There have been some rumors floating around that the Montana Grizzlies will travel to play Tennessee to open the 2011 football season. Well, a source of mine says the deal is as good as done. Good ol' Rocky Top!
The Griz, apparently, will face the Volunteers on Sept. 3, 2011, at 100,000-plus seat Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. Montana, I'm told, will replace North Texas on the Vols' schedule.
If it happens, this will be the first game the Griz will play against a Bowl division team since traveling to Iowa in 2006, a game they lost 41-7. Sure, they took one on the chin, but Montana did make something like $650,000 on that game, which helped the athletic department crawl out of a significant financial hole. So it was pretty much a victory in the long run.
Griz AD Jim O'Day has told me in the past that the football team would not play an "up game" unless the money was right. Why would they go on the road, get beat, and only make $200,000? They can make that kind of coin easily on any given Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium when they line up a patsy like Western State or Fort Lewis.
Is the potential matchup with Tennessee a bodybag game in which the Griz will take a pounding? Perhaps, although the Vols are hardly the SEC power they used to be. And after the Lane Kiffin debacle, UT is in a reconstruction phase under new head coach Derek Dooley.
New Griz coach Robin Pflugrad told me in an extensive interview during the spring that he will never duck the big dogs:
"I don't want to ever sound conceited or brag about the fact that we don't have to go anywhere, because I WANT to go somewhere. I WANT to take this team on the road and play a, quote, Division I team. I want to do that if not every year, every other year. We've been looking for a 2011 (FBS) opponent, and it's been difficult. We've had a lot of teams turn us down. Do you go to just play them? No. You better be able to make more money if you leave Missoula, or straight across even.
"We don't want to be cannon fodder for Nebraska or Florida or Alabama just to say we went and played them. I think our players have to get something out of it and I want it to be a positive experience. And our administration needs to get something out of it in a paycheck."
Win or lose, my guess is that the Griz are going to be laughing all the way to the bank on this one.
UPDATE (7/23 - 12:44 p.m.) -- I received word that the Griz will earn $500,000 for making the trip to Knoxville. It's a little bit less than what they got from Iowa in 2006, but still - it's definitely a huge payday for UM's athletic department. When a team comes calling with that kind of money, it's usually a no-brainer.
UPDATE (7/26 - 5:15 p.m.) -- It's official. This from UM sports information man Dave Guffey:
MISSOULA, MONTANA - The University of Montana Grizzlies football team will potentially play in front of the largest crowd in school history next year, opening its season against the University of Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sept. 3, 2011.
The capacity at the Volunteers' Neyland Stadium is 102,038. The largest crowd Montana has played in front of is 70,585 -- a 41-7 opening-season loss against host University of Iowa in 2006.
The agreement is a one-game deal. This is the first matchup on the gridiron between the two schools.
Montana Athletic Director Jim O'Day welcomed the chance to have the Grizzlies participate in this intersectional contest.
Tennessee was previously scheduled to play North Texas in Knoxville to open its 2011 slate, but UNT is opening a new football stadium and wanted to begin the season at home in its Denton, Texas, facility.
Montana will receive a $500,000 guarantee, plus help with additional expenses from Tennessee. It will be the second largest guarantee in school history, as UM received $650,000 for its game at Iowa in 2006.