Part two: Rob Spear gave UI what it wanted … Longevity, not vision

What I remember most about my last meeting with Rob Spear is the map he showed.

He turned his computer toward me on the other side side of the desk, revealing a map of all of the FBS football programs in the United States.

“Long term, I think this map is very revealing,” he told me, pointing to the void in the Dakotas, Montana region. “Eventually, I think you will see something here and that’s where Idaho strives to be.”

I prodded further. Is there anything to the Big Sky pursuing FBS football?

After explaining the underlying rules to me, he proclaimed “the possibility exists to form an FBS league under the umbrella of the Big Sky … There is an opportunity awaiting the Big Sky to do something different that I think sustains the future of that league and we’re happy to be a part of that conversation.”

Turns out, those conversations were very well happening.

Meet my good friend Theo Lawson. The saddest San Francisco Giants fan in Idaho also happens to unarguably be the best beat writer covering Idaho athletics at the moment and is probably coming to a Pac-12 or SEC press box near you soon.

A Freedom of Information Act request revealed emails both between, to and from Rob Spear and President Chuck Staben.

This correspondence from Western Athletic Conference commissioner Jeff Hurd to Rob Spear confirms discussions were, indeed, in place for Spear’s dream and desires come to fruition.

From the article:

“Rob: Have you had an opportunity to speak with your President regarding football and whether or not he believes the idea of other Big Sky institutions moving to the FBS level could have any legs?” Hurd wrote. “Although (former Big Sky commissioner) Doug Fullerton had interest, one of my concerns is that the new Commissioner might consider it too much of a risk to have on his/her plate right shortly after being hired.”

Spear wrote in another conversation:

“The WAC has traction and I look forward to influencing the Big Sky from within. I know I can convince Montana and Montana State to jump…we need to lock arms with them. And a bowl win changes everything! I know our kids will be motivated!”

Should Idaho find seven other willing schools, they would have been able to form a football-only league under the umbrella of the Western Athletic Conference under the provision that a certain number of those schools had been together for a certain number of years. That is where the importance of getting the Big Sky’s core comes into play. In this scenario, the Big Sky would also retain its FCS league of schools who did not jump.

For historical context, now-retired Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton once told me former WAC commissioner Karl Benson invited “half of my conference” into the WAC in 2010 and 2011 when the Mountain West was picking off WAC schools left and right. Obviously, Big Sky schools declined.

Dreams of Big Sky FBS football are far fetched.

It’s not going to happen. At least, not under the current pretense of a clear split between 100-so-odd FBS schools with 85 scholarships and 100-so-odd FCS schools with 63 scholarships.

Complications include the sudden expenditure increases for schools who would have to expedite feasibility studies if they haven’t done them already, securing a television contract for the new league (not worth it at all without this) and opposition from current FBS leagues who don’t want to deal with splitting the College Football Playoff pot further

Let me get to some hot takes before I contextualize further.

This from a former editor of mine, Nicolas A. Lewis of Underdog Dynasty, responding to my last interview with him on the Spokesman-Review.

“After reading all of this, I feel like I am looking at an athletic director who can best be described in the following way. He has a general vision for how Idaho athletics could be better, but he doesn’t really have a strong understanding of how to execute that vision … That said, even with a stronger athletics director, what is Idaho’s end-game to be achieved via extending their status as a football-only member of the Sun Belt? There’s no way it’s full-fledged conference membership, and if that isn’t it, then what is?”

This both hits and misses the point.

Rob Spear has spent 12 years trying to make crazy work. Not because he is necessarily bad at his job or because he lacks understanding of how this athletic director thing works.

It’s because the University of Idaho has, over decades of futility and atrocious decision making, has put Spear – or whoever would be running the show – into a position where desperately grasping at straws is the only means of survival.

Idaho had little business in the Western Athletic Conference, but was luckily given that lifeline when the WAC kept getting pillaged and pulled apart.

Getting Temple and Fresno State to agree to play at the Kibbie Dome in 2013?

To reach back out to Karl Benson for a second foray into the Sun Belt?

All of these ideas are crazy as hell. They are also things that happened in real life.

Crazy is all that Spear has left to cling on to. Crazy has kept the FBS ship floating. There’s only so much crazy that can work.

Chuck Staben doesn’t have time for delusions and dreams. He has time for practicality. The Big Sky, to him, became the practical move.

So, I could write a 2,500 word op-ed on whether I think Spear is worth a shit at Idaho or not with a bullet-line list of what he is good and isn’t good at.

But this is what you care about. Conference realignment. This is where Spear’s legacy will be drawn.

Not football hires. Not facilities, even.

Then here are the facts: Rob Spear secured 13 years of FBS football for Idaho. It could have been less.

Doug Fullerton has been open to the return of Idaho to the Big Sky since they left in 1996. He has told me as much over the phone.

Rob Spear took the job when Idaho had a football-only membership to the Sun Belt and no long term stability. Thanks to some realignment luck, Idaho received an all-sports invite into the Western Athletic Conference.

This, at the time, was the no-brainer decision. Even in hindsight, it was the correct decision. There is zero guarantee that remaining a football-only member in the Sun Belt would have preserved Idaho’s place in the league even today.

Travel, geographical rivals, conference stability, it was the correct move. Period.

Spear then, somehow, got five home games for an independent schedule in 2013. Oh, I know how. Idaho still has three home-and-home return trips to play. That’s how.

Then, of course, today’s predicament where Idaho is getting booted from the Sun Belt after a 4-year deal.

Spear was continually asked to pull off the impossible. Make one of the least desirable football programs in the country attractive to somebody in the top tier of college football.

Spear would have been able to see Idaho through independence again. This isn’t in question. Would Idaho’s luck finally run out? Perhaps. But he would know how to navigate Idaho through it. It’s what he does.

Spear had little to nothing to do with the Big Sky decision. This opinion is based on common sense, and supported by Lawson’s article showing emails from Spear asking Staben to delay the Big Sky announcement months prior to sitting at a table with him during the announcement.

Delaying the announcement would mean asking the Big Sky to extend its May 4 deadline well into 2017. The Big Sky was reluctant to admit to reporters it would extend such an invitation, although it would be hard to envision a scenario where the Big Sky wouldn’t want Idaho as its 14th football member.

Staben chose not to balk. Spear then admitted at the end of the piece the decision was ultimately made by Staben.

Then, curiously enough, it became Spear who staunchly defended the decision continually pointing out the costs of FBS football is just too high these days.

Okay, Dr. Spear. So why delay the announcement?

He’s afraid of the implications it’d have on fundraising for this shiny new arena Idaho has been trying to get built for 55 years now.

Of the impact on fundraising, Spear says it’s been “Enough to hurt,” to Josh Wright of the Spokesman-Review.

A source tells me Spear will go before the SBOE in February to ask for official permission to spend the $30 Million Idaho is to raise to construct the arena. After everything, he hopes shovels hit the dirt by the summer of 2018. Fundraising is currently public.

This, Spear hopes, will be his lasting legacy at Idaho. He’s been trying to get this done for a while.

He fought for a decade to prolong FBS football and the decision was ultimately taken completely out of his hands.

The arena hasn’t been taken out of his hands, and actually supported by both Staben and the SBOE. This is fortunate. Idaho has a very long history of facilities decisions being taken out of their hands.

I’ve heard Spear has thrown out, behind closed doors, finding a successor venue for the Kibbie Dome. Such talk would be laughed out the door by the SBOE and couldn’t have gone very far at all. I can’t verify this.

Spear has shown me the binders of plans from both past and present to solve the Kibbie Dome issue. One was from 1970 for an outdoor stadium with capacity north of 20,000 and, next to it, a basketball court.

The stadium was built in 1971 and domed in 1975. No arena was built.

He’s shown me plans to expand the Kibbie Dome with end zone seating and lowering the field to add more sideline seating and suites.

He’d disappointingly close the binders and point out how there is no reason to even ask for the funding for the project. But the plans certainly exist.

Instead, the renovations stopped in 2011 after a $27 Million investment to add the Litehouse center, replace the wall panels to make the Dome brighter and make the facility up to date with safety codes.

I feel fortunate to have had these conversations with him. For his faults in this position, he was always open and appreciated the media. He knew many of us by name and made himself accessible one on one to discuss on, sometimes off the record, on issues facing Vandal athletics.

I can say from personal experience Spear cared deeply about getting things done facilities wise.

However, we can’t speak on Spear without discussing his biggest shortcoming on the job: What has happened inside the Kibbie Dome for over a decade.

Oh yes, why so many of you want to ‘toss the spear.’

Spear has presided over, exactly, one winning season since 2003. He has made four football hires. Most athletic directors get fired after one.

Ironically, Spear’s shortcoming with hiring Akey is bringing in a coach for the same reason Idaho hired Spear. He wanted comfortability and stability, not a high ceiling. He thought he could have it all with Akey. A coach who wanted to stay at Idaho but who could win consistently?

Robb Akey couldn’t coach and once the players Nick Holt recruited left the program, Idaho’s program went up in flames.

Spear finally figured it out with Petrino. The five finalists at the time all had explicit Idaho ties, which was kind of sad, but Petrino provided Idaho with what it needed. Short-term stability and a ceiling. Petrino will probably leave Idaho soon because of our current success and current conference situation (and his brother being the head coach at Louisville). That’s okay. Idaho is a stepping stone job and the more we embrace this, both at the FBS and FCS level, the more we will hire coaches who will keep breeding a culture of winning.

This was the case in the Big Sky when Gilbertson, Erickson and Smith all used Idaho as a launching point, and Idaho kept consistently winning because of it.

It only took Spear four hires to nail this.

He’s made successful hires in Olympic sports, short of a bad misses in men’s and women’s basketball in his first couple of years.

He’s overseen championships in men’s and women’s tennis, women’s cross country, track and field, women’s basketball, women’s soccer and volleyball. Luckily for him, this formula of praying coaches will stay has largely worked on this level.

Don Verlin hoped to parlay Idaho men’s basketball into the Utah State job when Stew Morrill retired. That didn’t work out, but he still has Idaho easily ready to contend for the Big Sky’s auto-bid.

And Newlee? He has family complications keeping him in the state of Idaho but he might not leave anyways. Though, if he adds a couple more NCAA Tournament appearances to his resume he’ll surely have options.

Spear gets positive grades there.

He gets negative grades when it comes to surrounding his athletic department with innovative marketing individuals and promoting a culture of openness with the media.

Which, is frustrating because Spear is fairly good at personally representing himself to us and fans.

His football Sports Information Director is a joke and Idaho will forever be known as the school that let Adidas put a logo on the ass of our jerseys and tried to appropriate USC’s peace sign rally cry with “Throw the V.”

These are our Vandal Scholarship Fund commercials.

The fuck is that shit?

Spear has allowed the Vandal brand to become stale. The mistake after the Humanitarian Bowl was to embrace all of the branding around Robb Akey and not the institution. Sure, Akey was fun and was certainly a part of what made the Idaho brand distinctly Idaho. It also completely blew everything up in two years when Idaho became a 2-10 football team.

But, it’s getting better.

This came out immediately after the Sun Belt’s decision not to retain Idaho became public.

But maybe we can’t market because we’re broke?

Spear is a numbers guy. If we’re being really real is one of the largest reasons he got the job in the first place. Idaho is consistently balancing a budget with limited revenue streams (given the state and university subsidies everybody else gets too).

And that’s what Idaho ultimately wanted when it hired him. It wanted financial security and conference stability. He couldn’t bring a distinct athletic vision because he didn’t have an extensive college athletics background. We have paid the price for it. But would an athletics visionary be able to balance out conference instability with implementing what he or she wanted?

We might never know.

As for Rob Spear, he has four more years to cement his legacy.

Let’s see what you got, Doctor.

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One response to “Part two: Rob Spear gave UI what it wanted … Longevity, not vision”

  1. Ryan Avatar

    You are far too kind to Rob Spear. And I’d much rather be losing with Robb Akey as our coach than with an asshole like Paul Petrino. Hopefully he turns it around because I can root for an asshole who has the vandals winning. But Rob Spear is a numbers man, an accountant who has little knowledge of the business of athletics administration. A stronger AD would have found a way to keep Idaho football in the FBS. He may still and hopefully I’m eating my words but I don’t think I will be.


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