MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota's cancellation of two nonconference matchups against North Carolina cost the school $800,000 and plenty of bad publicity.
The university took a big step on Tuesday toward gaining that back. The Gophers will play a home-and-home series with TCU instead.
"To get somebody with a program at that level, and that brand, is going to be terrific," athletic director Norwood Teague said.
Coach Jerry Kill's desire to protect the confidence of his young players in the developing program prompted the decision to back out of games with the Tar Heels in 2013 and 2014. Instead of traveling to Chapel Hill, N.C., on Sept. 7 this season, the Gophers will play at New Mexico State. The home game in that series against the Aggies isn't until 2016, though, so there was still an opening to fill for 2014.
Minnesota will now get $500,000 from TCU for going to Fort Worth, Texas, next year. When the Horned Frogs play at TCF Bank Stadium for the 2015 season opener, the Gophers won't owe them anything. Also, TCU assumed the contract Minnesota had to host South Dakota State on that date for a guaranteed $400,000. Executive associate athletic director David Benedict said TCU will either try to play SDSU or pay the Jackrabbits the buyout if that can't be worked out.
Kill didn't think the Gophers would be ready to play North Carolina this year, even though in 2012 they beat Syracuse, a major-conference team that went 8-5 and blew out West Virginia in a bowl game. By 2014, though, they're apparently confident about facing a team like TCU. The Horned Frogs went 47-5 from 2008 through 2011 in the Mountain West Conference, including a 13-0 season in 2010 that ended with a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. The Tar Heels were 31-21 during that span.
Last year, TCU went 7-6 and lost to Michigan State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl after moving into the Big 12 Conference. North Carolina was 8-4 and ineligible for a bowl game. TCU lost 56-53 in overtime last year to Texas Tech, which trailed the Gophers in the waning minutes of the Meineke Car Care Bowl before rallying for a 34-31 victory in Houston.
"When we made the decision about North Carolina, I don't know that we would've been scheduling TCU or thought that was the way to go," Benedict said. "But having watched the body of work of the team as well as the coaching staff last year, especially how we competed against Texas Tech, it started to provide some clarity about the trajectory that our football program was on."
Had the TCU games come together as the UNC series ended, Minnesota probably would've avoided some criticism.
"There's always strategy and a lot of thought that goes into schedule. I know there was a backlash, and that was not something that we wanted when that happened, but we've done a lot of recouping here with TCU," Teague said.
Kill and TCU coach Gary Patterson were previously assistants at Pittsburg State in Kansas in the late 1980s, so they've known each other for decades.
"Playing a friend is always different, but he's on board and ready to roll," Teague said.
The schools have played once before, at Minnesota in 1974. The Gophers won 9-7.
With the New Mexico State series, each school will pay the other $250,000 for the visit. When the Aggies come in 2016, Benedict said that'll be a bargain price for the Gophers. The Big Ten, when it decided to move to nine-game conference schedules starting with the 2016 season, also chose -- by unanimous athletic director vote -- to stop playing lower-level FCS opponents.
So in the future, with only be so many FBS teams to pick from and 13 other Big Ten schools trying to schedule them, the price tag for a home game against a mid-major conference school in the FBS could be close to $1 million, Benedict said.
"It's a supply and demand issue," Benedict said. "The fact that we've secured that game and locked that in at that number, I think, is another huge financial piece for us."
This season, Minnesota hosts UNLV, Western Illinois and San Jose State for nonconference games. In 2014, Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee State and San Jose State come to TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers played several memorable games against their nearby FCS foes, which all moved up from Division II in the last decade. They lost to North Dakota State in 2007 and 2011 and to South Dakota in 2010 and squeaked out a victory over South Dakota State in 2009. All of those schools had bunches of Minnesota natives on their rosters and brought plenty of fans to town, taking advantage of roughly four-hour drives and the opportunity to play a Big Ten team.