Its 2015 football schedule all but finalized, the Montana athletic department announced a big addition to the 2016 slate Wednesday.
The Grizzlies will visit Northern Iowa in an early-season nonconference clash next year, part of a home-and-home series that has the Panthers returning the favor in 2018.
The deal, which carries a $50,000 guarantee for each visiting team to defray travel costs, helps fill a hole left when Montana's standing agreement with McNeese State fell apart recently. That series, agreed upon in 2009, would have sent the Griz to Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 2016 with McNeese's return the following fall.
"It's one of those FCS games with a really strong program that fits the same bill as McNeese did," said Ryan Martin, UM assistant athletic director in charge of business operations. Martin also handles football scheduling.
The teams will play in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Sept. 10, 2016. The 2018 game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium is slated for Sept. 1.
The 2016 trip to UNI will mark the sixth overall meeting between two of the strongest programs in the Big Sky and Missouri Valley conferences. Northern Iowa finished last season ranked 10th in The Sports Network FCS poll.
Montana's only visit to the UNI-Dome came in 1987, when the Griz came away with a 33-16 victory in the nonconference regular season contest.
The Panthers have traveled to Missoula for the previous three meetings between the schools, all of which have come in the playoffs. Montana hosted UNI in 1994, 2001, and 2011.
The Grizzlies are a perfect 5-0 against Northern Iowa, including a 48-10 drubbing in the FCS quarterfinals in 2011 at Wa-Griz.
UNI's first three games, all nonconference, will be FBS Iowa State on the road, Montana and at Eastern Washington.
Outside of its eight conference games each season, Montana needs another three to complete its schedule. That's become harder and harder in recent years, Martin said.
Athletic department budgets around the country are growing tighter, making long trips less and less reasonable for those who even have openings available. The Grizzlies' pool of available nonconference FCS opponents shrinks in correlation.
"They have so many driving opponents that they can bus to instead of fly," Martin said of scheduling programs from the east side of the country. "Instead of chartering a flight, they're chartering maybe three buses.
"And the two teams that we used to rely on for some out of conference football games – UC Davis and Cal Poly – we added them to the conference."
The two California schools joined the Big Sky in 2012 from the Big West Conference as football affiliates. Regional schools Southern Utah and North Dakota were admitted as full members that same year in the Big Sky's expansion to 13 football-playing institutions.
It's why a team like Cal Poly sometimes shows up on Montana's nonconference slate anyway, like this year's Sept. 5 showdown in Missoula.
Programs use travel guarantees to sweeten the pot when scheduling home-and-home series, making it more feasible financially on the visiting program that year. While not true of Montana, which led the FCS in attendance last season at 23,777 fans per game, most programs at that level require a game with guaranteed money each year to make their budget.
A $50,000 guarantee is rather slim in comparison to what other schools may require. Montana's series with North Dakota State, which concludes this fall when the Grizzlies host the second leg in their season opener Aug. 29 on ESPN, came with a $100,000 guarantee.
Not all home-and-home matchups carry such a contract stipulation. The Liberty and Montana agreement that sends the Griz to Lynchburg, Virginia, on Sept. 19 this fall had no added money.
Liberty is a private Christian university with a booming student population that is nearing 80,000.
"They weren't shy about that charter flight like a lot of east coast teams would be," joked Miller of the Flames' trip to Missoula in 2012, a 34-14 UM win.
Miller couldn't say if a new contract with McNeese is in the works – the teams mutually dissolved a three-way agreement that included Appalachian State after the Mountaineers move to the FBS – but Montana still has two openings for 2016: Sept. 3, once reserved for the Cowboys, and Sept. 17.
The department hopes to have those filled soon. The Missouri Valley Conference, to which both UNI and NDSU belong, is again a target.
"I think we match up really well and geographically, they're the closest conference," Miller said. "It's a win-win for both of us."
The only other future nonconference action already in stone for the Griz is a pair of trips to FBS Washington for 2017 and 2021. The teams have not met since 1951. Both were members of the Pacific Coast Conference until 1950.
Those games each come with a hefty guarantee for the Griz. Washington of the Pac-12 Conference will pay $625,000 in 2017, with $675,000 coming four years later.