Boise State’s new athletic director, Curt Apsey, answered some hot-button questions Wednesday in a Q&A with the Idaho Statesman.
Should the Broncos aspire to join a Power Five conference? Absolutely, he said.
Should alcohol sales creep from the Stueckle Sky Center and pregame party in the Caven-Williams Sports Complex into the main grandstands of Albertsons Stadium? No, he said.
When is the right time to expand the football stadium? Not until sellouts become the norm, he said.
Here is the bulk of our interview, which also touched on what the Boise State athletic department does best and needs to improve most and how Apsey has approached the job since officially taking over Aug. 1. The former longtime senior associate athletic director at Boise State returned after 10 months as the athletic director at Carroll College in Helena, Mont.
Question: What is the plan when you take over a program?
Answer: The first thing I wanted to do even though I haven’t been gone that long, I just wanted to reacquaint myself with the staff and culture and how everyone is feeling around here — because that was a big change. For me, I think I said this in the press conference: filling this place with good people is what is going to continue to make it great. So over the past 2, 21/2 weeks I’ve spent a lot of time with our staff and our head coaches so we can talk about what we need to improve, what’s good about this place and start to identify our needs going forward so we can continue to do the things we do and hopefully continue to get better at it. I don’t believe in going about it where it’s Curt Apsey’s plan, take it or leave it. I really want input from our staff and our coaches — then you can develop some kind of road map or strategic plan going forward that allows you to put a plan together that everyone buys into. That’s very time-consuming, but what it does is it allows me to get a better feel for what this place is about right now.
Q: Did anything surprise you when you came back?
A: Surprise is probably not the right word. We have a lot of new staff. That’s obviously not a surprise, but it’s certainly something different for me. Either we’ve had new staff or we’ve got the same people doing different things. It didn’t seem like I was gone very long, and I wasn’t, but it’s changed. A wonderful surprise was walking into this facility, all the changes that have gone on in the Varsity Center. The little things — nice paint, new carpet, a better look when you come in. It’s about curb appeal and I think we’ve done a nice job here. The staff has done a nice job creating a better working environment for everybody.
Q: What did you learn at Carroll about doing this job that you didn’t already know?
A: I knew it. I just hadn’t experienced it. At the end of the day, it all ends here. You don’t really know that until you’re in the seat. I was very fortunate with the past two ADs here — very close, in the loop, so I always knew most of what was going on, and that probably tends to be more toward personnel and student-athlete conduct and those kinds of things that I dealt with in the sports that I supervised. When I got to Carroll and here, all those things rise to the top and I’m involved in some way.
Q: Does that weigh on you?
A: No doubt. Of course it does. I’ve always been one that has taken my work out of the office, unfortunately for my family — and that’s probably more on me than the job. This one I’m responsible 24 hours a day for it, and I take that seriously. But I go back to being able to count on the people that I work with so that I don’t have to worry about it every single minute of every day. As long as you have that, I think you can be successful and you can actually survive in this. That makes me feel really good about Boise State.
Q: What does Boise State do well?
A: Our goal at the end of the day here is to make sure that the student-athletes that come to Boise State have an unbelievable four or five years here so when they walk away from here they miss it from day one and they can’t wait to get back to visit and they’d give their right arm to play for one more year. I was a student-athlete (soccer at Cal Poly). I’ll never forget when I graduated and was done playing. That was really hard for me. And it wasn’t just about the game and playing for championships. That’s a huge part of it, but just being a teammate, and being around my friends, getting to know great professors and getting my degree — I always tell people this: Other than marrying my wife and having my kids, going to college was the greatest time of my life. I want to make sure kids that come here to Boise State walk away saying, ‘That’s the best four years I’ve ever had.’ I think we provide that. That can always get better, but I think we do a really good job of keeping our focus in that area. ... We’ve been very, very successful in graduation rates and GPA. We’ve done a good job, for the most part, of retaining our coaches. That’s really important to get continuity and to be able to create a culture that’s consistent over time. We’ve been lucky here where we’ve had coaches who have stuck around for a lot of different reasons and I think that has a lot to do with our success. ... And this doesn’t really have anything to do — it has a little to do with Boise State — we picked a great place to put this university. Boise is a great place to live. That doesn’t really have anything to do with me, but I think it does have to do with Boise State because we play such a huge role in this community. It’s unbelievable to be part of such a great community. I came back. Carroll was fantastic. I wasn’t running away from anything, but I knew where I was coming as well.
Q: What’s an area where Boise State needs to improve?
A: We always can do a better job of customer service. We talk about that a lot because we are so reliant on community support to make this place go and it’s as easy as just saying ‘thank you’ every time you see somebody walking by or saying ‘hello.’ Or, when they call us on the telephone, how are we talking to them? We talked about kind of having this welcome mat. What I mean by that is do people like to come see us, and when they do, do they have a good experience? We go 100 miles an hour in this department — it’s certainly not a justifiable excuse for customer service maybe lacking in some areas, but I understand it sometimes. We’re not perfect. We’re going to make mistakes. We apologize when we do and the next time it comes around we do a better job. ... I don’t know if I’ll ever tell you our customer service is perfect. We always can get better at that.
Q: The cost of college athletics is always rising. This year, cost-of-attendance scholarships were a huge hit to the budget. How can Boise State keep increasing its revenue?
A: The first thing we need to do is continue to be great at what we do and appreciate the people who already are involved in our program. We go, ‘We’ve got to get more people. We’ve got to get more people. We’ve got to get more people.’ And that is certainly true. But just as important, we have to make sure that we’re providing that customer service and attention to the people that have already bought into our program. People can get upset. Doing just a good job of retaining the people that already support us. We always need to try to sell more tickets. We certainly need to grow our membership in the Bronco Athletic Association. We continue to do a really good job from a corporate sales standpoint, and that number can always climb. It’s possible here in the Treasure Valley because the Treasure Valley is growing. We need to improve in our fund-raising reach. We’ve got a lot of folks who have helped us over a long period of time and there’s new people coming into this Valley because Boise is such a great place to live and we’ve got to extend those arms. We’ve got to get out and get involved with people who are not involved with us. And that’s a continuing effort that I don’t think will ever go away.
Q: What kind of stress does the financial pressure put on the department?
A: You can be stressed about it, but you have to have a game plan to adjust to it as well. I have never in my whole time doing this ever had a coach come to me and go, ‘I don’t need anything else. I’m good.’ And to be honest with you, I don’t expect that because I want our coaches to be in the mindset of getting better every day. They’ve got to be able to hit the recruiting trail with all the tools that they need to get the best of the best to come to Boise State. I don’t think that’s ever going to stop. Stressed? Yeah, you’re always stressed when you don’t have enough money. But I don’t think the Boise State athletic department is ever going to say we have enough. If they did, that would probably be a first in college athletics. ... Once in a while we have game-changer gifts, but for the most part it’s this continued effort from this community to support our teams and buy tickets and believe in what we’re trying to do. These people have stepped up. They’re the heart of this place. Without all the support over the years, this success, it doesn’t happen. They even know that. I’m not telling our fans and Bronco Nation anything they don’t know. ... They know we’re going to be asking. We just have to justify the ask. Are we putting a product on the field people like to watch? Are our kids doing well in the classroom? Are we doing what we need to do in the community? Is our image one everybody can be proud of? That’s big to us. As long as we do those things and we justify their involvement with us, then we’ll be fine.
Q: What’s your take on the right time to add seats to Albertsons Stadium? (Home attendance has dropped 5 percent over the past two seasons.)
A: You’ve seen across the country what happens to stadiums that have something to do with college sports where they just want to be bigger and better than the next guy. I don’t particularly believe in that. We’ve had stadiums that have increased 10,000 to 15,0000 seats and went, ‘Uh-oh, that wasn’t a very good idea.’ ... Until we’re at a point seat-wise where you cannot get a ticket here, to me, I think you have to be very cautious about how many seats you have. We added 7,000 to the curves in 1997. We went from 23,000 to 30,000. I don’t know how long it took us to sell out most of the season, but I can guarantee you it was probably close to eight or 10 years — and we had success. You’ve got to be really careful there. I like what we’ve done. We’ve kind of gradually done it. I don’t believe in the thing that says ‘add the seats and they will come.’... We’ve got a few challenges we’ve got to overcome, just like many other schools across the country, when it comes to when we play the games, what time they are, who our opponents are, ticket prices. That stuff all plays a big role in there. In terms of adding seats, we need to do other things in that stadium before we do that. We’ve talked forever about the east side. That’s a big challenge for us. We did something nice on the west side. I’m hopeful sometime down the road we can start to put together a plan to work on improving the east side of the stadium, because I think it’s necessary.
Q: You’re expanding alcohol availability with the pregame Huddle events in the Caven-Williams Sports Complex. What are your thoughts on eventually selling alcohol in the stadium?
A: I don’t think we ever lose sight of creating a fun fan environment. And I’m not saying alcohol is the answer to that. I have not had any discussions with anybody about serving alcohol inside Albertsons Stadium. I’m not aware of a plan to do that in the future. Will that ever happen? I don’t know. In terms of doing it in Caven-Williams, this is not the first time we’ve gone down this road. We’ve done this before. It was more corporate. We’re very careful with that. At times it has a chance to send the wrong message, and that’s not what we want to do. We want to have a place for people to gather. Some people like to come to football games and gather and have a cold, alcoholic beverage. As long as we have the security and the right measures of making sure that things are going the right way — and we’re following the rules we’ve promised to the State Board of Education — it’s a controlled environment where it’s fun. We’ve set it up to where it’s not a place where it’s going to get out of control. It’s actually going to be a pleasant place for people to hang out. It will be a great place for all those people who either don’t have time to tailgate or just don’t want to bother with it. They can bring their kids in there, they can throw the football around, they can watch a game on TV and they don’t have to drink alcohol — we’ll have other stuff in there. It’s just another place to hang out with other Bronco fans. That, to us, isn’t about alcohol. That is more of a, ‘What can we do at these games to give people other options to make them want to come watch a football game at Albertsons Stadium?’
Q: What have you seen from places where alcohol is available in the grandstands?
A: I’m not sure it has a place in college football. I’m not sure. ... At least in an athletic facility setting, there’s some kind of control. I would say I’m not a proponent of having alcohol in a stadium of college football, open like that.
Q: Are you worried that there’s a double standard — alcohol is OK in the Stueckle Sky Center but not the open stadium?
A: I don’t think so, I really don’t. That area in Stueckle, it’s a built-in social event. It’s a place where people come to entertain clients. When we sold that inventory up there, that part of it was important in the sales process, whether we liked it or not. ... It’s a little different than being in the stadium and I’d say it again, it’s a controlled environment. There’s security, there’s rules, there’s signs everywhere. The bartenders are TIPS trained (to identify problem drinking). There’s no way that we would have ever been able to get approval for that from the State Board of Education if they didn’t feel comfortable about our plan for controlling it, so I just think it’s different.
Q: Is there something Boise State should be doing proactively with rumblings about possible Big 12 expansion.
A: There’s a misconception that we choose that option. You have to be invited. With that said, to me the only thing we can control is what we do. And we need to continue to focus on being a championship program in the Mountain West. And we enjoy being a part of that conference. We think the competition level is great. It’s improving in every sport . And we’ve been very happy being a part of that. ... But that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to get better. What we can do as an athletic department is we can continue to provide that (student-athlete) experience, compete for championships, do it the right way, graduate our kids. The other part of conference expansion going forward is they don’t just look at the athletic department. Well, this campus has transformed over the last 15 years. What we’re doing in terms of the amount of students coming here, the additional graduate programs, our ability to accumulate research dollars, that all comes into play. (President Bob) Kustra and his leadership team, a lot of times they say athletics leads the charge. Well that has changed a little bit here. This campus is exploding. If there is ever a time a conference decided to expand, you always want to be one of the schools they’re considering. That has nothing to do with us wanting to leave the conference we’re in. But if we just continue to do what we control better every single day and an opportunity like that comes about — whatever conference that may be, whatever expansion there is out there — that gives Boise State a better opportunity to be successful, why wouldn’t a school consider that?
But I almost compare it to if you’re always looking for a new job, you’re probably not doing your job. I kind of look at that like us. We’re not trying to run away from the Mountain West. What we’re trying to do is be great. What I like to think of is when people outside the Mountain West think about our conference, I hope the very first team that comes to mind is Boise State. That’s important to me.
Q: Given the direction of college athletics, should Boise State aspire to join a Power Five conference or be comfortable in the Mountain West?
A: I’m never comfortable. I’m just not. I want this place to be great, whatever level it’s at. You have to aspire. You take a step back if you’re not looking to get better. If those conferences decide at some point that they’re going to look outside to add schools, it’d be an honor if Boise State was on that list. But again, I go back to what we can control. What we can control is what we’re doing here at Boise State and I think we’re doing it the right way in every way — and I’m not just talking about athletics. Our recruits spend half their time across campus on recruiting visits because it’s so darn impressive what this administration has done. Other conferences don’t look to bring schools along just because of athletics, they look at a lot more than that. And this campus is doing things the right way.
Q: Have you had any conversations with the Big 12?