EDITOR'S NOTE: Normally our interviews require a subscription to read. However, the evolution of Idaho's athletics 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, Idaho recently announced the largest capital campaign in the history of the University and the state of Idaho, 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, Conference Realignment, and Scheduling. 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: From a facilities standpoint, have there been any updates from the last time we talked a month or so ago? Is there anything you want to share or can share regarding the dome expansion that we highlighted on our front page?
ROB SPEAR: "I really don't have anything new to share on that project at this time."
PH: In your last interview with us you stated that the University of Idaho needed to build a basketball facility, and you shared with us a concept to potentially expand the dome seating for football. These ideas have been shared by you and President Nellis with other conferences during this latest round of realignment. However, there are no plans or statements of an Events Center in the current capital campaign literature. Can you explain this discrepancy for our readers, so they can understand why we're saying we're going to do this, but we're not outwardly appearing to be doing anything toward that?
RS: "In order for those facilities to move forward they have to be on the University six-year plan, and as of today they are not on the University six-year plan.
"However, I have been encouraged by the decision of President Nellis to get the Events Center on the six-year plan starting in July, when that material is collected and presented to the State Board of Education in August for approval."
PH: Wow! That's a really big step toward getting that facility built.
RS: "It is. Now we just need to take it a step further. We have all the plans in the world out there. We just need to now put them in action."
PH: Can you talk a little bit about what being on the six-year plan means? Is that a solid commitment to get that project done in the next six years?
RS: "This is a State Board of Education (SBOE) requirement that was implemented last year. Evidently the SBOE has felt like too many projects have come forward, ready for the design phase, and that was the first time the SBOE had seen the project."
PH: Could the dome expansion for football fall into the six-year plan as well?
EVENTS CENTER PROPOSAL: Above is one of the concepts Idaho is considering for the Events Center. This is a view from the north lawn, looking south at the events center (note the Dome in the background). To the far left is the new weightroom.|
PH: Can you talk a little bit about what impact the loss of Karl Benson as a full-time commissioner for the WAC had on the WAC's ability to navigate the conference realignment? Did not having a commissioner involved affect anything that transpired with the losses that we've had?
RS: "I don't know if having a full-time commissioner would have made a difference in the latest defections, but it has impacted our ability to strategize and move forward. The presidents of the board have done a great job. They've hired an independent consultant to help them with membership ideas and put together some plans, but when you don't have a full-time commissioner certainly that impacts your ability to move forward."
PH: Does that affect financial deals like TV contracts, advertising, and items like that?
RS: "Well, the TV deal is basically set for this upcoming year, but it is certainly something that will have to be re-negotiated or re-bid out in the future."
PH: Have Utah State, Louisiana Tech, Texas State, Texas San Antonio and San Jose State officially left the conference yet?
RS: "They have given notification that they are leaving. I haven't seen anything in writing. I'm just assuming that the conference has received their notices."
PH: But they were all offered by the other leagues and that process is underway?
PH: Can you talk about the various options the WAC is considering to rebuild the conference? I know you can't get into the details, but can you give us a high-level view of what you're looking at there, or what the league is looking at?
RS: "The presidents have been meeting and trying to determine a strategy for the future. I think the first question that needs to be asked is, ‘Is the WAC going to try to be a football conference, or are they going to rebuild as a basketball conference?' I don't think that decision has been made."
PH: And that decision affects who you rebuild with…
RS: "Oh, I think so. The problem forever out west has been the lack of FBS schools, and really the lack of FCS playing football institutions out west that have positioned themselves to move up and play FBS football. That is a concern of all of ours."
PH: Is the WAC talking with any FCS football playing schools about moving up to the WAC, or are the discussions focused on whether to remain an FBS league or not?
RS: "Well, I think we're still trying to determine what our future is going to be as a conference, and what we want to be, before we even get into looking at FCS schools to invite."
PH: Have you received interest from any schools about joining the WAC?
RS: "We've gotten moderate interest from some schools. Certainly we've had a lot of interest from some non-football schools wanting to be in the Western Athletic Conference."
PH: Is Boise State still set to move into the conference in 2013, or have they announced any plans to not join the WAC?
RS: "I know the decision was made for them to come into our league starting in 2013 for all sports, but I know what you know, and what we read in the newspapers, and it sounds like Boise State is exploring other opportunities like the Big West Conference."
PH: Can you talk about the committee that has been formed to search for a new commissioner and how that is coming along?
RS: "We haven't even started searching for a new commissioner, and I don't think that will even start until the WAC determines what kind of a league it's going to be. Then they will start a commissioner search."
PH: Obviously your department is looking for the best fit for the school and Idaho's athletic programs. Can you talk about President Nellis' role and involvement in working with you to navigate Idaho through the conference realignment process?
RS: "Well, we're working together on it. He is representing us on the WAC board. He is viewed as a leader on that WAC board, and we consult weekly - if not daily - on ideas and ways to reposition the University in the Western Athletic Conference, and in other conferences as well."
PH: Just to clarify for our readers, what roles outside of the U of I do both you and President Nellis serve?
RS: "President Nellis is on the WAC board which is made up of all the presidents of the WAC schools. He is also on the BCS oversight committee. I serve on one of the top two committees in the NCAA: The legislative council. The legislative council is responsible for reviewing all new legislation and changes to existing legislation that are coming through the NCAA governance structure. I also sit on the NCAA basketball issues committee."
PH: You've been very clear in recent interviews that Idaho has four immediate options with the top three options being some form of FBS status for the foreseeable future which includes independence while conference realignment continues…is President Nellis on board with this viewpoint? I he committed to Idaho competing at the FBS level?
PH: Can you weigh the various factors that are leading you to push Idaho to maintaining its FBS status?
RS: "Well, I think everybody is anticipating a total restructure in two years after the current BCS agreement expires and a new one is put into place. Accordingly, we want to be positioned as a university that lands in that second tier, because I think everything that has transpired as of late is a clear indication that you're going to see separation of the big schools.
"There have been some media reports out there where they no longer refer to them as the Big Six, they refer to them as the Big Five. Basically the Big East is not even considered as a major player anymore; so you're looking at the Pac 12, The Big 10, the Big 12, the ACC and the SEC. Now with separate agreements between the PAC-12/Big 10 and the SEC/Big 12, one could assume that there is momentum for four super conferences. And those conferences, I think, are going to break away and form their own structure. I think it's already in place with the $2,000 stipend that circumvented the entire governance process, which is being put in place to take care of the big schools. I also think the $2,000 stipend is not going to stay at $2,000. It's going to escalate over the years, and it's allowing the big schools to do whatever they want, to a certain extent.
"I can tell you from being on the NCAA legislative council that there used to be some recognition of the financial impact of a piece of legislation. That is no longer the case."
PH: The impact across all NCAA programs, right?
RS: "Right. Instead the NCAA has taken the approach of, ‘if you can't afford it, don't do it, but we're not going to hold the schools back that can afford it.' So, I think you're seeing this separation now that's going to occur.
"So one, I want to keep the University of Idaho at the table when that separation happens. I think it's important to be an FBS school when that happens, because I think -- and of course this is my opinion – I think you'll see some restructuring, and I think you'll see some of those FCS schools take a step forward. (Since we talked Old Dominion is moving into CUSA with a 19,800 seat stadium.) I want to make sure the University of Idaho is in the right place and we get in the right western league that makes a lot of geographic sense for the future.
"The other thing I think is important to realize [at the University of Idaho] about FBS is we have a marketing contract and an apparel contract (Nike) that we need to protect and thoroughly understand the impact of not being FBS."
PH: When Idaho played 1AA football about 20 years ago the operating expenses were funded by many sources, including a subsidy from the U of I administration. How much would that subsidy be in 2013? Is there any way you can gauge that?
RS: "Well, that is stipulated by the State Board of Education, who impose caps on how much institutional money and how much student money can be put into athletic programs. So those are already in place, and they would not change in my opinion whatever league we were in." This continues to be one of the many funding challenges we have. Personally I don't think you should have caps. Let the Institution decide how much money to spend on athletics."
PH: Would it be easier - financially - to be in FCS? It seems like Idaho would be willingly cutting themselves off from a lot of revenue sources by moving to FCS.
RS: "It's a great question, because I think right now the WAC's conference revenue has been impacted so significantly, and the conference dues that we pay have not changed at all. They're still at the same level as when we were getting over $1 million in conference revenue. You could make the argument that you are not going to lose that much revenue from a conference standpoint by playing at the FCS level.
"Now, where you will lose the potential for revenue is from game guarantees. I think those game guarantees when we go play at a BCS team, like LSU this year, where we are going to earn $925,000 this year, you might get $400,000 or $450,000 if you were an FCS school."
PH: Plus, as an FCS school, there probably is no way you will ever get a Washington State, or Wyoming, or Colorado State, or any other FBS program to play in Moscow.
RS: "Probably not. The other thing, going back to your question about the impact of FBS, I did this analysis a while ago. There are 51 original land grant institutions; 49 of them play Division I athletics; 42 of the 49 play FBS football, and I think from an institution standpoint - if you are an original land grant institution - I think you want to play with the big schools or be part of that, be at that table."
PH: Do you think, then, that there is a responsibility to expand the program to be consistent with our land grant peers? At some point many of our peers have come to the conclusion that they needed to expand their stadium to be legitimate in their conference. At Idaho, does that factor in? No matter what Idaho chooses to do from a conference affiliation standpoint, is it your opinion that expanding the football stadium at some point is a must-do thing?
RS: "It is, in my opinion, and some of the plans showcased show how we could get it to 23,000 and eventually to 27,000 seats. In my opinion right now those are good numbers. I think anything over 20,000 is a good number and one that appears to be the threshold. You know, it's interesting. I've heard that South Dakota State is talking about building a new outdoor stadium that's going to have 22,500 seats. A lot of schools are looking at building 20,000-plus seat stadiums – nothing significantly bigger. A lot has to depend on your demographics, but I think over 20,000 is a good number."
PH: Can you talk about what is the importance of the July 1st date is, and what it means to Idaho and the WAC?
RS: "July 1 is usually a date that is written in the conference bylaws that say if you are going to make a decision to leave a conference, you have to notify the conference that you are in by July 1 that you are leaving. If you don't notify by July 1 you are automatically in for the next year, which would be the following July 1. So let's take, for example, Utah State. They notified us – assuming they did – they are leaving, and they notified the WAC before July 1. Had they waited until after July 1, they would have been in the league in 2013."
PH: Are you expecting any more surprising realignment announcements nationally between now and July 1st?
RS: "Nothing would surprise me. I don't think this reshuffling is done. We talked about the separation that is occurring – that I think is going to occur and is occurring. I think more schools are going to make decisions about where they want to be. It could be some Big East schools, and now you're hearing Florida State being interested in the Big XII. You're hearing a lot of different things happening. I also think that with the Big XII hiring a new commissioner you're going to see them go back to 12 teams. The Big 10 has been sitting on the sidelines. They have what people would say is the most innovative commissioner out there in Jim Delaney, and people are expecting him to do something at some point in time.
"So I think what you're seeing is a situation where you might have four/five leagues of 14 to 16 teams in the future, and the rest of it falls out. So those dominoes will continue to happen. There are rumors the Big XII may also be looking at BYU. They're rumored to be looking at Cincinnati and Louisville. If you look at Cincinnati and Louisville, or even the ACC, any of those movements, this is going to create another domino, and where are those dominos going to fall? I don't think this is over at all.
"I think there is going to continue to be more of it, and that's why the University of Idaho needs to be positioned in two years when maybe you have clear separation and you have the reformation of new leagues in this potential second tier. We need to be there and be ready."
PH: If the Pac 12 went to 14 or 16 teams, who would you see joining their conference?
RS: "That's another good question. I have no idea who they'd look at. I think that it would be a quality research academic institution. I think that all the schools that are in that league meet that criteria, and I think the presidents of those schools would be very interested in making sure whoever they brought in would fit that mold."
PH: Is a merger between conference USA and Mountain West still likely in your opinion?
RS: "That's done. It's not happening, which is why the Mountain West went ahead and took Utah State and San Jose State, and Conference-USA took Louisiana Tech and North Texas, and I believe North Carolina Charlotte and Florida International. And C-USA just recently announced that Old Dominion was joining their league; so now they're at 14."
PH: There's been mention in the past few weeks about the remaining WAC FBS schools joining the Sun Belt or MAC for football only, or some other arrangement. Can you talk about that?
RS: "It's a scenario that we have to look at and something we're reviewing. It's like putting together a big 1,000 piece puzzle, and nothing is going together yet until some more movement happens. Now, I think the other day, in my opinion, we have one corner in place which will allow us to be strategic in how we move forward. There are still a lot of moving parts and some creative thinking going on. There are some unique possibilities out there that I think would be very attractive for the University of Idaho in the long-term and in the immediate short-term."
PH: Is there anything Idaho's alumni or boosters can do to get some immediate relief or assistance to achieving your FBS goals for Vandal athletics?
RS: "We need to continue supporting our VSF and our scholarships. Those are critical as we move forward, and they are very critical as we maintain our 16 sports just as one of the FBS requirements. To be able to cover all those scholarships required of those 16 sports."
PH: And season tickets?
RS: "Attendance is something that they look at. It was our marketed issue, absolutely, but announced attendance, that was a concern as well."