The first time I came to the Idaho Palouse, a California kid on a college tour of the middle of nowhere, the Kibbie Dome was the first thing I saw of the University of Idaho. Driving east on Highway 8 and rounding the bend at the Washington state line, its grand, curving arch pops out of the monotonous landscape of rolling hills and snow-dusted wheat fields.
A 35-year-old, multi-million-dollar monument to American-Style Football, the Kibbie is a campus landmark. It's a point of pride for UI -- it's the second-largest university-owned dome in America, or so the tour maps proclaim. Erected during the dying days of the "multi-purpose stadium" movement, the Kibbie was indeed intended to house the football and basketball programs in a single building.
Every year, as the calendar turns from December to January, the university's groundskeepers swarm across the unnaturally-green artificial turf and roll it up like a pastry. Out come the temporary bleachers, scorers' tables and heavy black curtains. Down goes the shining hardwood -- and the Dome is magically transformed into the Cowan Spectrum, home court for the Idaho Vandals basketball teams.
There's plenty of basketball history in the Dome, because it's not some Johnny-come-lately sports-bubble edifice. It's an honest-to-goodness relic of the Gerald Ford administration. Idaho's been playing there since its opening in 1975, and Big Sky titles and NCAA berths have been decided under the Kibbie's barrel vault. Don Monson, Larry Eustachy and Kermit Davis coached Idaho teams there. Orlando Lightfoot dropped 50 points on Gonzaga there -- yes, that
Gonzaga. Ten thousand screaming fans packed rickety steel bleachers there as Monson's 1981-82 Vandals, led by Phil Hopson, stormed to the Sweet 16. That's still the all-time pinnacle of Idaho hoops.
From afar, the Kibbie is truly an impressive sight, with its unique domed summit looming 150 feet above the university campus. But come closer, and the illusion is dispelled. Patchy plywood walls betray years of deferred maintenance, there's unpainted concrete everywhere, and a Brutalist two-story office complex now dominates the building's east end. Apparently the architect assumed his project would be built in Moscow, USSR. A hallowed hall of basketball, the Kibbie Dome will never be.
To find the true spirit of Idaho basketball I walk two blocks east, toward the university's core. There, in a cluster of red-brick buildings that wouldn't seem out of place in the Ivy League or Atlantic-10, stands an 80-year-old living relic -- Memorial Gymnasium.
Penn has The Palestra, Butler has Hinkle Fieldhouse... Idaho has Mem Gym.
But nobody else will probably ever mention them in the same breath. Like those storied arenas, however, Memorial Gym is on the National Register of Historic Places. And Memorial Gym still plays host to Division I college basketball too.
Until football wraps up its season, Idaho's gridiron gang has dibs on the Dome. The floor can't go down until the fake grass comes up. What are the dispossessed hoops teams to do for the non-conference season? There's an option right at home. From the first exhibition game in November until the final snap of football, the Vandals step back in time and take to the worn-down hardwood of Mem Gym.
Unlike the gargantuan Dome, Memorial Gym is built on a human scale. Whimsical athletic gargoyles hang above the entrance stairs -- testament to a time when ornamentation wasn't a dirty word. Stained-glass windows lend a religious tenor to the experience and its signature tower looks kind of like a steeple if you squint just right. (No cross, though. This is a public university.)
Walking inside the front door, you're greeted by plaques bearing the names of Idahoans who fell on foreign fields, from San Juan Hill to Khe Sanh. It's a solemn reminder to visitors that the "Memorial" in Memorial Gymnasium is not just pro forma.
Climb the stairs to court level -- yes, at Mem Gym the court is on the second floor -- and the time warp is complete. Steep spectator balconies cling to the sides of the court and backboards hang from the roof's iron latticework. At the far end, there's a curtained stage. (I wonder if they've ever tried holding plays as pregame entertainment. Waiting for the game? See "Waiting for Godot"!)
The faded-crimson walls seem to exude history, and perhaps the greatest player ever to wear silver and gold played his entire intercollegiate career between them. Gus Johnson was a Vandal for just a single season -- 1962-63... but oh, what a season it was. He averaged an absurd 19 points and 20 rebounds per game, leading his team to a 20-6 record and earning All-America honors.
Idaho was independent that year and didn't land a post-season invite, but Johnson was picked 10th in the NBA Draft by the Baltimore Bullets. He played 11 years in the pros, including five All-Star Games and a Finals appearance. Johnson still holds Idaho's single-season rebound record with 466 boards -- nobody else has even come close. His #43
jersey hangs from the Cowan Spectrum rafters.
Watching a game in Mem Gym is an experience every true hoops fan should enjoy... at least once. It's an intimate place that seats just 1,500. But there's actually room for nearly 2,000. The fire marshal cuts off the fun because there aren't enough emergency exits. With the grandstands perched over the sidelines, spectators get a unique perspective on the game, and the tight confines allow small crowds to create a deafening home-court advantage.
Just ask Portland, who came into Mem Gym this December ranked No. 25 in the country. All of us on press row expected a pitched battle between two of the best teams in the Pacific Northwest; Eric Reveno's squad had just ripped off a string of three Red Line Upsets powered by stifling defense and precision shooting. It promised to be Idaho's toughest non-con test of the season.
Instead, what we saw was utter domination. A sellout crowd urged their Vandals on, while the Pilots looked shell-shocked, utterly unready to play basketball in a Jazz Age shoebox. At halftime, football coach Robb Akey stepped to center-court and announced his team's berth in the Humanitarian Bowl. The roar was nearly enough to shake the old girl to pieces. Idaho ran Portland out of the gym, winning by 20 points in a game that looks like the premature summit of the Vandals' season, in 20-20 retrospect. It was Idaho's first win over a ranked foe since 1982.
Now in its 82nd year, "The House That Gus Johnson Built" still holds the power to stun.
The story of Idaho basketball on the court is a tale of brief, bright flashes of greatness -- with decades of mediocrity and failure in between. The Vandals' all-time record is sub-.500, at 1185-1311. Two decades separate this season from the last time Idaho earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Vandals have just one win in six tries there. Until Don Verlin took the helm last year and led an overachieving bunch of transfers to a 17-16 record, the Vandals hadn't recorded a single winning season in the 21st century.
Part of the blame lies with geography. Idaho basketball teams have always toiled in relative obscurity, playing second fiddle even within its own region. Just 10 miles away on the other side of the state line, the glitz and glory of power-conference hoops are on display at Washington State University, a member of the decidedly above-Red-Line Pac-10. Why play in the lowly WAC when you can square off against Cal, UCLA and Arizona on national TV?
It wasn't always that way. From 1922 to 1959, the Vandals were part of the big-time Pacific Coast Conference, duking it out in the Northern Division with the Washington and Oregon schools. They won two league titles in the 1920s, and narrowly lost out to the Golden Bears in 1946.
When the PCC collapsed, Idaho was left out in the cold. Five years of independent purgatory followed, before the Vandals joined with five other regional schools to form the Big Sky Conference in 1964.
But how did the University of Idaho end up almost in Washington? There lies UI's founding mythology, a tale of politics, sectionalism and secession. It's a grand accident of history.
Back in the 1880s, Idaho was just a territory and the rugged, impassable Salmon River Mountains split its panhandle region from Boise and the territorial government. Residents of northern Idaho felt more connected to Spokane than to their own territory -- and in 1886, petitioned to secede and join Washington state. The bill actually passed Congress, but fell victim to President Grover Cleveland's pocket veto. Northern Idaho's bad feelings were not assuaged.
Three years later, in a move explicitly deemed "an olive branch of peace," the Legislature voted to place the territory's new land-grant university in Moscow --then northern Idaho's largest settlement, a farming town on the Washington border. In other words, it was a political sop to keep the north firmly attached. It worked, because the secession talk died out. In 1892, the University of Idaho opened its doors and today, 10,000 students fill its lecture halls, dorms and sports arenas.
But another piece of the bad-hoops puzzle, one the university's much less likely to talk about, is its single-minded focus on American-Style Football. Make no mistake, everything else in sports is second-fiddle here. Case in point: the Dome is undergoing a multi-million-dollar football-oriented renovation, while plans for a new, stand-alone basketball arena are stalled out waiting for money. Until that day, Basketball Freedom Day, Idaho hoops will remain a schizophrenic beast -- playing half its season in one place, half in another.
Still, though it will never have the grand tradition and historic atmosphere of Memorial Gym, the Cowan Spectrum is a perfectly good place to watch college basketball. I can't hate on it too much, because my own journey with Idaho hoops began there last January.
I was a brand-new transfer student still trying to find my way around, but I knew enough to go watch some college hoops. I cheered myself hoarse in the student section as the Vandals pulled off a conference win over New Mexico State... and that game lit a fire somewhere within me. I was, after all, a journalism student. So why not write about what I saw?
Idaho's very next game was against the Vandals' most hated foe -- Boise State University. The rivalry, in essence, dates back to UI's founding myth, for a clash between UI and BSU is a stand-in for the intra-state north-south rivalry that refuses to die. Moreover, Boise State is everything that the University of Idaho isn't: big, new, urban, commuter, tradition-free. When the two teams take the court together, the pure hate is palpable.
For that game, I wasn't screaming obscenities from the stands -- I was sitting with my laptop on Press Row. For that week, I'd launched a WordPress blog and a Twitter account, calling myself Vandal Nation
and promising the most obsessive coverage of Idaho basketball I could muster. The SID, much to my amazement, credentialed me.
But going in, the "rivalry" was about as lopsided as those NCAA No. 1 vs. 16 games. The Vandals hadn't defeated Boise State in nearly a decade. Two entire coaching staffs had come and gone without a victory over the Broncos.
That night was different.
Boise State held an early edge, as the defending conference champions used their big guns to pound the ball in the paint. But the home team charged back with a 9-0 run and the Vandals went into the locker room with a 3-point lead. The scent of upset was in the air.
The second half was all Idaho. With second-generation star Mac Hopson dishing up to Kashif Watson and Brandon Wiley, the Vandals pushed their lead to 12 points three times -- and a pair of free throws from Trevor Morris iced the game with 12 seconds left.
The scoreboard read Idaho 63, Boise State 59. The buzzer sounded. The 4,700 Vandal fans exploded, as years of humiliation were erased when the backboards flashed red. The jam-packed student section stormed the floor to celebrate with their team in a moment of mass catharsis.
I hesitated for a moment, then leaped the media table to join them. Credential be damned -- my emotional investment in the Vandals had paid its first dividend.