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Vandals hope to seize moment, improve facilities

MOSCOW — Dennis Erickson is back in college football to do what he does best: coach and win games.

But Erickson's second stop at Idaho will be measured not only by his victories on the field, but by the success of the Vandals' athletic department off of it.

In order for Idaho to compete in the WAC, in sports across the board, the Vandals need to upgrade their facilities.

They need new artificial turf and money-making luxury boxes in the Kibbie Dome. They need a new on-campus arena to house the basketball and volleyball programs.

They need, they need, they need.

And everyone knows it, including the man now positioned to deliver exactly those things.

"In order for us to compete the way we want to in the WAC, we've got to catch up facility wise. It's very important to me to be involved in driving that, and it's got to happen," Erickson said after Friday night's annual Gold-Silver spring scrimmage, which attracted nearly 6,000 fans to the Kibbie Dome.

"It's got to be presented to people. We can't sit and be stagnant. We've done that for too long."

Athletic director Rob Spear is already talking up his plans.

And now he's found the perfect pitchman.

Erickson is much more than a football coach this time around. He's a symbol the athletic department and, in fact, the whole university can sell. The school must capitalize on the enthusiasm generated by his return.

As evidenced by Friday night's crowd, the better-than-expected turnout at a pre-game function, the boost in season ticket sales and the overall buzz around the program Erickson is still the hottest thing in Moscow.

Erickson's hire in February must be a demarcation line for Idaho athletics, separating an old era with a new vibrant one.

In real terms, that means new facilities, and Spear and Erickson have ambitious plans.

They have called for tearing down the west wall of the Kibbie Dome, adding 7,000 additional seats to the 16,000-seat dome, and creating eight all-important luxury boxes.

The plans also call for building a basketball and events center that would be attached to the dome, but separate from the football facility. The center would host sporting events, concerts and other university-related functions.

"If we can get that done, then a lot of things will happen," Erickson said Friday. "I don't know what it's going to cost, but obviously we're going to have to do that."

Housing the basketball court in a separate place would solve the awkward problems of having to roll up the football turf and create a basketball arena in the middle of the spacious Kibbie Dome, a huge impediment to establishing a quality basketball program.

Such a facility could also serve the Idaho student body, a key component for Spear, who envisions a student-friendly athletic complex around the Kibbie Dome.

And that's just a start.

The project would eventually include new football offices, allowing Erickson to move out of his office, the same one he occupied during his first stint in Moscow in the early 1980s.

Now is the time.

The school, by good fortune or hard work or some combination of the two, finds itself with a football coach capable of driving such a financial bonanza.

And he's more than willing. Erickson knows that his legacy at Idaho depends on leaving the athletic department with the tools to be successful in the future and not simply improving the football team.

"I'm going to do whatever I have to do," he said.

It worked at Oregon State where Erickson pushed improved facilities hard and, despite leaving after four seasons and before the project was completed, the Beavers made $80 million worth of renovations to Reser Stadium before the 2005 season and expanded its capacity.

For comparison's sake, Gonzaga opened the sparkling $25 million McCarthey Athletic Center (capacity: 6,000) in November of 2004. Figure any arena in Moscow to start at that price.

There's no time to delay.

The athletic department may never have another opportunity like this, a chance to revamp its facilities and raise its standard.

It's the biggest must-win game of the new Erickson era.