MOSCOW, Idaho – He made his way through the Vandals’ plush, revamped locker rooms and past the spacious athletic equipment center. Snaking through the bowels of the Kibbie Dome, Rob Spear stopped and swung open two doors.
Natural light streamed through the once-dark tunnel, and Idaho’s athletic director craned his neck skyward to show how the Dome looked bigger now that its west wall has a brighter look.
During a tour on a sun-splashed afternoon, Spear had made his point – about the $10 million facelift and the football program in general.
“If you’re going to be Division I, you’ve got to look Division I,” he said, summing up one of his core missions since taking over UI athletics six years ago.
The hallmark of the Vandals’ extensive and mostly behind-the-scenes facility upgrades will be on display Saturday, when the Vandals entertain San Diego State at 2 p.m. in the home football opener.
Translucent fiberglass panels have been added during the six-month makeover, giving the Dome an infusion of light. The 34-year-old stadium has often been described as “dank,” but it now seems a more welcoming spot to spend 31/2 hours on a fall afternoon.
“It really has brightened the place up,” Vandals football coach Robb Akey said.
Making the Dome more aesthetically pleasing on game day is the latest step in Spear’s long-range vision. It started with a new weight room and outdoor practice field, and future plans call for an upscale club room.
The souring of the economy has kept details of the forthcoming project – set to be complete by the 2011 season – in flux until recently. Originally, the club room was going to be put behind the east end zone, but UI officials scrapped the idea because the area would be used only six times a year during home football games.
“Obviously, with the economy and everything, we have taken the project and made it more efficient,” Spear said.
The centerpiece of the new proposal (estimated at $6 million) is a remaking of the existing press box. It will be gutted and extended 10 feet, and then a club room, seven to nine suites and 260 premium seats will be put in.
A new press box would be built on the opposite side of the Dome. Additional pricier seats could be added if the stadium is ever expanded by lowering the field.
“We’ve made it so it can be used for a lot of events, not just football,” Spear said. “We could use this for basketball, we could use it for (the Lionel Hampton) Jazz Fest, along with a lot of other events.”
Other upgrades won’t be as flashy. By December, $2 million worth of required life safety work will be completed, including a new exit on the west wall that filters to the main parking lot.
The next project will be new panels for the smaller east wall. The $5 million undertaking should be done by 2011, perhaps sooner.
These more noticeable structural changes started only after UI enhanced the everyday experience for its athletes with the weight room, new training area, locker rooms and equipment pickup area.
All the updates point to a push by Idaho’s administration to cultivate successful revenue sports. The men’s basketball program took a giant leap last year under Don Verlin, and the football team seems to be progressing as well.
The Vandals bring a 1-1 record into the non-conference battle with the Aztecs.
“Given where we’re at with our program and (that) we’re building,” Spear said, “we need to have better facilities and better game-day facilities to be able to compete at the level we want to compete.”
Funding for the west wall and safety upgrades came from the university and the state’s permanent building fund. For the $6 million suites, Spear’s goal is to have the money raised in-house before construction starts.
The department has gathered about $1.5 million, he said. But because the plan is just now coming into focus, fundraising has yet to start in earnest.
Like many of its counterparts across the county, Idaho’s athletic department has taken a financial hit since the recession began. Two vacant positions were not filled, and the returns for its annual fund drive were down.
Spear maintained that costs have been pared significantly – as much as $500,000 last year. The focus now is pumping in additional revenue.
One way to do that is tacking on a second major-conference opponent to the football schedule. In recent years, the Vandals have gone from multiple Bowl Championship Series-caliber foes on their slate and the lucrative payouts that followed to just one such game per season.
UI will travel to Nebraska next year, followed by a trip to Texas A&M in 2011. Akey doesn’t mind those heavyweight games once a year, but Spear insisted two might have to become the norm.
Asked if he and Spear have talked about the possible scheduling change, Akey said, “Well, it’s been brought up, yes, but obviously that’s not something that I want to see happen.”
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