When Rob Spear took the reins of the University of Idaho Department of Athletics in the winter of 2003-04, he was inheriting a program in flux. The Vandals needed a consolidated conference home for their athletic programs. They needed updates and enhancements to their 30-year-old facility. They needed new revenue streams and more fans in the seats.
He was – and continues to be, the person for the job. His passion, his competitive nature, his vision all were essential qualities if the Vandals were to move forward.
One of his first achievements was securing a position for all of the Vandal athletic programs in the Western Athletic Conference. His ability to place Idaho in a western conference ended four years of split conference affiliation for the Vandals. The days with the football program competing coast-to-coast in the Sun Belt Conference and the remaining programs in the largely California-based Big West Conference were over.
At the same time, he was charged with ushering Idaho Athletics through a successful NCAA certification, which was completed in 2005.
With a conference home secure, his next mission was to renovate the facilities where the Vandals trained, played and studied.
The Kibbie Dome was just shy of its 30th birthday. The weight room was a veritable dungeon – dark with low ceilings and aging equipment. The outdoor practice facility was mud for six months out of every year. Locker rooms were small and dated. Team meeting rooms didn’t exist nor did computer labs or study rooms. The turf in the indoor stadium was a worn-out carpet that did little if anything to brunt the impact of a tackle. Premium seating was a dream.
As he set about tackling the facility and funding issues, he was resolute in continuing to hold Vandal student-athletes to the high academic standards that reflect very favorably the University of Idaho’s legacy of producing leaders of vision and integrity.
With a staff in place to guide the academic progress of the Vandals, he started chipping away at the laundry list of facility and financial needs.
First was a new Strength and Conditioning Center, which remains one of the jewels in the renovation project with two-story, floor-to-ceiling windows that provide an expansive view of the campus. Among the state-of-the-art training and rehabilitation equipment is a hydro-therapy pool – one of the first in an on-campus setting in the Western United States.
With the old weight room vacated, an ambitious locker room project began. When it was finished, football, women’s basketball, track and field, and swimming had new facilities in place to match the oak-and-marble rooms already in existence for volleyball and men’s basketball.
That is what was happening indoors. Outside, the grass field used for football practice as well as intramurals was undergoing its own update. By the time it was completed, the Vandals had back-to-back 70-yard SprinTurf practice fields – with lights. The conversion to an artificial surface extended the use of the fields by more than thirtyfold for athletics and the campus in general.
Next was the turf inside the Kibbie Dome. Because of the multiple uses of the building, it has to be portable. Spear secured funding for Real Grass Pro, which, when it’s not in use for football, can be stored to make way for basketball, commencement, track and field, and even an annual home and garden show.
Spear’s vision, however, was far from complete. As he worked through these projects, he ushered the Vandals into a new era of marketing and convinced donors of the need for a comprehensive athletic facility feasibility study. Bold moves that paid big dividends.
With marketing and media rights revenue secured through Learfield Communications, he could focus on the continuing needs of Vandal Athletics. The feasibility study showed necessities totaling $35 million to convert the Kibbie Dome into the best small stadium in the country. He worked collaboratively across campus to secure the funding for life safety improvements, which included replacing the 30-year-old plywood end walls with translucent panels. The panels, along with a facelift for the entire stadium, make for a sense of daylight. Even when it’s 30 degrees and snowing outside, it’s warm, dry and windless inside the Dome.
There was much more to what he wanted the Kibbie Dome to become. He wanted it to provide the best premium seating in college football. In 2011, it became reality with the opening of the Litehouse Center/Bud and June Ford Club Room. The club seats, loge seats and suites are up-close and personal. Situated between the 30-yard lines and just 75 feet above field level, fans don’t feel as if they’re in an aerie on game day. The companion piece to the premium seating project was a new press box with all the amenities.
As construction crews were busy inside the Dome, Spear was at work from his office raising private dollars for a new video replay board to benefit fans and new video systems to benefit the coaching staffs of football and basketball.
Outside, with the 2012 WAC Outdoor Track and Field Championships on the schedule, the aging Dan O’Brien Track and Field underwent more than a facelift. It was completely gutted and renovated – to the tune of $2.5 million, to make it a premier complex for the Vandals to train and compete.
Along the way, he was charged with hiring 12 head coaches. His thoughtful selections propelled the Vandals onto winning tracks and garnered coach of the year honors in volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s golf and women’s cross country.
The financial and staff investments paid off. In 2009, the football team won its first bowl game in more than a decade, while the men’s and women’s basketball teams advanced to post-season tournaments for the first time in, literally, decades. Football season tickets jumped by 41 percent over a three-year span and annual giving went from $1.1 million to $1.65 – and growing.
The student-athlete wasn’t put aside as the facilities were transformed.
Before the premium seating project was launched, private monies were raised for a suite of team rooms and the complete renovation of the athletic training and equipment rooms. Alongside the team rooms are study centers to ensure the continued academic success of the Vandals, who continued to graduate at a rate 30-40 percent higher than the general population at the University of Idaho, which in and of itself is by far the highest in the state. Collectively, Vandal student-athletes have a 3.05 grade-point average.
As further testament to the dedication to academic success, the Vandals have won – in just six years in the league, a record six Stan Bates Awards, which are given annually to the Western Athletic Conference’s top male and top female student-athletes.
Reaching Vandal fans, who are spread over a vast geographic area, was another priority. Hence the development of the Go Vandals television network as well as an on-campus partnership with the school of Journalism and Mass Communications, which produces a weekly news magazine that airs on television stations throughout the state of Idaho and parts of Eastern Washington.
He touched the hearts of Vandals far and wide, young and old when he established the Vandal Athletics Hall of Fame. A charter class of 100 individuals and five teams was inducted over a two-year period to make up for more than 100 years of the absence of a way to honor Idaho’s most cherished players, coaches and contributors. That legacy continues today with a bi-annual induction ceremony.
Spear’s dedication to service extends beyond the athletic department. He currently serves on five NCAA committees (Chair, Western Athletic Conference Finance Committee; WAC men’s basketball liaison; WAC code book committee, NCAA Legislative Council, and NCAA D1 Basketball Issues Committee) as well as five University committees (President’s Executive Leadership Team, President’s Cabinet, Strategic Planning Committee, Budget Advisory Committee, and Operations Committee) and two community committees (Gritman Hospital Community Advisory Committee and Gritman Hospital Strategic Planning Committee). He is a past chair of the Western Athletic Conference Council and the University of Idaho’s Banner Finance Implementation Committee as well as a past member of the University of Idaho’s Presidential Search Committee and Dean’s Council for the University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. His past community committee membership includes the Latah (County) Economic Development Council (2002-07) and the St. Mary’s Parish Finance Committee (2000-10).
Spear is a native of Butte, Mont., and earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Great Falls (1980), where he played basketball, and his MBA at the University of Montana (1983). He earned his doctorate (education) at the University of Idaho in 1993. He and his wife, Sandy, have one daughter, Morgan.