A decade ago, Bobby Hauck and Matt Farley were two of the hottest coaches in the FCS.
Both had returned to their alma mater — Hauck at Montana, Farley at Northern Iowa — to take the football head coaching job soon after the turn of the century.
Both had been to national championship games. They both lost those games — UM in 2004, 2008 and 2009, UNI in 2005 — but for the Grizzlies and the Panthers, both coaches were establishing a tradition of excellence.
But, nearly nine years ago, their paths diverged. Farley stayed at Northern Iowa, built the team into a consistent contender, and is now one of the longest-tenured coaches in all of Division I.
Hauck left Montana for UNLV, and the program he left behind crumbled into mediocrity and scandal.
So, of course, Hauck’s first game back at Montana doesn’t just have him and the Grizzlies facing off against any old team. For the first time, he’ll be taking on Farley and the program that he’s built, the quantum echo of what could have been at Montana.
Hauck will try to resurrect that echo starting tonight, when the No. 25 Griz kick off against Farley’s No. 13 Northern Iowa under the lights at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“It’s been seven years and eight months since I’ve been out there with our guys, and I’m really looking forward to it,” Hauck said [Editor’s note: It’s been eight years and eight months since the last game Hauck coached at Montana]. “The thing I remember most is it’s a lot of fun in that stadium. We’re going to have fun. Hopefully everybody watching will.”
It’s been a long, winding road for both Hauck and the Montana football program after the coach left following a loss to Villanova in the 2009 national championship. Hauck won seven games with UNLV in 2013, the Rebels’ first winning season since 2000, but resigned the next year after winning just two games. He moved to San Diego State for the next three years, serving as the special teams coordinator and associate head coach.
The Grizzlies, who had won seven conference championships in seven years under Hauck, would win just one more, a 2011 title that was soon vacated as part of a sexual-assault scandal that subsumed the team — and the town of Missoula — and that some say started under Hauck’s watch.
After Bob Stitt failed in a three-year attempt to return the Grizzlies to dominance, Montana rehired Hauck on November 30, 2017. It’s no surprise that Hauck picked that motto — return to dominance — to mark his return to the Griz.
For Hauck’s first game back, he’ll have the advantage of surprise against Farley and his Northern Iowa Panthers. There’s no tape of this Montana team and, thanks, to Hauck’s closely-guarded plans, not many indications of what the Grizzlies will try strategically and schematically.
“Part of the gamesmanship of this whole thing is adjustments,” Farley said. “He gets the first move, and then we’re going to have to start moving our chess pieces around as we see fit, and then he’ll make his adjustments. But right now, he gets the first move because of the unknowns, so we’ll have to show our hand and then we’ll move from there.”
That — and the home-field advantage at Washington-Grizzly — might be the biggest advantage Montana has going into this game. Northern Iowa made it to the second round of the FCS playoffs last year, and return their starting quarterback (Eli Dunne), leading rusher (Marcus Weymiller) and top pass-rusher (Rickey Neal Jr.). That will make the Panthers a tough matchup, and a good measuring stick, for a Montana team that’s had quite a bit of change since last season, even beyond the coaching staff.
Dalton Sneed will start at quarterback for UM after last year’s starter and offensive MVP, Gresch Jensen, transferred following spring practice. Sneed, who was recruited to UNLV by Hauck before transferring to Fort Scott CC and then Montana, is a dual-threat. He’s certainly capable of making the plays needed to keep Montana’s offense moving, and has Division-I starting experience from his time at UNLV.
The problem is that he’ll be playing behind a line that Hauck flatly said is “an area of major concern” Monday at his press conference. Guard Angel Villanueva was the only returning starter, and injuries and departures have made the situation worse. Villanueva struggled with a back issue early in fall camp. Sophomore left tackle Conlan Beaver lost a noticeable amount of weight after a battle with mono during the summer. Projected starting guard Thayne Jackson left the program a week into fall camp. Junior Dallas Hart suffered both hand/arm and knee injury in recent weeks and is not listed on the depth chart.
According to a depth chart released this week, Villanueva will be starting alongside three underclassmen — Beaver, redshirt freshman Colten Keintz and redshirt sophomore Dylan Eickmeyer — and center Cody Meyer, a redshirt junior former walk-on who was only recently awarded a scholarship.
They’ll have to slow down Neal, one of the best pass-rushers in the country at the FCS level.
“It’s hard to pretend out there,” Hauck said. “You either block people or you don’t, and we need to block people. If you don’t block people, you don’t get plays going, and you don’t generate yards and points, and you lose games.”
It was also announced on Friday that leading returning rusher Jeremy Calhoun will be suspended for two games for breaking the student-athlete code of conduct, relating to his role in a bar fight back in May. Redshirt freshman transfer Adam Eastwood will start at running back instead, with Alijah Lee backing him up.
The defense is a little bit more settled for the Griz. Hauck said during the week that star linebacker Josh Buss should be able to play a little, a welcome relief for Griz fans who had suffered through the injury saga surrounding the Big Sky Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
The defensive line and the safeties are areas of strength and depth for Montana, while the questions will focus on the linebackers — especially if Buss doesn’t play much — and the cornerback spot, where unproven Dareon Nash and former wide receiver Justin Calhoun will start.
Dunne was an accurate passer last year, and returns Weymiller and preseason first-team All-MVC pick Briley Moore at tight end.
“The quarterback’s a good player,” Hauck said. “Anytime you have a veteran at that position, it helps, particularly when they’re going on the road to open the season. I think he’ll handle things well. He’s played in a lot of big environments.”
The environment, and the stakes, won’t get much bigger than tonight at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. No one knows exactly what Hauck’s second tenure at Montana will look like, whether it will end ignominiously again or whether he’ll recapture his old glory and return the Griz to dominance.
“We’re excited about the season starting, certainly,” Hauck said. “There will be a lot of buzz, there’s been a lot of buzz around the state and around town, but as coaches, we’d rather we had three more weeks of preparation, and these guys are ready to play somebody else. They’re the ones that count, so we’ll tee it up Saturday and see what happens.”
Andrew Houghton is a freelance journalist providing Montana football content for Skyline Sports this fall. Photos by Lacey Young, Jason Bacaj and Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.