EDITOR'S NOTE: On Tuesday, March 25th, GoVandal.net Writer/Photographer Larry Johnson sat down with Idaho's Athletic Director, Dr. Rob Spear. This interview was conducted the day after the news conference that introduced Don Verlin as the new men's basketball coach. During Dr. Spear's current term as Athletic Director the Vandals have seen long-overdue changes in athletic facilities in that many first-ever projects were completed in the past four years. In those four years the Idaho Vandals have installed an outdoor practice facility, new synthetic turf in the football stadium, a new, first-ever football locker room, and a state-of-the-art strength and conditioning center. Currently the Idaho Athletic Department in renovating part of the East End Addition to upgrade training rooms and to build first-ever meeting rooms for the football team. Dr. Spear also has embarked on a $35 MILLION fund-raising campaign to remodel the Kibbie Dome and improve the other facilities.
LARRY JOHNSON: First off, how would you describe the Vandal basketball program today? How would you describe the status of Vandal basketball today?
RS: It is not acceptable and that is why we made a change. It is not where it is going to be, I will tell you that. I do think that it is starting to improve. It has been an extremely tough transition into the Western Athletic Conference and, like I have said consistently, our programs need to mature in this league. The WAC has allowed us to recruit a better student-athlete, but at the same time we need to catch up to the schools that have been in the Western Athletic conference and are at the top. In a nutshell, it's improving but not where we want it to be.
LJ: The hiring of Don Verlin came rather quickly to some people, but at the same time an athletic director's job is to look for coaches year round; so how early on in the process did you get into hiring Don Verlin?
RS: These things may appear that they happen overnight, but that's so far from the truth. It was a very involved process that included numerous phone calls and visits. When you are recruiting for a basketball coach at this University it is important to get all the candidates to this campus and show them what we have to offer before the season actually ends. Someone told me that they heard I did not interview Verlin face-to-face. That is ridiculous. I spent an enormous amount of face time with all the candidates. But you are right, an athletic director better have a list of candidates in case coaching positions become vacant. This process started in February, and I was very up-front with George. I went in and told him that I was concerned with the overall direction of the program and said that I needed to be proactive and that he may hear some hear some rumblings that I was out inquiring. I wanted him to know up-front. So I was straightforward and honest with him and started that process. I went back through and identified candidates that I thought would be the right fit for this university. When we made the decision to not bring George back we were in a position to move rapidly.
LJ: Now the status of facilities. Everybody talks about facilities and Idaho being facility-challenged in some areas of basketball. What's the plan to help Don Verlin with basketball facilities?
RS: Well, we absolutely need to get basketball out of the Kibbie Dome at some point in time, and it's important that we continue to develop alternatives to playing basketball in the Kibbie Dome. One concept that's in the preliminary stages is to do some modernization of Memorial Gym. Some preliminary analysis has been done, and based on that analysis, it appears that we can get that facility to seat about 6,000. It's in the heart of your campus. It has a lot of history, a lot of nostalgia, and I think it would be a wonderful facility to reconfigure and bring back up to being a useful building on this campus, rather than one that's antiquated and just out-of-date.
However, long-term we need an events center on this campus. I think that is separating us from being the absolute best campus in the country. As you know we have a long-term plan for the events center to be constructed on the north side of the Kibbie Dome but we have decided to focus on the Dome first strategy.
LJ: And how's the fund raising going for the Kibbie Dome remodel?
RS: It's moving along. We have received some commitments. We haven't received the commitments we need to take the next step, which is getting into the actual planning and design… formal planning and design. But, we will make a lot more progress as soon as we get our new Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs, Tim Mooney, on board.
LJ: That would be the replacement for Rick Darnell in the next month?
LJ: The long-term needs of other sports, though. There might be needs for soccer or tennis or anything like that? That's all down to fund raising as well then, right?
RS: It is, and it's just all about priorities. Our first priority is to really take care of the Kibbie Dome, and that priority came to the front because it's such a multi-use facility and we need to embrace all the other users on this campus. We've said that from day one, and in a perfect world we'd love to say we're building a brand new football stadium and a brand new basketball pavilion, but it's just not realistic where we're at financially. When you look at our needs and the projects involved, the dollar amounts are shocking. We just need to be very smart. We need to be team players, with the rest of this campus, and get the Kibbie Dome up and running and functioning like a Division I facility… and it can be. The Dome will be a significant revenue generator for our athletic program and that is another reason that has become a priority.
LJ: What about different corporations that would possibly get involved in sponsorships of different facilities or naming rights. Is that an option to you?
RS: Absolutely those are options.
LJ: Are they being pursued?
RS: Absolutely. Yes. It is being pursued. One of the things that we have done is outsource our marketing to Learfield Communications, and they, as a group, are interested in helping us from that standpoint. One of the challenges I have right now is making this project [Kibbie Dome remodel] a priority within this entire university, which I think it needs to be. I think when we get this project done it's going to springboard us towards that $300 million campaign because people will see that we are serious.
LJ: Whether basketball is played in the Kibbie Dome or in a renovated Memorial Gym or a brand new facility, what do you think of the idea of building a basketball practice facility that would be used no matter where your home game venue is and under the assumption that the school would use a new facility or renovated Memorial Gym for more than just basketball… much like the Kibbie Dome is used. What about building a basketball practice facility to help both basketball programs?
RS: I think that if we went and were able to do something with Memorial Gym, that at some point in time we would build a practice gym so that those programs could have access 24-7.
LJ: To build a training and practice facility?
RS: Training and practicing, and just giving your student athletes the opportunity to go shoot around at any time. It's amazing when you get out and talk to the coaches across this country, facilities are such a key to them, and having that 24-7 access to a facility so kids can go in and shoot and get better is important.
LJ: So let's talk about women's basketball. What's the status of women's basketball? What's going to happen to Vandal women's basketball?
RS: Well we have hired a fantastic coach who has had success and understands the WAC. He is a great fit for our department and will be a positive coach. [EDITOR'S NOTE: This section was updated in the last week, as Idaho hired former Idaho State women's basketball head coach Don Newlee to take over the Vandal program.]
LJ: Do facilities play a role in women's basketball as much as they do in men's basketball?
RS: I think facilities play a role, yes. I do.
LJ: So is it a factor in recruiting women? Some people seem to perpetuate a small myth that the facilities don't matter as much for the women.
RS: I disagree. Facilities are important to every program.
LJ: Have any alumni stepped up with a specific interest in helping basketball in any [capital] project way or anything like that?
LJ: So, the interest remains generic.
RS: Well, the interest is out there, interest in getting something done. We have identified a number of people that we are going to solicit, but we have to be very supportive of the "Dome First" strategy.
LJ: Back to Don Verlin, the brand new Vandal men's basketball coach. What do you think he needs to do to be successful right away? What immediate steps do you think he needs to take?
RS: Well, immediately I think that it is absolutely necessary that we improve our post play. He needs to focus his energies on bringing in some post players that can be contributors because I do think that we have a backcourt that can compete in the WAC. With Mac Hopson now coming off that red-shirt year, and Jordan Brooks and Mike Hall and Trevor Morris, I really think that we have a backcourt that is very competitive in the WAC. We just need better post play and Don will bring in some guys that are going to be able to contribute immediately there.
LJ: Are there any players you think that will leave the program or are not going to be welcomed back?
RS: Right now Coach Verlin wants to do an evaluation of the program and understand the players and figure out what's in their best interests, as well as our best interests, and then we will make some decisions. But, we are not going to eliminate the entire roster. He will bring in a totally different philosophy and embrace the kids that he has and look at making them into the best basketball players they can be. But, in the meantime if there are one or two kids that are interested in transferring and they don't feel that they are going to be contributors here I am sure that we will be open to allowing them to move on to another school. I think it's important that we help those kids out and get them to a school where they can play; because every kid wants to be able to play and contribute and if we don't help them transfer, then I don't think we're doing the right thing.
LJ: Now what about APR hits…with transfers and turnovers there are going to be some APR hits in basketball, correct?
RS: We are losing one scholarship next year and it's because we had one student-athlete who last spring didn't leave here eligible and we didn't retain him; so he was zero-for-two. We didn't earn the retention point and then he didn't earn his eligibility point; so because of that, given our APR is under the 92.5% threshold, every time we have a zero-for-two athlete we are subject to a scholarship loss. It's very critical for us to make sure that when kids leave here they leave here eligible. Now there's new legislation that's just been passed that is going to help us and would have helped us in the past. If you have a GPA of 2.6 or above and you transfer then you don't lose the actual retention point. Instead of a kid being, say, first semester, he is one retention point, one eligibility point; second semester he's eligible. So you are three-for-three rather than three-for-four. That will help us tremendously. Our kids have done a pretty good job in the classroom here this last year.
LJ: Now in women's basketball is there going to be any APR hits with turnover or anything else?
RS: No. We're above the threshold there…
LJ: So no scholarship losses in women's basketball?
LJ: What does a new women's coach have to do to be successful here?
RS: Well, I do think there's a good nucleus of young kids coming back in the program. I think we need to upgrade our talent in a couple of positions, but I think the number one thing the coach needs to do is to be positive and create a sense of stability.
LJ: There was a recent interview where the players on the women's team said they supported Mike Divilbiss. How do you think the players are going to react to a coaching change?
RS: I think that what they have demonstrated to me is that they have bonded together as a team. They are committed for the long term, and although a change will be difficult, I think that they are going to bond together and move forward and become successful.
LJ: Are there any severe financial hits with the termination of George Pfeifer who was on a long-term contract, or the women's coach who was on a long-term contract? What are the financial implications of canceling those contracts?
RS: Well, there will be a financial hit. I'll be honest. Going into this year I thought, especially in February, that we were in a position to make a change in one program but not two programs. But given the circumstances I thought it was important that we make changes now and move forward in both. It will be a financial challenge to us, but one that we will have to work through.
LJ: Dr. White was mentioned last night in the press conference in the hiring of Don Verlin and recruiting Don Verlin as the new men's coach. What's Dr. White's role through all these coaching searches? Is he an active participant or is he…
RS: Well, when I bring forward a list of finalists it's important for me that he has at least some kind of a conversation with each of these candidates, and he's been very willing to do that.
LJ: Is most of that done over the phone or is it done when they visit Moscow?
RS: It's done both ways. When his schedule permits we certainly do face-to-face meetings, but when it doesn't he's more than willing to have phone conversations.
LJ: Now slightly related to basketball is an apparel sponsor. Is it true that Idaho's going to switch from Adidas to Nike?
LJ: When will the change take place?
RS: The change will happen soon. We will participate this fall in Nike gear.
LJ: So it will change when the fiscal year switches over?
LJ: What's the benefit to Idaho athletics to make the change from Adidas to Nike?
RS: Well, there's actually more of a financial benefit for us. The promotional dollars are double what they were with Adidas, and I just think it's time for us to change. I think we've been in Adidas the last 10 years and we haven't had much success in some of our revenue sports, and it's time to make a change. Nike is really viewed by your student athletes as being the best; so we're going to change the culture and put those kids in Nike. I'm not saying that is going to absolutely make the difference, but I just think it's important that we start fresh.
LJ: Did Idaho come to Nike or did Nike come to Idaho?
RS: Nike came to Idaho. Nike does it a little bit differently. When you're under Adidas they are with every sport. There's actually one rep for all your sports. Nike does it a little bit differently, where they have one rep for football, one rep for basketball, and one rep for all your Olympic sports. Initially it was going to be just a football deal with Nike, and there was no way that we were going to enter into that kind of a relationship where we had our sports split amongst apparel providers. Through the negotiation process we got Nike interested in all of our sports; so it made sense for us to make that switch.
LJ: So it's going to be all new gear for Rob Spear, too. You won't be wearing Adidas gear at football games, you'll be wearing Nike gear?
RS: I have no Nike gear; so yeah. I'm going to have to have a closet sale.
LJ: Do you think that the student body in general will react in a positive way to that change?
RS: I think so. I think it is important for us to have a fresh start and a fresh change and a fresh look, and Nike is…you know, the "swoosh". It is the number one thing in the eyes of kids - student athletes - and I think it's going to be a positive step for our program.
LJ: Do you think there are any Nike opportunities when it comes to facilities or anything else?
RS: [Chuckling] No, I wouldn't think so. I mean, you never say "never," but we're fortunate to be able to have an apparel agreement that is of benefit to us, but I think it's a real stretch to think that it will lead to facility improvements.
LJ: It's not just apparel that fans and students can buy in the bookstore, they can buy online at your website. With this change to Nike does that change all those apparel lines too? Is the bookstore going to restock? Is the official apparel line on the Internet going to be all-new too?
RS: I think it will actually help us, and actually I think more apparel providers will become interested. I think you'll see more of our stuff available because of our change to Nike. That's what we're anticipating.
LJ: Does Nike make any reference to the fact that the Vandals are the only mascot like that in Division I and that they can do anything with that in a marketing sense?
RS: You know, they haven't said if that's of interest to them, but I think as a whole athletic department I think that's something we need to exploit.
LJ: And the final decision on switching to Nike – is that yours alone?
RS: Well, ultimately I'm the one that will say "yes" or "no," but the way I make decisions is I make sure I've gotten input from our senior staff and all of our head coaches. I wanted to make sure Nike fits their needs. I also needed to evaluate the financial component. Other than the transition costs, it was really an easy decision.
LJ: The uniform designs will again be different because they'll be Nike uniforms. Are there any big changes in Idaho's basketball or football uniform designs?
RS: I don't know about basketball, but I do know about football because I actually have [the proposals] right in front of me somewhere – there you go, right there. This is what our uniforms will look like.
EDITOR'S NOTE: All of us at GoVandals.net would like to thank Dr. Rob Spear for this exclusive interview opportunity. Dr. Spear is always remarkably candid when discussing Idaho athletics, and we appreciate the chance to speak with him on issues important to Vandal fans. We would also like to thank Dr. Spear for giving us the opportunity to share with our subscribers Idaho's new-look NIKE football uniforms for the upcoming 2008 season.
2008 ROAD Uniforms
2008 HOME Uniforms