For the football coaches who thrived under athletic director Bill Belknap’s leadership at the University of Idaho, the most relevant aspect of his bio might have been the decade he’d spent walking in their shoes, as an assistant at the University of Arizona. He knew what they needed to succeed.
For retired men’s basketball coach Don Monson, the first thing that comes to mind about Belknap’s background is his eight years in the military, including four as a student at West Point.
“He was very efficient, precise and organized,” Monson said by phone Thursday from his home in Spokane, Washington. “And always on top of the coaching as it was progressing.”
Belknap, who oversaw a golden era of Idaho sports during a 10-year tenure as AD starting in 1978, died July 17 after a battle with congestive heart failure. He was 81.
“It’s an amazing legacy that he had there,” said former Idaho sports information director Dave Cook, who now holds the same position at Eastern Washington. “It was pretty phenomenal what he was able to accomplish.”
In retrospect, Belknap’s first triumph at Idaho came during his rookie year when he hired Monson, a former Vandal player who’d spent only two seasons coaching at the college level. Taking the reins of a program coming off a 4-22 season, Monson fashioned a turnaround within two years and led the Vandals to back-to-back Big Sky Conference titles and an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in 1982.
By that time, Belknap had handed the Idaho football program to a young Dennis Erickson, who needed less time to spark a resurgence, going 32-15 in four seasons and twice making the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs. Belknap also hired Erickson’s successor, Keith Gilbertson, who went 28-9 in three seasons.
The Idaho women’s basketball team was seeing similar success, first under now longtime Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who’d been hired by Belknap’s predecessor, Leon Green, and joined the school the same year Belknap did. When she left after two seasons, Belknap handed the keys to Pat Dobratz, who went 142-39 in six seasons.
“Great hire,” Monson said.
The Vandal men’s basketball program regressed after Monson’s departure in 1983, but enjoyed another boom time starting with Belknap’s hiring of Tim Floyd in 1987.
By the time Cook arrived at Idaho in the mid-1980s, Belknap’s department was a model of efficiency, he said.
“Between him and (assistant AD) Wayne Anderson, everything was well-organized, and they were just incredible mentors for me,” Cook said. “They’d been around a long time and they knew what they were doing. In college athletics, there’s so much turnover at so many positions. When you have somebody there that many years, it makes a big difference.”
Originally from Pennsylvania, Belknap was an assistant football coach at Arizona for 10 years while pursuing a master’s degree, and he served as an associate AD for three years at that school before landing the Idaho job. He later became commissioner of the Southland Conference and spent six years as AD at Wichita State.
Former Idaho track and field coach Mike Keller agrees with Monson that Belknap brought to athletic administration lessons from the military, which probably honed his judge of character and his communication skills.
“He was a guy you could talk to,” Keller said. “I lost track of how many ADs I had — I probably had more than anybody over 25 years. Some of them, I can’t even remember their names. But of all the ADs I had, he and Leon Green were the easiest to deal with, because they were good listeners.”