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Eastern Washington University Football
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Eastern Washington fans wonder why Montana wasn’t made ‘protected rival’

Eastern Washington takes the field against Montana during a  2016 game at Roos Field. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington takes the field against Montana during a 2016 game at Roos Field. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington football fans don’t care much for Montana, which makes the Grizzlies such perfect rivals.

So why mess up a good thing?

Eagles fans wonder the same thing after the Big Sky Conference announced last week that EWU and Montana are no longer guaranteed to meet on the football field.

Instead, Eastern’s two “protected rivals” – the schools it will play every year – will be Idaho and Portland State. That seemed curious to many Eagles fans, since the Vandals left the Big Sky two decades ago and the ties to PSU are tenuous at best.

The news produced more questions than answers:

  • Did the Big Sky offer the protected rivalry with Montana to ease Idaho’s return to the conference?
  • Did Eastern attempt to protect the 35-year rivalry with Montana, or was it presented as a fait accompli?
  • Moving forward, will Eastern be able to schedule designated “nonconference” games with Montana to fill out its schedule, as the Eagles have done in the past with other Big Sky schools?

The answer to the first question may never be known. However, this week, Eastern Washington athletic director Bill Chaves said, “Idaho got inserted between us (Eastern and Montana) geographically.

“There was really no emotion to it at all for most of the members. We just kept the same format – that was it.

“Our vote counts for just one. Many things don’t go Eastern’s way, and that’s just part of being a conference member.”

The news struck an emotional chord for many fans at last weekend’s home game against Sacramento State.

“There’s no question that our top rival is the Montana Grizzlies,” said season-ticket holder Dave Carter, who played for the Eagles in the mid-1970s.

“And Idaho? No, we haven’t played them in so many years,” Carter said.

Another longtime fan, Kelsey Hatch-Brecek of Cheney, made the trip to Missoula a week earlier to see the Eagles beat Montana 48-41.

It was Eastern’s seventh win in the last nine meetings with the Griz in a rivalry that’s unbroken since 1983.

Until now.

“I’m totally bummed, because it’s turned into quite the rivalry, and it’s really been an incredible game-day experience,” Hatch-Brecek said.

“But I’m bummed even more because they (Montana) won’t play on the red (Roos Field) next year.”

The schools’ next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 26, 2019, in Missoula.

Inland Northwest sports fans have seen this before. In 2002, the National Football League shipped Seattle from the American Conference to the National, effectively gutting the Seahawks’ rivalries with Denver, Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego.

For the most part, Seattle fans have moved on. Given time, Eastern’s probably will do the same.

For EWU fan Matt McCoy, the changes “are a consequence of having too many teams in the Big Sky … but I’m certainly excited about the renewal of our rivalry with the Idaho Vandals.”

Chaves feels the same way.

“I do believe that our game with Idaho will be a pretty good game,” Chaves said Monday during his weekly podcast.

The changes were dictated by the departure of North Dakota and addition of Idaho in 2018. They appear to affect Eastern more adversely than any other Big Sky school.

Instead of playing Montana every year, they will meet roughly three times every five years.

With the loss of the Montana game, Eastern’s Big Sky home schedule next year includes Cal Poly, Southern Utah, Idaho and UC Davis.

The slate in 2019 is even more unappealing: North Dakota (still a conference game for EWU as the Fighting Hawks transition to the Missouri Valley Conference), Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado and Portland State.

The new protected rivalries were determined during closed-door meetings among conference athletic directors in the summer and fall of 2016. From those negotiations, the conference produced five years’ worth of schedules and passed them on to its 13 football-playing schools.

For more than a year, the schools kept that information to themselves.

The storm broke last Thursday, when Montana released its full 2018 schedule, including the headline-grabbing nugget that the Grizzlies’ protected rivals would be Idaho and Montana State.

Regarding next year’s schedule, a one-game deal with Montana was unworkable.

“We both needed home games,” Chaves said.

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