By Bill Foley
Rob Spear has lived in Moscow, Idaho, since 1989, but the Mining City is never too far from his mind.
“My mom and dad still live here,” Spear says while in town for Christmas this week. “I like to come back and, of course, I always follow all the Butte sports. Once a Butte person, always a Butte person.”
Spear grew up in the McQueen section of town until he was in the eighth or ninth grade. Then his family moved to Hannibal Street, where his parents, Bob and Esther, still reside.
He graduated from Butte Central in 1976 after starring in track and basketball for the Maroons.
Today, Spear, who will turn 55 on Jan. 1, is the athletic director at the University of Idaho. It’s a job Spear took reluctantly during the 2003-04 school year, and it is a job in which he has thrived.
Whether it was spearheading improvements to the Kibbie Dome, securing a home for the Vandals in the Western Athletic Conference and then the Big Sky Conference (with the exception of football) or making national news by refusing to step foot on an airplane with Boise State colors, Spear has been a mover and shaker as the No. 1 Vandal.
“Well, I did a lot but not enough,” Spear says. “There’s always more to do.”
Spear’s latest move is one that definitely hits home for those in his old stomping grounds. On Dec. 2, he named Paul Petrino head coach of the Idaho football team.
Spear was very familiar with Petrino and his family’s coaching legacy. Bob Petrino, Paul’s father, is a legendary coach at Butte Central and Carroll College. Bobby Petrino, Paul’s brother, is the new head coach at Western Kentucky after stints with Louisville, the Atlanta Falcons and Arkansas.
Petrino is now charged with reviving a football team that went 1-11 in 2012, and Spear is confident he picked the right man for the job.
“I went to grade school with his sister at old Holy Savior,” Spear says of Paul Petrino, who was born in Butte but raised mostly in Helena. “Paul brings a toughness, like the Petrino family. That’s what we need. We need to be disciplined, and we need that toughness. Paul is going to bring that, plus he’s going to be able to do a wonderful job recruiting and bring the right kids to Idaho.”
Spear also touts Petrino’s football smarts.
“We’re going to be innovated offensively. In this day and age you have to put points up,” Spear says. Petrino has certainly proven he’s been able to do just that.
“You look at his track record and his pedigree,” Spear says. “He was the (offensive coordinator) at Louisville, went to Atlanta with his brother, was the OC at Southern Miss, was the OC at Illinois, last year was the OC at Arkansas.”
Petrino also came highly recommended from guys like John L. Smith, Ron Zook and Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long.
“I talked to Jeff Long the AD at Arkansas to ask if Paul was ready to be a head coach. He said, ‘No question,'” Spear says.
Petrino is joining the program at a time of transition at the University of Idaho. In the most recent run of conference movement, Vandal football was basically left standing during the college football conference game of musical chairs.
“It was very disappointing that we got left out when you had all the movement,” Spear says. “We invested a lot of time and money. We’ve had some success — not enough — but we’ve had some success. We’ve won two bowl games, most recently in 2009. Unfortunately we didn’t capitalize on that. I think we did in some ways with our facilities improvements, but competitively in football we didn’t.”
The Vandals will play as an independent in the Football Championship Subdivision, and the team’s schedule will take it all over the country in 2013.
“We got pretty lucky putting together a schedule,” Spear says. “You can always find games in the first five weeks of the season and the last two. In that middle time, it’s hard. We had some schools step up and move games to help us out.”
Spear sees guiding the Vandals through these uncertain times in college football as one of his biggest jobs.
“We’ve got to figure out this conference realignment thing, which is just crazy,” he says. “It’s all about money and trying to make sure you’re in the Bowl Championship Series in some capacity so you can get some of that windfall and the television money.”
Boise State possibly heading to the Big East is just one of many “crazy” changes of the last few of years. While that might be feasible for a football team — when you only travel for about five games each year — it is virtually impossible for a school like Idaho to pull off in other sports.
“It’s terrible for college football in general,” Spear says of the nation-wide conferences. “The rivalries you’ve had for years and years are going away, and you have no geographic contiguity. You know what creates rivalries? When your fans can travel to the other team’s stadium and sit in it. Now when you have these realignments it’s going to eliminate that.”
That’s also why Spear worked to move the other University of Idaho sports back to the Big Sky Conference this fall. The Vandals will compete in the Big Sky starting in the 2014-15 school year.
“We’re excited about that because it’s important for us to recreate these regional rivalries that we had with Montana as well as Montana State and Eastern Washington,” Spear adds. “Football wise, if I am going to predict something in the next 10-20 years I do think Montana, Montana State, Idaho, Eastern Washington, Portland State find a way to be in the same league. What level it’s at, I have no idea. I do think it will come full circle, I really do.”
In the meantime, Spear and the Vandals will focus on making sure their product is as good as it can be.
“What I say to our people is, ‘It’s important to control what you can control,'” Spear says. “What we can control is the product that we put out on the field and court, and what we do with the facilities. I can’t control the national things that are happening, but we can control our own destiny internally. That’s what we plan to do. So we have plans to continue to grow and make sure we position ourselves for whatever league we’re in.”
Those plans include expanding capacity of the Kibbie Dome and getting the basketball teams a better setting for their home games.
“We have ambitious plans,” Spear says. “We need to get basketball out of the dome. We need to get it its own events center, and we have a plan for that. We have a plan to expand capacity in the Kibbie Dome. There’s this perception that you can’t increase capacity of the dome. That’s not true. We can get capacity up by lowering the field and going out into both end zones. We can probably get that to seat 26 to 27,000.”
The dome holds about 16,000 now. It is also approaching its 40th birthday.
“It’s a great venue,” Spear says.”It’s a little on the small size, but we have a plan to fix it.”
When Spear left Butte Central in 1976, he had no idea he would ever be charged with such a fix.
Spear turned his career at BC into a four-year career playing for the College of Great Falls, which is now called the University of Great Falls.
The 6-foot-5 Spear then played for coach George Karl on the CBA’s Montana Golden Nuggets in Great Falls. Back then, the CBA was just a level behind the NBA, and CBA players would often sign contracts with NBA teams during the season.
“The equivalent now would be the (NBA) developmental league,” Spear says. “We had a lot of success there under George. But at the end of the year we were decimated roster-wise with some of the 10-day contracts.”
Karl’s success in Great Falls led to a career that saw him coach the Seattle SuperSonics to the NBA Finals. Currently Karl is the head coach of the Denver Nuggets.
“You could tell he was innovated and creative,” Spear says. “He had the ‘it’ factor. You could tell there was something special about him as a coach, and he parlayed that into a pretty good professional career.”
A ruptured patella tendon ended Spear’s basketball career, so he continued his education. He went on to earn a master’s degree at the University of Montana. In 1993, Spear earned his doctorate in education at the University of Idaho, where he started working in 1989.
“I had a unique career at Idaho,” Spear says. “The University of Idaho was great to me. I’ve had a variety of jobs.”
After wearing several different hats at the university, Spear eventually took AD role on an interim basis during the 2003-04 school year. Gary Michael, who was the interim president of the university at the time, talked Spear into tackling the job fulltime.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to do this fulltime,'” Spear says. “He said, “You really need to do this fulltime and step up for your institution.’ So I made the decision to go and do it, and it’s been great. It’s been challenging.”
It also gave Spear his share of national fame. Well, that and the decision made by Horizon Air to paint Boise State colors and a Broncos logo on one of its planes.
During the 2009 season, Spear refused to board that plane, which made national news.
“My claim to fame,” Spear laughs of an incident he says resulted in talk about the plane at a luncheon with some Idaho boosters
“They said, ‘We heard Boise has a plane, when are we getting one?'” Spear remembers. “I say, “Well, I know that the president is working on it, but I tell you what, I’m leaving for Boise on Tuesday. If that plane shows up, I’m not getting on it.”
It was actually an amazing long shot that the airline inadvertently called the AD’s bluff.
“So I actually went back to my office and I called Horizon and I said, ‘Can you tell me which plane is going to come into the Moscow-Pullman airport on Tuesday?'” Spear says. “The lady got a little irritated with me and finally she said, ‘Sir, we only have one plane that’s blue and orange and we have 50 planes in our livery.’ I said, ‘OK, good point.'”
As fate would have it, the Boise State plane was in Moscow that day.
“I got to the airport and the lady said, ‘Are you checking luggage.’ I said, ‘Well it depends. If that blue and orange plane comes I’m not going to get on it.’ She goes, ‘Well just a minute.’ She goes in the back and comes out with this look on her face and she says, ‘It is it.’ I said, ‘If you don’t mind could you book me out of Spokane? I’ll gladly fly Horizon once Idaho gets its own plane.”
So Spear paid for his own rental car — “You wouldn’t believe how many public records requests I had for my travel,” Spear says — and drove the 80 plus miles to Spokane to fly to Boise on a rivalry-neutral plane.
“One of my associates was there and he said What are you doing?'” Spear says. “I said that plane is there and I’m not going to fly on it. I told people I wouldn’t and I’m a man of my word. So he sends a couple of text messages or whatever, and by the time I get to Spokane, my phone is lit up.”
Spear insists the incident had nothing to do with the Broncos, who had gained national notoriety by challenging the Bowl Championship Series.
“My point was the University of Idaho is in 42 of the 44 counties in Idaho. It’s the leading academic institution. It leads in research. We need our own plane,” Spear says. “Like I said, it’s no disrespect to Boise State, this is about Idaho. About a year later, we got our plane.”
It also endeared Spear with Vandal fans across the country. ” I earned a few points there,” he laughs.
Spear plans on getting more things done in Idaho. He says he has no immediate plans of moving on from the school that he says has been so good to him.
“We’ve got to get this football thing figured out,” Spear says. “Last year the data shows we were the second best athletic program in the entire (Western Athletic Conference). We were better than Utah State, better than Nevada, better than Hawaii, better than Louisiana Tech, better than San Jose State. Fresno beat us because they had baseball and we didn’t.”
The Butte native feels his football program is on its way now that he placed it in the hands of a guy from his old stomping grounds.
“You’ve got to be successful in football because that is the driver of everything. How you are in football, that generates the perception of your overall athletic program.” Spear says. “We just need to get it back to where we were in ’09, and I think we will with Paul.”