MISSOULA – As Montana athletic director Kent Haslam recalls, it wasn’t until a few minutes after learning that Dixie State was moving to Division I that he contacted his University of Utah counterpart, Jason Boothe.
There is a dearth of non-Big Sky FCS teams in the western US, so Haslam was keen to start a conversation about setting up inter-school football games. They have agreed on a four-game series, the first of which will take place at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“Being a non-conference FCS opponent in the west is probably the equivalent of being the ice cream truck on a Little League field,” Haslam said. “You are going to be really popular.”
Montana jumped at the chance to play Dixie State because these games serve many of his programming goals. The possibility of bringing DSU to Missoula helps the Griz meet their preference of at least six home games each season.
Dixie State’s move to Division I also helps fulfill UM’s hopes of playing an all-Division I schedule. Only DI wins count towards qualifying for the playoffs.
Then there are considerations on match dates, travel requirements and whether the opposing team is looking for a home or away game and an FCS or FBS opponent.
These factors were similar when UM scheduled North Alabama, a team in transition, for 2019.
“It’s like putting a puzzle together,” Haslam said.
Specifically with Dixie State, it is advantageous that the school is in the west, in an area that UM is familiar with and in the same time zone. This makes it easier to get around, so UM will travel to Dixie State as part of the deal.
The series is technically a 2-for-1 game and a buying game. UM will be able to host games in 2021 and 2026 and will play at DSU in St. George, Utah, in 2023. No money will be exchanged between schools for these games.
Montana will also host DSU once for a buy game in 2027. The guaranteed money to DSU will be $ 260,000.
“We probably would have done six if we could,” Haslam said with a laugh. “It was really as easy as matching dates.”
He hopes to create a story with Dixie State through the series. Growing up in Utah, Haslam enjoyed DSU success by winning national junior college titles before moving to Division II in 2006, playing in the GNAC from 2008-16 and the RMAC from 2017-19.
“There is no guarantee that you will get a win. That’s for sure. You go there wanting Division I games, ”he said. This is what I hope is that we can have a long term relationship where we can do house and house and play against each other.
There are few FCS teams in the west outside of the Big Sky, leaving conference teams with little chance for non-league games near them. A major one has been San Diego.
The four Dakota schools are also nearby options. North Dakota became eligible when he left for the MVFC in 2018. UM has a home streak scheduled with UND for 2024 and 2025.
Southern Utah will become another option when it leaves the Big Sky for the WAC from July 2022. UM has yet to be able to work with them, Haslam said.
The addition of Tarleton State (Texas) and St. Thomas (Minnesota) to FCS in 2021 and Texas A&M Commerce in 2022 could give UM more planning options. The number of trips could be factored into MU’s choice of whether or not to play against these teams, Haslam noted, as well as whether they are heading straight to a conference instead of starting as an independent. like Dixie State, which means they have fewer open dates for games.
At least the Griz had a few dates with Dixie State on the horizon before they disappeared.
“They’re going to be the prime target for all those schools in the Big Sky that need non-conference and non-conference opponents,” Haslam said.
Boothe had to complete 11 games each season when Dixie State became an independent DI in 2020, so it was a pleasant surprise when UM reached out and became one of the first opponents.
While Big Sky teams like UM are thrilled to have another non-conference opponent in the west, the fact that Big Sky is the only league in the region means DSU could see them a lot. This year’s program features four Big Sky teams.
DSU programmed long-term ranked teams but also had some surprises. It’s over then-No. 10 Weber State, then-No. 12 UC Davis and then-No. 2 State of South Dakota. He will still face No.6 from Montana, No.10 from Delaware, No.1 Sam Houston and No.16 from Missouri State.
“As an independent we didn’t really have a lot of choice, but our coach is great to say, ‘It’s okay, let’s go play anybody, any day, any anytime, anywhere, ”Boothe said. “I’m like ‘Good, because that’s what we’re going to have to do to set a schedule together.'”
Fulfilling an 11-game schedule on his own wasn’t the worst thing financially, as he could get money from FCS guarantee matches, which he wouldn’t do for league matches. FBS teams will not play DSU until 2022, as an FBS team can only count an FCS victory for bowl eligibility if the FCS team has offered 90% of the maximum FCS scholarships for at least two consecutive years.
DSU realized he was close financially to switch to DI when he received an invitation. In addition to the guarantee money, DSU is helped by the increase in registration fees, registrations and ticket sales. Boothe also noted that games against Sacramento State and Weber State this fall drew 6,600 and 8,200 fans, the two biggest in DSU history after averaging 3,000 in the past.
DSU was the only public D-II team in the state, but may have rivalries with state teams as it will count as a DI game for all teams. Being DI also makes it easier to travel due to proximity to opponents and can lead to more media coverage, which can make registration easier.
“As a school in transition, we are looking for as much money as possible to start building a program, knowing that it will come with very good opponents,” Boothe said.
The first thing DSU focused on for its financial increases was the scholarships, as this would give pioneers the best chance to be competitive. DSU was only offering 32 at the D-II level and upped that to the FCS award of 63 last year, but ended up offering 59.5.
DSU will focus on increasing coaching salaries and increasing the number of licensed coaching positions in DI. Other goals will also be to put more money into football’s recruiting and operating budgets. DSU is even able to afford charter flights for the first time this year.
“Now are we going to be up there with the Montanas right away?” No, not even close, ”Boothe said. “But we’re going to be able to be competitive and put teams in there and build it slowly within our means to develop it smartly.”
DSU decided to accept a football invitation to WAC, an unexpected move when the former FBS conference was resurrected as an FCS league this year in an alliance with ASUN. The WAC’s decision to start playing in 2021 instead of 2022 meant DSU could lose $ 1 million in guaranteed play money this year if it had to cancel non-conference games to play a league schedule.
Boothe and the WAC worked where DSU would only play three WAC games this year and remain independent before becoming a full member next year. The 2022 season is more difficult due to the higher number of conference games, so Boothe has been working to find other schools to remove previously scheduled games from them.
“We’ve just done too good a job of setting an infinite schedule and now we have to go back and go the other way and try not to spend a lot of money on cancellations,” he said.
UM and DSU didn’t have to cancel any of their games, but changed this year’s game from September 25 to October 9. Following the series’ 2019 lineup, Big Sky moved its canceled 2020 conference season due to the pandemic to 2021, and UM was scheduled to host Cal Poly on September 25.
Dixie State might have a new name at some point in the series. The school board voted to change the school’s name to Utah Tech. The process has passed to the state council for higher education, and the legislature has yet to act on it, Boothe said.
Neither Haslam nor Boothe believe that a name change will void the playing contracts. Haslam likened it to a scheduled match remaining on the books even though one of the school’s athletic directors who signed the contract went through. at another school before the game. Boothe said if anything, there might just be an addendum added noting the change.
“And this Dixie State is paid $ 300,000 more,” he joked.
Whatever name the Trailblazers have when they face UM over the years, Boothe hopes they gain some experience that will help them when they are eligible for the playoffs from 2024. He would also like to win at least a match against the Griz.
“Even if we don’t win any of those games, if we’re lucky enough to get to the playoffs, the team will know what it’s like to play in front of a big crowd and in a pressure situation. . against a good team, ”he said. “We will have built towards this by playing the best. “