By Brian Murphy
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho – On Tuesday evening at the Simplot Sports Complex, John Cunningham watched his 7-year-old son play baseball. At the same time, girls played softball and teams used the soccer fields at the sprawling facility in southeast Boise.
“I live on this side of town,” said Cunningham, the president of Block 22, the group that owns the Idaho Steelheads hockey team. “I don’t know what the kids would do without it.”
If you’re a sports fan or enthusiast in the Treasure Valley, like Cunningham, you likely have J.R. Simplot to thank for something. Simplot died at 99 on Sunday at his home in Boise.
Simplot’s legacy – throughout the state, the Treasure Valley and the city of Boise – needs no embellishing.
But his contributions to the Treasure Valley’s athletic landscape cannot be overstated. It is evident from the fields where Cunningham’s son plays to the ice where Cunningham’s team skates.
And nearly everywhere in between.
Simplot, a self-made billionaire, owned roughly 40 percent of the Steelheads through various entities. He dropped the puck for the team’s first game in 1997 and remained a regular presence at games for the rest of his life. In 2004, he spoke to the team before a Kelly Cup Finals game, sharing a story about his life and delivering anecdotes to each of the Steelheads.
“It was a pretty special moment,” said Cunningham, who was in the locker room. “They (J.R. and wife Esther) developed a real appreciation for the game and the guys.”
An avid skier and golfer and fierce competitor, Simplot used his enormous wealth to create opportunities for playing and watching athletics through the area.
In 1953, he came to the rescue of struggling Bogus Basin, buying ski lifts and other improvements and sold them to the ski resort for $1. Today, the main lodge bears his name.
He owned a part of Brundage Mountain Resort near McCall at one point. Idaho IceWorld was created through his donation, as were the fields at the Simplot Sports Complex. The College of Idaho plays its home baseball games at Simplot Stadium.
He supported the Simplot Games in Pocatello, a track and field meet that celebrated its 30th year in February.
Simplot’s involvement was a key to getting the Grove Hotel/Qwest Arena complex built in downtown Boise, where the Steelheads, Stampede basketball team and Burn indoor football team call home.
“Without his help there probably would not be an arena, and that means probably no Steelheads,” said Bill Waller, a current owner of the team and former president of Diamond Sports.
It wasn’t the only arena Simplot helped to build.
In the early 1980s, it was Simplot – and grocery magnate Joe Albertson – who staked their personal fortunes to help Boise State construct the Pavilion (now Taco Bell Arena). Both signed personal guarantees to help Boise State secure financing for the arena.
“It made the difference. When you’ve got that kind of money behind it, then the banks felt comfortable with it,” said Bob Madden, the president of the Bronco Athletic Association since 1980. “The backing of Jack and Joe was critical.”
J.R. and Esther were the lead donors for an expansion at Boise State that created the Simplot Center for Athletic Excellence, an addition that includes the weight room, wrestling room, women’s locker room and offices. They owned lifetime seat at Taco Bell Arena, endowed an athletic scholarship and frequently attended at Bronco football games.
Simplot went to the Fiesta Bowl, where he suffered a serious fall after the game. He also attended the Albertsons Boise Open, a Nationwide Tour golf tournament, often sitting beyond the 18th green.
“He was definitely a sports fan and appreciated what could be learned from involvement in intercollegiate athletics,” Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier said. “He definitely enjoyed the competition.”
But sports also provided something else to Simplot, Waller said.
“It brought a little excitement and something diverse to this huge conglomerate that he had,” Waller said. “To be able to have your picture there, to have a jersey with the Simplot name on the back, the championship rings, those things mean something, especially as you get in your twilight years.”
We, Treasure Valley sports fans, are a lot better off because those things meant a little to J.R. Simplot.