're using will be "playability", quality, ability to convert it… which is huge when you have a multi-use facility, the warranty, of course, cost, references, and experience… and staff qualifications. So we're going to evaluate all the responses for the RFP with those criteria… and then we will select a vendor. The installation is due to start towards the end of July, from July 23 right after the last volleyball camp. Once again you have a multi-purpose facility [dome]. You have to juggle all the events that happen through the summer, because they're all revenue generating activities for the university. Some of our camps, the Shriner's circus… that is revenue generated for auxiliaries; so we have to work around that, but the turf should start to begin to be installed at the end of the July, being available August 2."
LJ: So it's too early to say what brand or type of turf will be in there?
RS: "Yeah. We don't know. It's going to be…there are really several types out there. There are "roll-out" strips, there are palletized. One thing is for sure, we are going to have an infill system like we have outside on the practice field, but how we…
LJ: How it's delivered is what is up in the air?
RS: "No question. We don't know. But it's funded and ready to go."
LJ: All right. Thank you very much for the time.
RS: "You bet."