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U Football Can Excite Public in 2019

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July 31, 2019

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Long ago Golden Gophers football dominated this sports marketplace. Even spring football practice was a big deal with 15,000 or more fans turning out for the annual game between the varsity and alumni. In the fall radios were tuned to Gopher games in duck blinds, backyards and homes across the state as Minnesotans celebrated and agonized over nearly every play.

What was Gophers football like in the 1950s? Think about how the Vikings dominate the public’s interest today and the comparison will provide an answer. Back before professional sports arrived in the state and the Gophers were riding the highs of national titles in the 1940s and 1930s, the state’s sports fans were captivated by Minnesota’s Big Ten team.

The lofty interest in Gophers football has been gone for a long time—changed by a steep decline in team performance from the days of national prominence, and the competition from the Vikings and other sports franchises in this state. Blips of public passion have surfaced in the past, with none more dramatic and productive than coach Lou Holtz’s magic show for two years in the 1980’s when he got fans so excited the season tickets total reached 56,000 in 1986.

In late 1985 Lou marched off to his dream job in South Bend, Indiana whistling the Notre Dame Fight Song and the more naïve Gophers followers believed the program had turned around. It hadn’t and by the 1990’s the team was playing in front of rows and rows of empty blue seats in the Metrodome.

In the early 2000’s the dome rocked at times under coach Glen Mason but the majority of fans never seemed all-in on a regime that teased sustained success but didn’t deliver. Out went Mason after the 2006 season and in came Tim Brewster who had never been a head coach or coordinator. He wasn’t “The Guy” to lead the Gophers out of their chronic apathy but Jerry Kill was.

The folksy Kill could not only coach football but the public found him authentic, labeling him “one of us.” Like most U football coaches, Kill had to rehab the program for awhile but by the spring of 2015 the team was trending upward and fans were buying tickets. In the opening game of the season against No. 2 ranked TCU Minnesota drew a TCF Bank Stadium record crowd of 54,147.

The season before Kill’s team had earned the program’s first winning record in the Big Ten in 11 years and first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962. Yes, 2015 expectations were high but then the bubble burst in mid-season with Kill resigning for health issues.

P.J. Fleck

The public took a wait and see attitude toward Tracy Claeys, Kill’s successor. That approach continues with P.J. Fleck who’s gushing enthusiasm and Row the Boat mantra has sailed with some fans but not others. Name the tickets category (season, single game, group or student); getting people in the Bank has been a big challenge.

This year the ticket buying menu is more diversified than ever with lots of options and some low pricing. There’s been no storming of the ticket booths, however, and that’s not unexpected after decades of minimal on the field results and recent seasons when the Gophers are a combined 5-13 in conference games.

But this year could see a change in public interest, and in wins and losses. The Gophers open practice this week with justified confidence in becoming a contender for the Big Ten West Division, and waking up the local masses to the pleasures of big time college football.

This is a team with exceptional players who could fast become fan favorites. The list starts with senior wide receiver Tyler Johnson, a Minneapolis kid who turned down the chance to enter the NFL Draft after last season. Johnson is a heavy choice to be All-Big Ten and leave Minnesota with a legacy similar to the school’s best receivers ever.

Native sons resonate with fans and rivaling Johnson in popularity will be senior defensive end Carter Coughlin, the former Eden Prairie star. Coughlin’s dad, Robert Coughlin, played for the Gophers and Grandfather Tom Moe did, too, and later became Minnesota’s interim athletics director.

Senior linebacker Thomas Barber can talk family, too. His dad Marion and two older brothers were major contributors as players at Minnesota. Thomas, though, can experience something no other Barber has done in Dinkytown—play on a championship team.

A name that heads any list of Gophers with box office appeal is sophomore safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. His dad played for the Vikings so the public knows his name but more importantly Junior is a special talent. He saved the Gophers’ win over Fresno State last year and then his absence for most of the season because of injury was glaring.

Those names are just part of the roll call. Sophomore 400-pound offensive tackle Daniel Faalele is intriguing because of his size and skill set. The prospect of Faalele occasionally becoming a ball carrier this season (like he did in the Spring Game) is tantalizing. The player watch also includes Wildcat formation quarterback Seth Green whose power runs helped the Gophers maintain ball possession and win games last season on their way to a 7-6 record.

Then there is the quarterback competition between Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan, the expected development of sophomore wide receiver Rashod Bateman who turned down Georgia to come here, and the deep and talented running back roster that goes at least four deep, maybe six.

The players mentioned above and many teammates led Minnesota to its most impressive finish in years in 2018. The Gophers, after an awful midseason stretch, won three of their last four, defeating good teams in Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech. Now the Gophers have to show that same level of performance in 2019 starting with the first four games of the season.

It could be pretty low hanging fruit for the Gophers to win two of their first three games, nonconference assignments with South Dakota State and Georgia Southern at home. The third nonconference matchup is Fresno State away, a likely challenging game. Bulldogs coach Jeff Tedford is big time and has a team picked by the media to win the West Division of the Mountain West Conference. Playing at night on the West Coast is often a bugaboo for Big Ten clubs.

But if the Gophers are going to impress early in 2019 they need to win against a team like Fresno State. And, ideally, go to Purdue for their first Big Ten game and beat a Boilermakers team that can potentially beat anyone in the conference.

Let the Gophers come home from Purdue 4-0 and watch the homecoming they receive from the public to play Nebraska on October 12. Lordy, with a scenario like that there might even be more gold in the stands than red when the Cornhuskers come to town.

An 8-4 season, with five wins in the Big Ten, along with a recognizable bowl invite could position the Gophers to experience a significant increase in tickets sales for 2020. The road back to 2015 interest won’t be easy but it’s possible.

A return to the fan obsession of the 1950’s? Don’t even go there.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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