Columns & Blogs

With a chance to make a splash, Idaho belly-flopped

Rob Spear should have learned a lesson from Rob Spear.

The Idaho athletic director scored a major coup last month when he recruited and hired Dennis Erickson to coach the Vandals' football team. He got it right, and the Moscow campus has been buzzing ever since.

Facing another hiring, this time in the basketball office, Spear got it wrong. He interviewed nine candidates, by his count, and opted (or perhaps had no choice but to opt) for the one closest to home, choosing Vandal assistant coach George Pfeifer.

The uninspired hiring of a longtime NAIA coach creates zero buzz for a program in desperate need of some. It's the anti-Erickson hire, even if the new football coach endorsed Pfeifer.

It's also no wonder Erickson and former Idaho coach Don Monson endorsed Pfeifer — he's a coaches' coach.

He's paid his dues as a successful head coach at Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston where he won 296 games and turned the Warriors into perennial NAIA Tournament participants during his 16 years. He joined former coach Leonard Perry's staff last season.

His X's and O's ability is not in question and his stated desire to employ a more unorthodox style of play is a welcome change.

But Idaho needed more than a coaching lifer, no matter how successful at the NAIA level.

It had a chance to make a good splash and instead belly-flopped.

Perry took the fall for a record-setting 4-25 campaign. And Pfeifer, his right-hand man, earns a promotion.


When Spear dismissed Perry in the hours after the Vandals' first-round loss at the WAC Tournament, he talked about moving the program in a different direction. Apparently having Pfeifer switch offices and sideline seats constitutes a change of direction. Assistant Leroy Washington will also remain on staff.

Some shakeup.

Spear, a former CBA player hiring his first basketball coach as athletic director, also talked about hiring someone from a winning program. Apparently, Pfeifer holds no responsibility for last season.

Or perhaps Spear had no choice.

His top choice, Gonzaga's Leon Rice, turned him down publicly. He interviewed seven other outside candidates, and there's no telling how many of them turned him down. Spear wasn't about to release that number Saturday afternoon.

But if that's the case, if several candidates did turn down the Vandals, then Spear seriously misread his hand and overestimated the lure of the position.

He has spoken often about the need to be constantly aware of the coaching landscape. In the end, he looked as prepared as New Orleans was for Hurricane Katrina.

"It's absolutely a great job," Spear said a day after letting Perry go. "It's in the ninth-rated RPI conference. It's a very attractive position. There's only 300-something Division I coaching jobs. The upside is huge."

That's only because the Vandals have nowhere to go but up. The 25 losses this season were the most in school history. Idaho has lost 37 of its last 41 games. Even Pfeifer admitted the Vandals have a talent gap with the rest of the Western Athletic Conference, one that will require junior college quick fixes before the program can begin taking in four-year players. That was enough to scare off Gonzaga's Rice and perhaps other candidates.

Whether Spear's hand was forced or not, this is a wasted opportunity. A chance to add to the "renewal of this university" — Spear and university president Tim White each used that phrase Saturday — has been squandered.

While the Erickson move was a compliment to Spear's foresight and instincts, this one reeks of panic and desperation.

It's only slightly better than the good-old-boys network employed at Idaho State, which also hired a basketball coach last week. After a long "search," athletic director Paul Bubb chose college friend and teammate Joe O'Brien to guide the Bengals program.

O'Brien, like Pfeifer, has no Division I head-coaching experience. O'Brien, a three-time junior college national championship coach, was out of coaching last year after spending a year at Florida International.

Given these two head-scratching hires, it's no wonder the state's NCAA Tournament drought is at 12 years and counting.