MOSCOW, Idaho - In the past few years, the University of Idaho has approached $60 million in athletics facilities upgrades. Still on the wish list is a football performance building on the west side of the Kibbie Dome with a price tag of $20 million or more, based on the cost of similar facilities in the Big Sky Conference.
“It’s the next big rock,” according to Tim Mooney, deputy athletic director for internal operations.
The improvements have not yet propelled the Vandals to the top of the Big Sky in wins, losses and championships. Nonetheless Idaho has signaled it is willing to buy into the game and push its chips to the center of the table.
The big-ticket item is the Idaho Central Credit Union Arena, at $53 million. It opened for the 2021-22 basketball season. Featuring mass timber construction and non-structural wood accents, it is a national showpiece that resonates strongly with Idaho’s timber industry and with the university’s forestry mission in its College of Natural Resources. UI has also improved academic, meeting and nutrition centers for student athletes. It has upgraded Kibbie Dome lighting to the point where the dome could host ESPN-televised playoff games. It has replaced the football outdoor practice turf, has remodeled locker rooms and replaced the Memorial Gym floor, and the athletics department has an ongoing program to identify and repurpose underused space in its facilities.
Amid this fund-raising juggernaut, UI also accepted a $1 million donation from the family of Lauren McCluskey, a University of Utah high jumper, hurdler and heptathlete who was murdered on campus at age 21 in 2018. As an elite track and field athlete at Pullman High School, McCluskey regularly trained during the winters under the Kibbie Dome roof and forged bonds with UI coaches and athletes who mentored her.
“When she was younger, she would do hurdles with Angela Whyte,” said McCluskey’s mother, Jill. Whyte, a former Vandals runner and assistant coach, is a three-time Olympian in the 100-meter hurdles. She competed for Canada in 2004, 2008 and 2016.
“The UI was always wonderful to her,” McCluskey’s mother said. “It was the first school to offer her a scholarship.” McCluskey might have been a Vandal but for a desire to see the world beyond the Palouse as a college athlete, according to her mother.
“It has always been a special place,” Jill McCluskey said of Idaho. “We wanted to make that donation so there is always a part of her at the Kibbie Dome, where she spent so much time. It will remind people of who she was and how she was taken from us.”
The money comes from a $13.5 million settlement with the state of Utah, which acknowledged it was negligent in providing a safe environment for McCluskey. Of that settlement, $10.5 million goes directly to her parents, Jill and Matt McCluskey, who are faculty members at Washington State University. The UI donation comes from this. The remainder of the settlement goes to the Lauren McCluskey Foundation, which seeks to improve campus safety nationwide.
The McCluskey family gift to UI will be used to put a new Mondotrack flooring in the dome to be used for track and field and tennis.
It will be the first time UI has replaced the dome surface in decades, according to Mooney.
“This track is going to be fast,” he said.
Work will begin shortly after the UI commencement in the dome in May. However, almost as soon as the new flooring is complete in late summer, it will be covered by the football turf on which the Vandals play all fall.
Ceremonies celebrating the new floor will be pushed off to late in the year when the football turf is taken up, Mooney said . The first notable event to take place on the new surface will be the Big Sky Conference indoor track and field championships in early 2023.
The McCluskey family first sought to memorialize their daughter by endowing a track scholarship at the UI. Jill McCluskey noted that in addition to putting in the new dome flooring, Mondo will also be contributing to the scholarship fund.
Mooney said because the UI was a good steward of the scholarship funds, the McCluskey family was motivated to continue contributing to the university. He said this is how UI athletics approaches all big gifts.
“We take their money and they come and see what you did with it,” he said. “I feel a big responsibility. We better make this person proud of what we build.”
The new track will bear McCluskey’s name, and Mooney said the UI will leverage the facility to promote campus safety.
“There’s a message behind it. We want to keep these athletes safe,” he said.
McCluskey was shot to death by a man with whom she had had a brief relationship. He was a registered sex offender who had lied about his age and who stalked her and tried to extort money from her. She had reached out to campus police unsuccessfully about fears for her safety.
“No one listened to Lauren and took her seriously,” her mother said. “Responsible adults might have made a difference.”
Her death, however, did give rise to Lauren’s Promise, a vow that faculty, staff, students, parents and university community members can take to signal that they will believe accounts of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking and that they will provide a safe haven for victims and will help connect them to support resources.
“It’s basically saying ‘if you tell me you are being threatened, I will listen, believe you and connect you with people who can help you,’ ” Jill McCluskey said.
Lauren McCluskey’s parents and UI athletics officials hope Lauren’s Promise, and the efforts of the Lauren McCluskey Foundation to promote campus safety will be amplified by the McCluskey family gift to the UI for a new track bearing their daughter’s name .
“I’m just really happy we could make a difference,” Jill McCluskey said. “The UI has always been welcoming to us.”
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