Everything about Rob Spear this day was scripted. Of course, his words. But also his demeanor. His behavior. And, try as he might, his body language. Chuck Staben – the sixth person to serve as President of University of Idaho during Spear’s 12-year tenure as athletic director (three of them interim) – sat confidently to Spear’s left.
Attempting to appear stoic and unflappable, Spear wanted us to believe this April announcement of Idaho’s descent back to the Big Sky for football was partly his doing.
Those of us who knew Spear knew this wasn’t true. Even as Spear appeared to passionately argue against the FBS cause and assure us costs were just too unsustainable to stay the couse, you could see the disappointment on his face. You could see it in his eyes.
If anything, he looked exhausted. Exhausted of efforts gone in vain. Exhausted of ire directed at him. Exhausted of throwing ideas at the wall and seeing nothing stick.
April 28, 2016 was inevitable. It was inevitable when Chuck Staben became President in 2014. It was inevitable in 2003 when Rob Spear was named athletic director. It was inevitable 20 years ago when Idaho ambitiously declared it was ready for FBS football.
We have to understand our past if we are to contextualize the tsunami of circumstances washing over the Kibbie Dome right now and dissect the role Rob Spear has played in the tumultuous path laid before Idaho today.
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There was a time when Boise was specifically a Vandal town. When the disgusting blue turf didn’t exist. When Boise State was still a junior college and Idaho played a home game in Boise on an annual basis. When the University of Idaho was the main source of pride in connecting the panhandle to the southern population hub in the state. A time when people were terrified Idaho would give up its association with greater-known schools in order to join the likes of Montana and North Dakota.
Wait, isn’t that time now? Well, that time was 1960, actually.
Time for a history lesson! I know, I know, history is boring. But it’s important, though, if you want to justify how much you complain about the current Vandal athletics administration.
Shut up and listen.
Okay, here we go.
Idaho joined the Pacific Coast Conference in 1922, the predecessor conference to the Pac-8/10/12. Idaho competed in this conference in all but two seasons until the conference dissolved in 1959.
It became evident about this time Idaho’s football program was somewhat secondary to the Washington, Oregon and California schools it played against. The Vandals had to make a choice. Idaho’s lack of financial investment and partial football schedules became a source of discontent with its peers from Washington, Oregon and California. Idaho was not invited to the conference that would eventually become the Pac-8.
Idaho President Donald R. Theophilus, instead, made Idaho a founding member of the Big Sky Conference in 1963.
In 1968, Idaho welcomed Boise State College into the conference with open arms shortly after the school gained four-year status.
Now it’s time to pay attention. The quick hitter facts are over with. The next 10 years would strictly define what Idaho football was to become and still greatly reverberates to decisions facing Idaho today.
Ernest W. Hartung became University president in 1965 and immediately embarked in an aggressive campaign to make athletics at Idaho relevant again.
He put in a request to approve funding for a $3 Million arena on campus for basketball. Funding was not made available, of course.
In 1969, Idaho’s 32-year home Neale Stadium was burned to the ground in an arson attack. Idaho played two seasons mostly in Spokane.
Among proposals to replace the stadium was a similar, larger outdoor stadium and, for the second time in his tenure, Hartung attempted to get the funding for an adjacent basketball arena approved.
Instead, Neale Stadium’s replacement opened two years later and in 1974 it was approved to enclose the stadium to make it a multi-purpose, one-size-fits-all arena.
Today, we affectionately call that place the Kibbie Dome.
Let’s go back about five years, though.
Idaho was at the time attempting to join the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference, today known as the Big West. An outdoor stadium with a capacity of 23,000 would put Idaho in line with the smaller California schools it hoped to join.
The eventual Big West would provide Idaho with higher revenue opportunities and the ability to legally sign more scholarship players. At this time there was no clear division between major college football and smaller schools.
Conferences largely decided scholarship limits and the such. The Big Sky forced Idaho to compete at a lower level than the schools it used to associate with. This became tenuous for many fans and boosters, as you can imagine. Idaho had been caught cheating by the Big Sky.
Despite this, Idaho regularly played major programs at the time such as Washington, Washington State, Texas Christian and Iowa State with reduced scholarships.
With an invitation in hand from the Big West, the Idaho State Board of Education voted 4-3 to disallow Idaho from leaving the Big Sky for the Big West, despite Idaho promising to schedule Idaho State and Boise State regularly. The no votes came from Nampa, Pocatello, Boise and Sandpoint representatives.
Idaho’s in-state peers at the time opposed the move.
The divisions in college football became explicit in 1978. The Big Sky chose to align with Division I-AA (FCS), while the Big West schools chose to align with Division I-A (FBS).
Please take a second to repeatedly bang your head on the table before reading on.
Nothing happened for about 15 years after that, except for the basketball team achieving national fame with its Sweet 16 run and multiple NCAA Tournaments despite having to play in the Kibbie Dome. You know, since Idaho tried twice and couldn’t get a basketball arena funded. So, that was cool.
Then, in 1994, athletic director Pete Liske orchestrated Idaho’s entrance into the Big West. Locking arms with Boise State, the Idaho SBOE finally approved the move to take place in 1996. President Elisabeth Zinser oversaw the decision before moving on to the University of Kentucky, while President Robert Hoover oversaw the transition and its aftermath.
As did two other athletic directors. Oval Jaynes spent three years in Moscow. Enough to see Chris Tormey see Idaho win the Big West and the Humanitarian Bowl in its third year as an FBS member. He left before Idaho was able to build off of it.
Mike Bohn succeeded him. The Big West dissolved FBS football as its football-only members and other schools found more geographically sound solutions. The Western Athletic Conference picking off its members had something to do with it.
It was about this time when Boise State and Idaho began a split from cordial relations. Boise State joined the WAC. Idaho accepted a lifeline as a founding member of the Sun Belt’s football conference.
Bohn probably recognized the sinking ship laid out before him, both with the conference instability and the coach he hired (Tom Cable went 11-35 in four seasons) so he jumped ship for San Diego State.
The University reached into the College of Agricultural and Life Science for its interim athletic director. Rob Spear stepped up to the challenge of seeing out the rest of the 2003 football season and on Jan. 12, 2004, Spear was handed the keys to Idaho’s tenuous conference future.