University of Idaho athletic director Terry Gawlik recently sat down with the Lewiston Tribune for a wide-ranging interview, during which the Vandal boss provided updates on what’s been an overall juggling act of a second year at the helm.
LMT: It’s been about a year since we last spoke. What do you know now relating to your job that you wish you did about a year ago?
TG: When you take a job and then however many months into it, six months, you have a major pandemic, you have to shift gears and handle the pandemic. Kudos again to our athletic training staff and our university and our president for all the things we put into play to allow our student-athletes and students to attend in-person classes if they so choose. I mean, our campus knocked it out of the park. I’ll also say that the Big Sky Conference, we all worked together as a unit as best we could. Obviously, you have however many different states in our league and different rules, and you’re trying to come up with a way that our student-athletes could participate in the spring.
It was really challenging to run all the sports in the spring, in a good way. It just brought everybody together and everybody pitched in, and people wore a lot different hats than they normally do. That’s one experience I hope we never have to go through again.
LMT: Did concerns really ever start to smooth out during the COVID era? Or, how much is everything still a work in progress with protocols, budget, etc.?
TG: One thing it allowed us to do in our department in particular, is it gave me the opportunity to work closer with a lot of people, including the head coaches. As soon as we started making protocols and decisions about COVID, we started having weekly Zoom meetings and continued that from March 20 all the way to a month ago. That was good because you get to know people, you get connected and you encourage people to lean on each other, and that happened.
Now, I was able to sparse out some duties to my staff. I gave some folks different titles and we brought on Matt Martin, who’s doing our fundraising for the (ICCU) Arena, and still is. We still have a ways to go with that. I think I’ve been busier the last three months than I was during COVID. Probably not as busy as when I first got to Idaho, because I was just trying to learn the structure.
But of course, we’re back at it with golf outings, donor visits. Everything is just cranked up and it’s been really the last couple of months.
LMT: Can you plot out what the COVID-19 protocols will be for the fall?
TG: We’re working through right now what our plans will be for the fall, not only as an institution but the Big Sky Conference. I was just appointed to the health and safety committee, so I’ll be more ingrained in that experience.
For now, of course, we’re encouraging. We cannot mandate anybody to take the vaccine. If they choose not to, that’s cool too. They will just have to go through protocols right now. As we’ve done in the past, you need to be tested three times a week with the antigen or one time with the PCR.
We’re still masking up in our training room because we want to make sure people are protected whether you have the vaccine or not. We’ve put some protocols in place, but it’s a work in progress. We’re waiting on the NCAA, what they’re going to suggest. I don’t think they’re going to have a mandate. The same will probably be true for the conference. They’ll have suggestions. We’ll handle it as best we can.
I know there’s concern of a loss of games, loss of opportunities, given that there’s a different variant out there now that’s pretty high-impact on people. I can’t make people do something they don’t want to do, nor do I want to try to do that. So we’ll just try to encourage the folks that feel comfortable doing it to get the vaccine, and if they don’t, then there’s some other protocols they have to follow.
LMT: Is there anything being prioritized within the athletic department right now?
TG: We’re always working on opportunities to have enhancements at our facilities. We just opened up our new outdoor turf, and obviously we have a new basketball venue that’s also going to host concerts. We’re looking at bringing in some shows and events. We’re also working on the opportunity to have our indoor track resurfaced for competition, and for tennis as well in there. We’re fundraising for that, the tennis courts in particular. The track surface is funded by a generous person that’s going to be doing that, or a couple. That’s awesome, any kind of improvements we can make.
You probably also saw the Big Sky Conference just signed a (television) agreement with ESPN. And although that’s great, we had a six-hour meeting (July 21) with the ESPN representative. There’s lots of moving parts. We’re already short-staffed because somebody chose to depart, but also, we’re going to have to ante up with staff because ESPN needs some enhancements. There’s an upgrade there, an opportunity to showcase our conference and our institution, which also should relate to future competitive success. Quite frankly, all these things add up to financial burdens that we’re always trying to fundraise. We need help, we need former alumni, donors, boosters, everybody to step up. We need people in the venue, we need people coming to our games.
LMT: Can you speak on how the facility renovations — the football practice turf, swim center, Memorial Gym floor — were spurred? Was that something you helped initiate? And looking ahead, are you looking at more stuff to overhaul in the near future?
TG: You’re always looking at things to overhaul, it’s just if you have the opportunity of folks stepping up to help you get there. And that’s what we had in these cases. From the minute I stepped on campus I knew the first priority was the outdoor turf. We weren’t able to have the types of practices we wanted on the outdoor turf. That’s not just affecting us. It was women’s soccer and of course football for our sports, but also campus. The students on campus use that outdoor turf at a rate of about 60 percent versus us using it the other 40. That helps all the students. We’re actually going to have a concert out there on the turf. We’ll cover it up.
I’ll give a shout-out to our (administration). They found ways to help us renovate some of the locker rooms. So that’s been going on this summer too. One of the projects we have in the hopper is we have to find a way to get our equipment room better storage space. There’s the cool little cubes you can stack — they move, they slide. We need to invest in those. Then, honestly at the end of the day, ESPN is going to be a big challenge. If we want to embrace it the right kind of way, it’s not only going to take monetary help from dollars and resources, but it’s going to be a people resource too. We can’t have one guy running all the switchers and being the producer. If something goes down, that one guy can’t solve everything.
LMT: Does it feel like more things are continuously added to your plate? I imagine the last year’s been kind of a juggling act. Have the particulars, the day-to-day, surrounding your job shifted a bit?
TG: Did we see the ESPN thing coming? Well yeah, we had the opportunity to look at vendors, but when it happens, then all of a sudden, we gotta hit high gear and we’ve gotta get all the things in place because we’ve got games coming up pretty soon. It’s right around the corner. We got folks on campus already working out, etc. So it seems like we get past one thing and there’s something else that gets added to our plate.
But that’s athletics. I mean, we’re all competitive. We’re all in this business for the student-athletes and to give them the best opportunity that we can provide possible. I’m so proud of our athletes for all the academic accomplishments. I just got word today that we got awarded some national award for the track programs and had one for the tennis program, the swim program. If you can balance those things, that’s what’s really, really rewarding. And giving that opportunity for young people to not only excel in the classroom, but work as a team, excel on the courts, compete, gain friendships for life and graduate with a degree that’s going to make them successful.
LMT: Obviously the school, and kind of everybody, is facing a deficit considering the last year. Can you speak at this point on how much of a total hit, and in some ways, how were advances made or losses mitigated?
TG: During COVID, obviously, not having fans or spectators at the level we’re used to was a big hit for us. I don’t have the numbers on top of my head. But the opportunity to bring fans back, hopefully — keeping our fingers crossed that it’s at full capacity. That’ll be in conjunction with local (health guidelines). At this point, we want that to go forward, and that’s our plan right now. We have the opportunity to have adult beverages in our venues, so that’ll be an opportunity to make some budget adjustments there, so to speak.
We’re always looking for innovative ways that we can enhance the experience for the fans as well. Even looking at the ICCU Arena, the new opportunities there. What do we want for the atmosphere in there? I was in the venue yesterday with ESPN. We spent six hours with an ESPN rep, and we talked about, ‘Where should we have the camera? What view do we want? How do we want to zoom in?’ It’s going to be a rocking place, I can tell you that. There’s going to be no bad seat. But I want to hear it. They were painting the court yesterday. It’s not painted totally, but I can see the video board in the middle, and now, how do we use that to our advantage? We’re looking at all those types of things. People power is going to have to drive that as well. Bear with us as we may have some snafus about what’s going to work best on the video board. All those things, we’re working on that.
LMT: How much of a beacon does that ICCU Arena represent for the department right now?
TG: It’s a big beacon, not only for athletics but for the institution and the community, and the state for that matter. It’s a beautiful building. I took the architect out to dinner when he came up to visit and the head oversight gentleman from St. Louis. I said, ‘Honestly, guys, what’s been your favorite building to work on?’ And they said, ‘The ICCU Arena in Moscow.’ And they’re national companies. This is Hastings+Chivetta and they know what they’re doing. It’s a fantastic facility that we need to make sure we produce inside up to the level of what that building deserves.
LMT: In terms of the athletic programs themselves, how do you define success? Is it the balance of academics, culture and athletic achievements?
TG: The success everybody points to as you well know is wins and losses. Yes, that’s very important. But you hit on the others as well. Student-athlete success in the classroom, highly important to me, highly important to our institution, coaches and our student-athletes. That’s why you come to Idaho — to get a degree, to graduate. Culture, very important within the locker room, on the court, the pitch, wherever you’re playing. I honestly am worried about maintaining culture when the transfer portal is out there, and quite frankly, with name, image and likeness. I hope that doesn’t affect our culture. We’re going to have to find ways to manage that. The young people we work with, I know they’re excited about the opportunity but we want to make sure they’re using it properly, following all the protocols and rules and not being caught in a situation where they misspoke or mis-signed with somebody, or did something that’s not conducive to what we want to sell at Idaho, so to speak, our brand.
Name, image and likeness for them is important, but also name, image and likeness for the University of Idaho is important as well. Those are all the things you worry about every day. A lot of them you don’t have control over, you just have to manage them. So, we’re working on policy right now for name, image and likeness. That has a lot of moving parts to it as well. As a league, we also just dropped our signing with INFLCR, so we’ll be using them to educate, help monitor and basically train the student-athletes to be better influencers, if you will.
Yesterday (July 21), as a staff, we met and drafted the first official (NIL) draft and we’re meeting with our legal department next week, so it is a work in progress. I don’t put a timeline on everything that we have to look at legally because it takes a little bit of digging, but rightfully so, I want to make sure that we run it through all the processes. But I’ll say this: Given what I’ve seen from other institutions, even if we came out with it a week from Friday, it’s going to change because it’s ever-changing. We haven’t even had a meeting yet with INFLCR. I don’t know what they’re going to suggest we do.
LMT: For a team that obviously has struggled, like men’s basketball, how would you define an improvement next year?
TG: Well, of course, we’re all competitive — the coaches, the student-athletes, myself. If I could snap my fingers and we’d be automatically winning the conference championship, that’d be awesome. But we all know it takes a village, it takes time if you’re going to build it right. You want to have integrity, rule-following. You want those student-athletes to succeed. I’m very proud of our current coaching staff. Zac Claus has led them from in the depths of not being very successful in the APR, to now we’re out of the woods. We’re not at the top, but we’re getting there. They put in the hours and time. That’s awesome leadership. For me, I want to see that progress. So, when I walk down the hall and I see the excitement that we have with our basketball coaching staff and how hard they’re working, and the recruits we’re actually bringing in for visits. You just have to work hard, and I see that every day. I see the excitement, and I see the integrity they’re building it with, and the young people that want to play together. To me, if you give effort every day, and I want to see it from one end of the court to the other. And I want to see it in the recruiting, and I want to see it in the classroom. If you can do all those things, you’re going to end up succeeding.
LMT: How do you think the Supreme Court case (regarding NIL) is going to change college athletics in general?
TG: Oh my. I don’t even want to … look what name, image and likeness has done, the firestorm. I can only imagine what the next shoe to drop will be and where that will go. In the NCAA, basically these institutions build the manual, put in the rules and you always talk about unintended consequences. Now, you’re doing name, image and likeness and look at all the unintended consequences. I don’t believe we’re going to have an NIL rule here in Idaho as a state, so that makes us different from other states.
LMT: We touched on donations, funding a little bit and how that’s always a priority, and especially when you were hired here. Do you have a blueprint for invigorating the Vandal Scholarship Fund, or anything that’s been new to improve donations?
TG: (Senior associate athletic director/VSF executive director) Mahmood Sheikh and his staff have helped me tremendously with educating me on who everybody is and meeting with them. I started that process and then it got shut down and flipped to Zoom, and now we’re back out. I’m super excited to travel down next week for the Buhl Pigout. But we also had some great events down in Boise, up in Hayden Lake — (coach) Dennis Erickson’s party, to give him accolades for his induction into the (college football) hall of fame. That was a fun event, had a lot of fun golfing. We also had a great event in Weiser, lots of great people down there. You can tell everybody’s excited, everybody’s energized. Everybody wants to get back up — or so they told me. I hope they come through with it — to the Kibbie Dome and see each other and tailgate and do all the things we normally do. It’s just been a fun process getting back with folks. And I’ll be honest, getting out and doing a little fly fishing around the state, talking to folks about that. We have quite a few donors that do that. I feel like we’re on track to get back to where I would’ve liked to have been at the end of 19-20.
LMT: A few weeks ago minor NCAA sanctions were imposed (relating to misdistributed financial aid). Did those issues get lost in translation with the drop to FCS, an outgoing/incoming athletic director?
TG: I’d actually say that it’s just works in progress that show you we have a really good compliance department who reports to our legal staff. I tasked them and so has the legal staff that we want to dig in and we want to find what we weren’t doing correctly. We’re uncovering things unfortunately, but if we don’t turn in violations, then we don’t have a staff that’s doing their job. We’re doing that as we move along and actually enhancing some offices on campus to help us eliminate some types of problems.
LMT: Now almost two years fully in, what’s something you didn’t hear discussed about much before you get into the job, but then you find it’s a cherished part of the post?
TG: I honestly believe it all goes back to the people you work with, and I have good people. I’m really excited about the group I have. When you have good people around you, they motivate you. I don’t have to ask people to step up. They’ll volunteer. We were having a struggle putting down the field in the Kibbie Dome because the folks we usually hire to help us put the turf down, they’re fighting fires. I can sit here and tell you five people on the staff, and including my husband, (who said), ‘Well, tell us what to do. When do we need to show up?’ If you’re working in a place like that, to me, that makes it fun to go to work every day.
LMT: On the flip side, the most difficult part would probably be that there’s so many moving pieces each day?
TG: I think what’s difficult and challenging not only for me, but others, I’ve really stretched people. And when you’re stretched, you can sometimes become a jack of all trades and a master of none. Sometimes there are times where you have to say, ‘Look, I have to put this down because I need to prioritize.’ That’s what we do at an institution the size of ours. As I said, when you have people alongside you to give you advice, don’t try to silo it. I’ve been breaking down silos since I got there and communication is really important, and letting people know you appreciate them, what they do and you appreciate them stepping up.