MOSCOW, Idaho – Rob Spear thought he left athletics behind nearly 30 years ago, but the Butte Central graduate and former College of Great Falls basketball player reluctantly accepted the director of athletics post at the University of Idaho in January 2004.
“I didn’t realize at the time that I missed it and how much of a part of my life it was for me. I think being able to get back into my passion was a very rewarding thing and I’m very lucky. Gary (Michael) was certainly instrumental in my career,” Spear said of the former interim president at the University of Idaho.
Spear joined the staff at UI in 1989 as an internal auditor and worked his way to interim assistant financial vice president. He was eventually named the assistant vice president for university outreach in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Since assuming the role of athletic director, Spear has spearheaded efforts to improve the Vandals’ Kibbie Dome, overseen conference changes and guided numerous winning seasons and championships across the board. He’s all in at Idaho but quick to credit his home state for the upbringing that led him here.
“It’s been a great run for me, a great ride, but my roots are always in Montana and I’m proud to say I’m from Butte, Montana,” he said. “All those things I’m talking about with the blue collar, the work ethic, that’s certainly the environment I grew up in in Montana. They call it ‘Butte tough’ and I think that is true, it is Butte tough. People there know how to work, they know how to persevere, how to make the best of what they have, and it was nice for me to grow up in that environment and really nice for me to have that be the foundation of what I’m about as well.”
It was that blue-collar environment that taught Spear the value of hard work and how to relay that on the athletic fields. A star basketball player and track and field athlete for the Butte Central Maroons, Spear joined the College of Great Falls basketball program in the late 1970s and a contract playing for George Karl and the Montana Golden Nuggets of the CBA.
Though an injury ended his playing career, Spear looks back on those days in Butte and Great Falls with pride.
“I guess the older I get the better I was, is what I say. I joke that I was pre-Google so you can’t really go back and see if I was any good or not,” laughed Spear. “I remember it was an opportunity for a kid like me who grew up in a mining family to branch out and get an education. That’s why I’m so passionate about intercollegiate athletics: It allows first-generation college kids to go to school, get an education and change the course of their family’s lives. I’m a living example of that.”
It’s that level of thinking that has led Spear to find success leading the Vandals. He returned to his Montana roots in late 2012, hiring former Helena Capital and Carroll College quarterback Paul Petrino as head coach of the Idaho football program.
“It is a name, when you think of the Petrino name you think of coaching, probably football more than any other sport. They’ve certainly been very accomplished as a family and set their mark wherever they’ve been, and we’re lucky to have Paul here,” said Spear.
Together, the Butte boys (Petrino was also born in Butte) have set a new standard for Vandal football. After consecutive one-win seasons, Petrino turned the corner in 2015, winning four games, but more importantly, cleaning up the program’s academic struggles.
Last season was the program’s best since 1998, matching the nine wins posted those 18 years prior. Petrino led the Vandals to the 2016 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, scoring the most points in the country in the postseason in a 61-50 victory over Colorado State.
“He was the perfect fit when he took over the program. We needed somebody that could come in that was going to bring great accountability, somebody that was going to bring a toughness about them, somebody that was going to stay the course, somebody that believed in his system and somebody that came from a proven system,” said Spear. “Paul checked all the boxes and has certainly come in here and done an unbelievable job. I love what he does every single day. He brings a great sense of pride, work ethic, he’s genuine, he’s authentic and I think that’s what you get from Montana people. Paul has really come in and taken this program to another level.”
It’s a climb Petrino has made with numerous Montana connections on his coaching staff: former Carroll college player and coach Kris Cinkovich, longtime Montana high school coach Troy Purcell, former Helena Capital and Montana State defensive star Bobby Daly, and former Montana Grizzly defensive coaches Mike Breske and Aric Williams.
Spear says those Treasure State ties bond the football staff, and it’s easy to see the trust they have in one another.
“Montana people are very genuine and authentic. What you see is what you get, and, to a certain extent, Idaho people appreciate that type of personality, as well. There’s no phoniness to Coach Petrino, his staff, how we approach it. We’re all business and blue collar,” Spear said. “I think people in the northwest, people in Idaho, people in Montana, they can all really appreciate that style.”
It’s those same traits that landed Spear the position of head man with Vandal athletics 13 years ago, but he says credit belongs to those Montana legends before him.
“I’ve always paid attention to the legacy of coaches in Butte, whether it was Sonny Lubick or Sonny Holland and Don Reid and all those guys on the football side. But you can’t forget the basketball side where you look over when Montana had a great run of tremendous basketball coaches who have gone on to do great things,” he said. “Montana has been a great place for people to get their start and really develop, and I think it set the foundation for their careers.”
Count Spear in that list of athletic success stories, even if he thought his time in sports was complete decades ago.