MISSOULA — Montana and Eastern Washington will resume their heated rivalry this weekend after not playing each other in 2018, the first time since 1982 the teams didn’t face off.
The Griz and Eagles weren’t always rivals, first playing in 1938 but not meeting from 1950 until 1980, when they began playing nearly every season. Eastern Washington, an NAIA team, didn’t join the FCS until 1984 and the Big Sky Conference until 1987.
In 1986, the then-developing rivalry took off when Montana got a controversial win over the Eagles, who had made a shocking run to the FCS quarterfinals the previous year and were ranked as high as No. 6 that year.
The game had everything from coaching familiarity, final-play dramatics, accusations of a ref favoring Montana and even a mention of prostitution.
“That could not have been more controversial,” said Jerome Souers, who was then an assistant coach at Montana before going on to be the Northern Arizona head coach.
“That was really kind of the start of the rivalry because it was a lot of controversy.”
Montana was led by first-year coach Don Read, who was going up against eighth-year Eastern Washington coach Dick Zornes. Their staffs had developed a rivalry back when Read coached at Portland State, and guys like Souers and Robin Pflugrad followed Read to Montana.
Zornes had also applied for the Montana coaching job after the 1985 season.
“I don’t recall rivalries like that,” Souers said. “Not just football rivalries but staff rivalries.”
The rivalry gained steam as the two head coaches squared off until Zornes retired from coaching in 1993. Read owned a 5-3 edge with the 1986 result preventing a tied series.
“Zornes was incredibly bitter after the game,” said Dave Guffey, Montana’s sports information director from 1978-2015. “I think it definitely started the rivalry because he thought he was robbed.”
The Grizzlies' win that day ended the era of Dornblaser Field as the home turf and started an era of an intense rivalry.
"Zornes made a big deal out of it," said Brent Pease, then Montana's quarterback and now the Grizzlies' assistant head coach. "We were excited because it was our first win of the season and we closed the stadium down with a win. I think we looked at it as he tried to take that away from us. But that wasn't the case. They went back, looked at the film and had to see it was a good call."
'I feel like a prostitute'
The play in question that produced the controversy came on the final snap of the game on Oct. 4, 1986, in front of an announced crowd of 7,380 at Dornblaser Field in Missoula.
Montana led 42-37 in the waning seconds after Pease had thrown for 447 yards and five touchdowns, both single-game school records at the time. Eagles quarterback Rob James passed for 416 yards in relief of Jon Snider but was 11 yards short of a win.
James took a snap at Montana’s 11-yard line with one second left on the clock and targeted wide receiver Tracy Poffenroth, who was being guard by Tony Breland and Brian Gimler. Poffenroth got his hands on the ball near the back of the end zone and was ruled to not have control of the ball when he was inbounds.
The Griz celebrated. The Eagles pouted. Controversy ensued.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of shaking hands,” Souers recalled with a laugh. “There was a lot of arguing. A lot of words were directed at the officials.”
Souers remains certain the officials correctly ruled it an incomplete pass.
“It really came down to possession, not whether he was inbounds or not,” Souers said. “His foot was inbounds while he was handling the ball but juggled it in his arms. Then when he fell on the ground, he secured the ball, but his foot was out of bounds at that time.
“I’m confident the officials were right. The Eastern guys will just accuse me of being for Montana.”
There was no instant replay at the time. No one saw a replay until Souers, the film guy on Montana’s staff, cut up the 16-milimeter film seven or eight hours after the game.
“In today’s world, it’s an automatic no catch,” Souers said, referencing instant replay. “But back then, it was how the back judge saw it.”
Zornes “accused a Butte official of purposefully denying his team the win,” the Missoulian wrote, a claim which amplified the controversy.
The referee who made the incomplete call was Butte’s Bobby Rowling. He was part of the local crew of officials selected by Montana because it was the home team for the non-conference game, which was normal operating procedure.
“I don’t think there was any question he (Poffenroth) was inbounds,” Zornes was quoted as saying in the Missoulian. “The man who was guarding him knew it. The Grizzly coaches knew it. Everyone in the stadium knew it except (the official) Bobby Rowling from Butte, Montana.”
Zornes, a former Montana Tech coach, then expressed his anger with his infamous line in an interview outside the locker room.
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“Every time I come to Montana, I feel like a prostitute on Saturday night,” Zornes said.
Souers recalled the quote nearly word for word 33 years later with a hearty laugh.
“Zornes was one in a million,” he said. “That sent all kinds of reverberations everywhere.”
“One of the all-time classic lines,” Guffey added. “He was that fiery of a guy.”
Zornes continued to fume about the call year after year. Guffey admitted to him later that he thought it was a touchdown and the Griz had lost. That came at a Big Sky basketball tournament where football coaches gathered for meetings that week.
“I was done talking with the coaches, and I put my hand on the doorknob,” Guffey recalled. “Zornes yells at me to come back here because he wants to talk. He was an intense, physically intimidating guy. With no offense to Griz nation, I thought the guy caught it inbounds.”
The 1986 win over Eastern Washington helped the Griz avoid an 0-4 start on their way to a 6-4 record. They finished fourth in a league that included Idaho, which won or shared five Big Sky titles from 1982-89, a level the Griz and Eagles were both trying to reach.
“We weren’t very good at Montana. We were trying to be, but we weren’t very good,” Souers said. “I don’t think either team was really gangbusters great, but we were competitive with each other.”
Montana was undergoing an offensive renovation under Read when he was hired in 1986 to replace Larry Donovan, going from the Wishbone to complex passing. Pease set nearly every single-season school passing record, and Mike Rice eclipsed nearly every receiving mark.
"It was kind of a turning point for us," Pease said. "We knew it was the last game there, so we were excited about opening this. Having a new coaching staff and system with coach Read bringing in the throwing game, we got to where we were very comfortable and got on a roll that day. We got the mojo going at that time."
The 1986 team laid the foundation for future success under Read, whose tenure culminated with a national championship in 1995. The Griz had a winning record every season under Read.
“In retrospect, it was a huge win because it led to a winning season,” Guffey said. “I think it was huge from a recruiting standpoint, a confidence standpoint and it was good to go into Washington-Grizzly with a win. Don was building the foundation.”
That foundation would be built at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, which Montana moved into for its next home game in 1986. The win over EWU, Read's first at UM, came in the last game at Dornblaser Field. He had also suffered the first loss at Dornblaser, 58-0, when he coached Portland State.
Dornblaser opened in 1968 as a temporary stadium of wood and metal bleachers with a 12,500 capacity. It replaced old Dornblaser Field, a stone and ivy stadium next to Mount Sentinel that was built after World War I and torn down to make room for a library in the 1960s.
The Griz finished with a record of 52-36-1 at new Dornblaser, with the lone tie coming against Eastern Washington in 1984. They’ve dominated at home since moving into Washington-Grizzly Stadium, posting a 205-33 record.
“That game really sparked our team going into Washington-Grizzly and gave us some confidence that we needed to keep going and moving,” Souers said. “I don’t want to understate or overstate it, but it was a pivotal time in Grizzly football history.
“Had that gone the other way, it’s hard to say what might have happened. It kind of launched the team into a different sense of confidence. Brent Pease got more confident as a quarterback with Mike Rice. The defense started finding its personality. We started winning games.
“Then the magic stadium that Washington-Grizzly is, it impacted everybody in a positive way.”
'It just makes sense'
The rivalry between Montana and Eastern Washington grew beyond the geography and coach overlap of Read and Zornes. The series became known for its tight games, close calls and importance in the conference race.
Montana and Eastern Washington have combined for three national titles and 25 shared or outright league crowns since 1987. At least one of the teams has been ranked in 21 consecutive meetings and 27 of the past 28.
The Griz lead the all-time series 27-17-1 and are 19-13 since Eastern Washington joined the Big Sky. The 13 losses in that stretch are Montana’s most against any league team. The Eagles have won six of the past seven.
“This is always a big game mostly because both teams are generally pretty competitive,” said Montana coach Bobby Hauck, who in 1986 was a Griz track athlete yet to get into football coaching.
The series between the two won't be as consistent going forward because Montana and Eastern Washington are no longer protected rivals. Idaho replaced Eastern Washington on Montana's schedule as a yearly opponent when it rejoined the league in 2018.
Hauck wants to see the teams play every year. So does Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best, who's spent all but one season with the Eagles since 1996, when he started playing for them.
"Coach Hauck and I talk all the time that let’s play every year, let’s tee it up every year," Best said at the Big Sky Kickoff in July. "Everybody loves it. We do. The Big Sky loves it. It just makes sense.
"I think it’s great for the conference and it’s great for the region. It’s great for our kids. We enjoy that high level of competition, no matter where it goes, but especially against the Griz."