EDITOR'S NOTE: Normally our interviews require a subscription to read. However, the evolution of Idaho's athletic program during this era of continuous realignment among the nation's Division 1A institutions is cause for pause, and now more than ever Idaho fans need to see what options are becoming available and being explored in Moscow. Moreover, two days ago Idaho announced the largest capital campaign in the history of the University, yet no provisions were included to either expand the football stadium or build an Events Center that would become the home of Vandal basketball – both of which are in the University's current Master Facilities Plan, and are at the head of discussions whenever realignment is discussed.
We recently met with University of Idaho Athletics Director Dr. Rob Spear in his office inside the ever-changing Kibbie Dome, and he spoke very openly about topics concerning Facilities (this installment), Conference Realignment (Part 2), and Scheduling (Part 3). It was a very candid discussion, and we thank Dr. Spear for granting us this view into his program, the issues confronting him today and the various plans being considered to expand and grow Vandal athletics.
PAT HAUGE: The Vandals moved to Division 1A 16 years ago, and there has been a dramatic improvement made in the critical day-to-day facilities affecting all sports at Idaho, especially for football (i.e. new weightroom, new locker rooms, new practice fields, new training rooms, etc). Expansion for football and the need to create a dedicated home for basketball have both been discussed for a very long time. What is next?
Rob Spear: "The information we continue to communicate shows an Events Center on the north side of the Dome, and it also shows seating being added to the dome. Beyond that, we need to add coaches offices and more team rooms."
PH: It is extremely difficult for most fans to envision how seats can be added to the dome to take capacity up to 25-30K seats. They see a roof and two solid walls on either end of the building. Can you share any renderings of the possibilities to expand this facility, understanding that they are concepts and not necessarily the final product? Basically, are there some images to show what it "could" look like? Something where fans can see the future growth potential of the dome?
"There's a schematic here that shows how we can get the dome to seat 23,000 fans [before any dig down, and with conservative expansion into the end walls]. I can walk you through some of those specifics."
RS: "This is looking into the east endzone. As you can see, we're being very conservative because we could branch out into the sides. But we haven't elected to do that yet, because I would like to keep some of this space for coaches offices and team meeting rooms."
Looking at the east wall of the Kibbie Dome. This view shows the addition of balconies on the north and south sideline running the length of the field, and east endzone seating under the existing trusses. The balconies hold 1,440 seats on each sideline, adding a total of 2,880 new seats to the sidelines. The east endzone seating adds another 1,890 seats. In total, this would add 4,770 new seats to the stadium, taking the seating capacity of the Dome to 20,000 seats.|
RS: "This is the new press box, and new seats are cantilevered out on both sides of the press box."
EDITOR'S NOTE: The option of building cantilevered balconies inside the Dome did not exist until the technology was perfected with the recently constructed new press box. Now, this option could be among the most economical means of adding seats inside the facility.
A closer look at the cantilevered second deck seats on the north side (the south side seats would be built the same way). Each section is cantilevered out from massive pillars that already exist in the Dome, using the same construction technique used to build the new Press Box.|
A view from the south side upper deck looking at the north grandstands and toward the east endzone. The band could be moved to the east endzone, balancing the sound inside the Dome and freeing up new premium 50-yard line seats on the north side grandstand.|
RS: "This is showing additional seating in the west endzone. It was always designed to kick that section out so you could add additional seats.
"At the end of the day you get about 8,000 new seats. This is actually conservative, because there is more you could potentially do on the east and west end zones."
This image shows 2,500 to 3,500 new seats in the west endzone under the existing truss (a conservative estimate, with the potential to add seats to the corners), giving the Dome 23,000 seats before a dig down. The dig down could add 4,000 more seats, which would give the Dome 27,000 (or more) seats when complete.|
RS: "This would get us up to 23,000 seats. Then if you lowered the field you'd get another 4,000 seats, and now you're at 27,000 seats. If you look at some of the other schools in our league, San Jose State has 25,000, Utah State has 25,000, and then all of a sudden you have more than they have, and you have an indoor facility that could create one of the best home field advantages in the country.
"What I need help with is with fans coming to the games and helping fill our stands now. I don't have a lot of leverage when I go to Duane Nellis and say "Hey, we need to do this – I need to expand this."
"We are now paying for a cost study to see how much this expansion would cost us. The schematics you are seeing were designed by the architects that did the premium seats for us. They were in here after the project to debrief and we started talking about how you could expand seats without lowering the field. Realizing the new press box was the least expensive part of the whole project, we started wondering if you could cantilever out new stands. They came back with this proposal, and now they're going to put a cost estimate to it. We'll see how much it is.
"There's a plan there, but to really do that [in its entirety, including the dig down] we have to get basketball out of the dome."
PH: We know basketball has to get out of the dome, but would you HAVE to get basketball out first before you started adding these cantilevered sections and endzone seating, before the floor is lowered?
RS: "No, not first. But we have to get basketball out [to maximize the capacity potential for the dome]."
"The model we need to have here at Idaho is we need to get fans and students excited about basketball in November. It's hard to do that in Memorial Gym. I would like to have an events center where you can maybe hold a tournament in early November, and get yourself to where you're 3-0 and generate some student excitement and your basketball program takes off. It creates some additional challenges when you don't have that stand alone facility.
", When you come here to watch basketball when the Cowan Center is set up, it's great. The problem is it doesn't get set up until after football is over."
PH: Why would we invest a lot of money to fix a basketball situation – understanding the struggles with the current Memorial/Cowan setup – when what's really dictating where these conferences are headed has almost nothing to do with basketball, especially with the Big East getting ripped to shreds right now. Why would we invest a tremendous sum of money into basketball, when our football situation seems to be holding us back? This isn't just about attendance, but the perception of the program.
RS: "That's a good, fair question. A basketball facility – a multi-purpose Events Center – is something where you can get your students behind it, your faculty and staff behind it, and get your community behind it because it is going to be used for more than just for basketball. It's going to be used to have other events come into this area. It's going to have an economic impact. When you're talking about a football stadium that‘s going to be used 5 or six times a year, that's a tougher sell."
"In the end, I think getting an Events Center is doable, because I think you can get a lot more entities rallied around that. Then, when you do that first and you don't have to worry about basketball, or commencement, or the Jazz Festival, then it opens up the dome for a lot more options."
PH: Have you explored how the Carrier Dome gets converted?
RS: "We have. It's labor intensive. They set the court up and down multiple times. I don't know if for sure if they do it on top of the existing turf – if the turf is permanently installed, which is something that we looked at. I've actually challenged and encouraged our facilities people to see how Syracuse does it."
PH: Has reconfiguring the dome to be the home for Vandal basketball, which could share half of the Dome with football for indoor practice, and building a new football stadium that can be easily expanded, ever been considered?
RS: "I am not sure there is enough space to allow this to happen [i.e. room for basketball operations and football practice simultaneously, as well as indoor track requirements]. Again, building something that is used only 6 times per year is a tough sell. But I will never rule anything completely out. We will keep planning and looking at options."
PH: I don't think anyone would argue with you about the mechanism for how an Events Center would get authorized or funded. It is an easier sale to say we need an Events Center that would get used all year long and relieve the basketball program at Idaho. But the concern among your fan base is more the immediate positioning of the program, because to do the arena is a big investment – a $40 or $60 million investment. It seems like such a massive project would delay anything on the football side until after an Events Center was funded and built.
RS: "It's all about being able to prioritize things within the University, and with the governing structure within the state. Before we start any of these we have to get State Board of Education approval. And to get that approval you better have the right plan in place. So, if you're going to go forward with a plan it must benefit your entire student body, your community.
"I think the Events Center is an easier sale at the time."
PH: To get funded?
RS: "To get approval. I'm just talking about approval to move forward. If we could ever make things a priority and get them approved to start moving forward, it is feasible to do some things simultaneously. Where you'd increase the Dome capacity like I've outlined here for football, and start an Events Center at the same time."
"Again, it is a fair question, but it's really about strategically thinking what's the best way for us to do a project. I could easily propose that we build an outdoor stadium and spend $100 million. But I don't see the State Board ever approving that, and I don't see the University getting behind that because you only use it 6 times a year.
"But I can see the University getting behind an Events Center, and if you had an Events Center that took care of all those things that are done inside the dome, you could then do a lot of unique things for football with the Dome."
PH: Again, I don't think anyone would argue about the basketball setup – it's not optimum by any stretch of the imagination. But is there a point where – for the strategic position for the program - that increasing Dome capacity for football comes in at a cost [more economical] that makes it a higher priority than starting a new Events Center?
RS: "It could. It very well could.
"But again, it depends on where the funding is going to come from.
"I think to build an Events Center you have to have student involvement. I've said before it is a four-legged stool. We're going to have private support, it's going to play a big role. I think the students need to get behind it. I think the school needs to get behind it with some bonding. And the fourth piece here is the community, because it's going to have a huge economic impact. When all four of those come together – and it's never going to be easy – you're odds of success in the short term are better."
PH: Every program surrounding Idaho has expanded – including Montana State most recently – in the last 16 years. In previous interviews, you've stated Idaho needs consecutive sellouts in order to expand. We understand that perspective. But what image is this school trying to project regionally? Is the excitement of 25-30K fans, in Moscow, watching a regionally meaningful game against a major program like Wazzu, or Oregon State, or Utah, or a revived rivalry with Boise State, something this administration – the institution – is pursuing?
RS: "It goes back to that balance question. We have to be, as an institution here, be very careful here to balance between academics and athletics. I advocate that we always need to invest more into athletics, and I ask for that every day. But that is a very complex issue because of the caps that are in place by the State Board of Education. I think our alums understand what a great place the University of Idaho is. Our students that are here understand what a great place the University of Idaho is.
"The problem is I am not sure that other people understand what a great place the University of Idaho is, because athletics has not been the front porch it needs to be to get the exposure, so others can understand what the University of Idaho is all about. I can't change that myself."
PH: Is it changing in the University?
RS: "It's a complex issue, because of the restrictions with how we are funded. Unless I can go out and raise all this money, our ability to grow this program is compromised to some extent. That is why it is extremely important to increase contribuitons to the VSF and sell more tickets."
PH: In recent years you've hosted Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV, and this year you're bringing in Wyoming. These are all excellent teams and a massive improvement over previous home schedules. But what will it take to get WSU to Moscow? Oregon State? BYU? Utah? Or get a multi-year series going with regional teams like Boise State, Nevada, or Fresno State?
RS: "I think the Pac-12, for a team from that conference to want to play in our stadium, is going to be difficult. Especially with the new scheduling alliance with the Big Ten.
PH: Can you explain that alliance?
RS: "I'm not completely sure how it works, but I know that in a few years all the Pac-12 schools will be playing non-conference games against the Big Ten schools. That's going to be a date that won't be available for anyone else to play them. I don't know if it's going to be every Pac-12 school playing a Big Ten opponent but they're already playing 9 conference games in the Pac-12, so they have only 3 non-conference opportunities. The Big Ten is going to take one of those away, so they will have only two non-conference games, and they're going to want home games.
PH: What would it take for this University to want to revive the rivalry with Washington State? The fans and alumni of this school would be excited about an opportunity to host Wazzu. Why is it not a priority to make this game a community event played one year in Pullman, and one year in Moscow? Or if scheduling is an issue, play every 2 or 3 years at each campus. The point is bringing the game to Moscow.
RS: "We are playing them in 2013 at their place, but that's a good question… Our current scheduling philosophy is to play BCS games on the road because of how dollars are generated. We have talked about that before -- playing home and home against BCS schools does not help us meet our financial obligations. But we do need to open up conversations with WSU and see if this is something we can get done in the future. There was a period of time when Idaho was a D1-AA school that probably prohibited WSU from considering playing over here. Now that we have them on the schedule again it is time to have those conversations."
PH: That is outstanding that Idaho is reviving the game with Washington State and playing next fall, and we look forward to following up with you about potential future matchups. Is this matchup something you've wanted and negotiated for a while?
RS: "We have been in discussions on and off for quite a while. All these conference changes have made it hard to find a date and negotiate the right dollar amount for a guarantee."
PH: You've shown us some interesting concepts for how the Dome could potentially be expanded. Why is Idaho opposed to publicly discussing a time-table – even a rough time-table – on expansion and growth for its programs?
RS: "I don't know. Having to start over every time a new President comes in certainly hasn't helped. Every single time, I've had to start over and try to create momentum, and it just seems like you don't ever get a time-line out of that.
"The answer probably is that it will get done when we get the money. Before we can even start to build anything, the State Board of Education stipulates we have to be green – we have to have the money."