Bob Hughes makes his living selling newspaper advertising. For the past 30-some years, he's spent every autumn Saturday cheering the Gophers football team. So in both his profession and his passion, Hughes has enthusiastically embraced institutions striving to recapture the glory days of their pasts.

He is not supporting the Gophers out of obligation; he isn't a University of Minnesota alumnus, nor does he have a relative on the sidelines. He isn't lacking for things to do, since he and his wife, Mary, frequently attend Twins, Vikings and Wild games, as well as concerts and the theater. In conversation, he offers no hint of being delusional.

And he has friends, fellow travelers who share his unwavering ardor for a football team that hasn't won a Big Ten title since it tied Indiana and Purdue atop the standings in 1967. Hughes is president of the Gophers' Goal Line Club, a group of about 700 people undaunted by numbers such as 1-11 (the Gophers' record in 2007) or 55-0 (the score of their loss to Iowa in the 2008 Metrodome farewell). With a new season about to begin Thursday at Middle Tennessee State, they remain the eternal optimists, impervious to ridicule and unmoved by predictions of another bleak campaign.

They're here. They cheer. Get used to it.

"Gophers football is my passion, my love, my everything in life,'' said Hughes, sounding like Tim Brewster in the midst of a sugar-and-coffee bender. "We have been, at best, average for most of my lifetime. It's been 50 years since we won a national championship, and who knows if it'll ever happen again?

"But to me, it's more than the wins and losses. It's the experience. I can't explain what it's like to be there early on a Saturday morning, outside, with the sun shining. It is the most incredible thing. It is a rite of living in Minnesota to cheer for Golden Gopher football, and I truly believe it's one of the greatest things around.''

Loyalty has become an underrated and increasingly rare quality in our flavor-of-the-month society, particularly in sports. We're perpetually keeping score so we can line up behind the victors and taunt the losers. Just win, baby, because a whole lot of Americans need the vicarious infusions of self-esteem they get from the teams they watch.

Many Gophers fans have gone underground or abandoned the bandwagon during the program's decades of wandering in the Big Ten desert. Even with the move to the sleek new TCF Bank Stadium last year, the student section remained half-empty for some games. Those who still show up are stereotyped as graybeards who probably sat next to Bruce Smith in a lecture hall.

Jake Murphy is 39, about half the assumed age of a typical Gophers loyalist. The chairman of the Goal Line Club, he oversees a lively social scene in which fun is not dependent upon results. It's not that Murphy is satisfied with mediocrity; he still remembers how painful it was to sit through that blowout against Iowa. But he believes that focusing on winning, and not on the myriad pleasures of a Saturday at the stadium, is missing the forest for the trees.

"You need persistence,'' Murphy said. "It's not for the faint of heart. But at the Cal game last year (a 35-21 Gophers loss), it was 80 degrees and sunny. It was a good, hard-fought football game, and people were outside with friends and food and cold beverages, enjoying the last fleeting minutes of a Minnesota summer. If you didn't have fun there, you've got problems.''

It's expected this season will be another tough one. The Gophers enter Thursday's opener as only a three-point favorite to a Sun Belt Conference team missing its star quarterback, and are predicted to be one of the worst teams in the Big Ten.

As confirmed believers, Hughes, Murphy and company feel certain the Gophers will improve. They know some of their friends and co-workers will suspect they've drunk the heavily spiked Kool-Aid, but they also know there are open hearts and minds just waiting to be converted. Hughes, ever the salesman, already has lured a dozen new members to the Goal Line Club.

They may not see many victories this fall. That might chase off lesser souls, but not those who define sports utopia as a brisk Dinkytown afternoon filled with friends, food and an endless supply of hope.

"I've had co-workers and friends who wondered what I was doing, being a Gophers fan,'' Murphy said. "Then I brought them to a tailgater. They don't give me grief any more. If you love the whole college football experience, it's a good day no matter who wins.''

rachel blount •