Gophers-New Hampshire 'rivalry' goes way back -- in hockey

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2012 - 11:47 AM

The relationship between athletic directors at the two schools, which met on the ice in the 2003 NCAA final, led to Saturday's game.

Beware the opponent who thirsts for revenge. That's the Gophers' burden on Saturday, because New Hampshire comes to town with the memory of Minnesota's historic victory over the Wildcats, though nearly a decade old, still fresh in the minds of fans in New England.

What's that? Oh, that 5-1 beatdown was a hockey game, for the 2003 NCAA championship? Don't think that doesn't matter, because that game, indirectly, was the reason the two traditional hockey powers will play football for the first time this weekend.

"Relationships play a big role in scheduling," said Marc Ryan, the senior associate athletic director who finalized the contract for Saturday's game. "In this case, the relationship stems from hockey."

That explains a seemingly random Football Championship Subdivision opponent, from a school more than 1,000 miles away, showing up on Minnesota's schedule.

"Philosophically, we have tried to schedule our FCS game with regional schools, Midwest schools," Ryan said, such as games in recent years against North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State, or upcoming matchups against Western Illinois and Eastern Illinois. This week's opponent, Ryan said, was originally supposed to be Northern Iowa.

He reached a verbal agreement with the Panthers in the winter of 2007-08, but Northern Iowa athletic director Rick Hartzell abruptly resigned before the contract could be drawn up and the incoming administration wasn't aware that the date had been held. The Gophers needed a replacement school, and then-athletic director Joel Maturi called an old friend and colleague, New Hampshire AD Marty Scarano.

Scarano was Colorado College's athletic director while Maturi was AD at Denver University, and later, Maturi succeeded Scarano as chairman of the NCAA Division I hockey committee.

"They had a good relationship, and that's what you rely on to get scheduling done," Ryan said.

Within a few months, a deal was struck that will pay the Wildcats $375,000, the same guarantee North Dakota State received last year.

New Hampshire isn't a Midwest school, "but you want a recognizable name, at least, someone that your fans have heard of," Ryan said. "And New Hampshire has a strong program at the FCS level."

That's the part that has caught the attention of the Gophers, whose history in these down-one-level games is relatively dismal. Minnesota is the only Big Ten team in modern times to lose three games to an FCS school, and last year's 37-24 loss to the Bison -- who went on to capture the FCS national championship -- wasn't particularly close.

"They kicked our butt. They physically beat us," coach Jerry Kill said. "They were better than us."

He hopes that's not the case this week, but the Wildcats are a team to respect. They have been ranked in every FCS top-25 poll since September 2004, and have qualified for eight consecutive NCAA football tournaments, the longest current streak in the nation.

They also have a history of beating FBS teams, though losses to Toledo and Pitt the past two seasons have halted an impressive stretch. But since 2004, they have beaten Rutgers, Northwestern, Marshall, Army and Ball State.

"It's a good team, and they're coming here with a chip on their shoulder. Those players feel like they should be in this kind of league," Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray said. "We lost last year to teams like this. It hurts like crazy, to be at home and lose to teams like that. We have to have the mindset that we're the underdog."

Especially playing an unusual offense like the Wildcats', a hurry-up, spread-the-field style designed to keep defenses running.

"They're going to spread you out. They're going to snap it 90, 100 times a game. ... Offensively, they very much want to [play] at an Oklahoma State or Oregon pace," Kill fretted. "This is a bowl game for New Hampshire. And so [they] have a little incentive."

Well, that and that hockey game.

  • GOPHERS FOOTBALL

    Home opener: 11 a.m. Saturday vs. New Hampshire • TCF Bank Stadium • TV: Big Ten Network (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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