The Montana Grizzlies drafted a blueprint that many small schools throughout America have tried to replicate over the last 25 years. North Dakota State has used a similar plan to thrust its football program into the stratosphere.
On Saturday, two of the most storied and successful programs in the history of the Football Championship Subdivision will square off for the first time in Missoula as Division I members. The game will be featured on ESPN as the College Football Kickoff, a showcase of two premier FCS schools that play the first Division I game of the fall a week before anyone else kicks off their seasons.
“You are seeing two perennial powers play, which happens from time to time, but to see them play the first game of the season on a weekend when no one else is playing and to do it on national TV, I think it’s as close as you can get in the regular season to a national championship-type environment,” Damani Leech, managing director for championships and alliances, said earlier this week.
Montana’s rise began under Don Read in the late 1980s and burst onto the national scene in the mid-1990s. Between 1993 and 2009, the Grizzlies experienced four coaching changes yet still qualified for the playoffs every season, winning the Big Sky Conference 15 times. The Grizzlies advanced to the national title game in 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2009, winning it all in 1995 and 2001.
The last time North Dakota State played in Missoula, the Bison were a Division II team steeped in tradition. NDSU pulled out a 25-24 victory at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 2003, one of just 23 losses in 202 outings since the venue opened in 1986.
Since moving up to Division I in 2004, NDSU’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. North Dakota State has won 58 of its last 61 games, a streak that includes five straight wins over FBS opponents, 16 straight postseason victories and an NCAA record four straight national championships. Following the 2013 national title, head coach Craig Bohl bolted for Wyoming. The Bison didn’t miss a beat, posting a 15-1 record under Chris Klieman to keep the dynasty rolling.
“NDSU’s ascent is a great road map for building relevance for your program but I would argue that Montana has helped draw that road map as well,” Montana athletic director Kent Haslam said earlier this week. “We did our part to show that this is a great subdivision for football and football is played very well. It is remarkable what they’ve done. It’s been a model of consistency, stability within the department, stability within the coaching staff, fans and a community that are passionate and committed to having the program succeed. It certainly is a formula we’ve tried to follow and we’ve continued to try to follow. We have a lot in common. We’ve both put out a great roadmap for others to follow.”
Although both programs are rich in tradition and success, Saturday will mark new beginnings for both. For the No. 12 Grizzlies, it will mark Bob Stitt’s debut as Montana’s head coach.
“I think this will bring attention to FCS, especially having (broadcaster) Brent Musburger and the SEC crew coming to town, which legitimizes the game,” said Stitt, who won 108 games at Division II Colorado School of Mines over the last 15 seasons. “It will be very professionally done. For us, to play somebody very good early will help us because you aren’t going to see anything better later in the season than what you saw the first week of the season.”
For the top-ranked Bison, the offense from last season’s squad returns largely in tact, led by 6-foot-6 quarterback Carson Wentz. The defense must find a way to replace seven starters, including All-America linebacker Travis Beck and Buck Buchanan Award-winning defensive end Kyle Emmanuel.
“There’s a tremendous amount of respect for what Montana has done in the Big Sky as well as nationally,” NDSU second-year head coach Chris Klieman said. “You always hear around playoff time, when you’re talking national championship talk, for years, Montana is always in there. They have a great tradition, a storied history. Our guys know that. They know they are going into a great environment and a great program and we will just tee it up and see what happens.”
Montana has been a leader in recent years in scheduling powerful non-conference opponents. UM played a home-and-home series in 2012 and 2013 with Appalachian State, an FCS powerhouse that won three straight national titles between 2005 and 2007 before moving up to the FBS last season. Saturday’s matchup marks the return for UM’s trip to the Fargodome last fall; the Bison pulled out a 22-10 victory.
Former Montana athletic director Jim O’Day (2005-2012) was the chairman of the FCS playoff committee his final four years at UM. In 2009, O’Day, App State AD Charlie Cobb, McNeese State AD Tommy McClelland and former NDSU AD Gene Taylor put their heads together to try to get the FCS more exposure.
“The exposure we needed was the cross-country type games, but they are so expensive to do,” O’Day said. “We need to put together a contract where the team that was traveling, the home team would pay them $100,000 to help cover some of the travel costs. And then when they made the return trip the next year, vice versa and it would help on the budgets for both schools.
“There weren’t that many schools who could actually afford it. We knew we had to have a couple of those big games to keep the interest going. That was critical to a lot of the schools, especially on the Eastern side of the United States where the big schools were getting all of the coverage and they weren’t getting much ink.”
In the summer of 2009, O’Day, Cobb and McClelland agreed on a three-way deal that would provide home-and-homes for Montana against McNeese, Montana against App State and App State versus McNeese. UM was supposed to go to Lake Charles, Louisiana to play McNeese in 2016 with a return game scheduled for 2017. When ASU moved to the FBS, the schools mutually agreed to terminate the second half of the deal.
That same year, O’Day and Taylor, who’s now at Iowa, agreed to terms for a series that will come to a head on Saturday. At the time, the Bison were coming off a 3-8 season. By 2010, NDSU was a playoff team. By 2011, the Bison’s domination of the subdivision ensued.
“First and foremost, our success stems from the unbelievable community support,” said Klieman, who didn’t lose a single member of his staff during the off-season. “Our fans will travel everywhere. Bison Nation is strong and they love their Bison players. Our administration has been phenomenal. Our athletic directors Gene Taylor and Matt Larsen have given us the resources to compete and be successful. We’ve created a culture around here with our players that they never think they are out of a game. They always think they have an opportunity to win.”
North Dakota State owns a home-field advantage to rival any in the country. The 18,700-seat Fargodome has exceeded 110 decibels consistently in the last four seasons, creeping up on the indoor stadium crowd record of 126 decibels.
Washington-Grizzly Stadium has an equally hallowed reputation. The Grizzlies have been among the FCS leaders in attendance for two decades and boast the single largest crowd in Big Sky history when 26,352 watched UM dismantle rival Montana State 34-7 last November. Haslam said UM expects to break that record and threaten the stadium record of 111.8 decibels on Saturday.
“One of the interesting things that has happened the top five conferences have separated themselves and have drawn a white line, fans have trouble distinguishing between that next level of football,” Big Sky Conference commissioner Doug Fullerton said. “We really feel when they watch a University of Montana home game, they are going to say that is every bit as good as that second level of FBS and as good as any venue in the country. That’s exactly what we want them to say.
“This matchup couldn’t be a better situation for Missoula or the Big Sky or the FCS,”
Photos courtesy of University of Montana Athletics, North Dakota State Athletics, and the NCAA. All Rights Reserved.