Jim Dey: Former Illinois pol skis, fishes, hires football coaches

Sometimes the man meets the moment, and Bob Kustra hopes this is one of those occasions.

After a lifetime of accomplishment in education and politics, Kustra was confronted this week with one of the biggest jobs a college president can face these days — hiring a football coach.

"We had good candidates, but no one could compare with the guy who has been so intimately involved with the program," said Kustra, the president of Boise State University in Idaho.

He's referring to Boise State's new head football coach, Bryan Harsin. He'll replace the phenomenally successful Chris Petersen, who last week was named head coach at the University of Washington.

But what's that other name again? Kustra?

If it rings a bell, it should.

The 70-year-old Kustra is a former Illinois state legislator, two-term lieutenant governor under Gov. Jim Edgar and chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. He even ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996, losing in the Republican primary.

Kustra's life in politics ended in 1998 when he vacated the lieutenant governor's office to become president of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. He took the Boise State job in 2003 and absolutely loves the city and the job.

"It is incredible," he said.

Kustra said Boise State, which has an enrollment of 22,000, has enjoyed a "remarkable transition" during his tenure, upgrading its academic programs as well as the quality of its students.

"We're now up to 10 doctoral programs," he said. "We're a high-tech community. A lot of software engineering firms have moved here."

Boise State also has found itself attractive to prospective students beyond the borders of Idaho, attracting 25 percent of its students from out of state.

Kustra said that, in no small measure, his university's rising status is due to the success of its football program, which captured popular imagination with a stunning upset of powerhouse Oklahoma at the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Since then, the football team's run under coach Petersen (92-12 in eight seasons) has made Boise State a household name.

"Football has really boosted us into the category of a major program, even though we're a mid-major program," Kustra said. "ESPN probably deserves as much credit (for raising our status) as any communications program we've employed ourselves."

That's why hiring a new coach is so critical. When Boise State lost Dan Hawkins to the University of Colorado, it struck gold by hiring Petersen, a Hawkins assistant. Now it's going with former Petersen assistant Harsin, who played high school ball in Boise. He later quarterbacked at Boise State and worked as an offensive assistant under Petersen before becoming an offensive coordinator at the University of Texas from 2011-12 and moving on to the head coaching job at Arkansas State.

Harsin signed a five-year, $6.5 million contract, a sum Kustra concedes is astronomical.

"In the abstract, (a million-dollar salary for a coach) is absurd. But if you factor in what that successful football coach's salary gets you in terms of publicity, then it's much easier to justify," he said.

Although a prominent politico by Illinois standards, Kustra was involved in higher education for many years before becoming a university president. He recalls receiving his political science doctorate in 1975 at the University of Illinois "with (the late) Sam Gove as my dissertation adviser."

While serving in the Legislature and as lieutenant governor, Kustra taught at a number of institutions, including UI Chicago, Northwestern and UI Springfield.

So moving into higher education was a logical move for Kustra when his interest in politics waned after losing his Senate bid. He spent three years as president of Eastern Kentucky before moving on to the Council of State Governments, the Midwestern Higher Education Commission and then Boise State.

Although happy in academe, Kustra said, he's bothered by the slow pace of decision-making. He noted Boise State was able to find a new football coach in less than a week while it will take him six months to fill two vacant dean posts.

"There must be a happy medium here," he said. "We take too long to do things."

Kustra said he prefers to avoid search committees when he can, suggesting they often end up hiring the "lowest common denominator" candidate who is least offensive to most of the committee members.

"Probably the best pick is going to be someone who's going to be a little controversial," he said.

Kustra said he keeps track of what's happening in Illinois and is chagrined to see the state mired in corruption issues and financial problems.

"It's really sad. I still think Illinois is a great state," he said.

But Kustra said the first thing people ask him, when they find out about his background, is about political corruption in Illinois, specifically whether he knew the now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Kustra said he can't recall ever meeting Blago but was, of course, quite familiar with another corrupt governor who went to prison, Republican George Ryan.

"They (Ryan and Blago) took the state's reputation down with them," he said.

Although getting up there in years, Kustra said he has no plans to retire, that he's in good health and finds Boise "the most manageable city we've ever lived in."

The moderate climate offers him plenty of opportunities to pursue outdoor sports like skiing and fishing. Kustra also finds other ways to entertain himself, including hosting a weekly radio show (boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner) in which he interviews authors of mostly nonfiction books.

He acknowledged what he's doing now is far different than what he foresaw for himself when he was active in politics. But Kustra said it has proved to be a great move.

"I never thought I'd be doing this at any age, let alone this age," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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