The Gophers announced their smallest crowd in TCF Bank Stadium's four-year history Saturday -- 41,062 tickets distributed and even fewer who actually walked through the gates to witness a one-sided 44-28 victory over Purdue.
It's a shame, because freshman quarterback Philip Nelson put on a show in his second start and any opportunity to sit outdoors and watch college football is a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, even as a neutral observer.
Thanks to a gracious sports editor, I stepped out of the press box, attended Saturday's game for the first time as a spectator and accepted invitations to a few tailgate parties of fans who shared their food and thoughts on the program and gameday experience.
That last point remains a sensitive subject as school officials exhaust every conceivable idea to combat sagging attendance. From my perspective, the pregame setup and tailgating opportunities seem suitable for a fun gameday atmosphere. They just need more people and energy to make it truly festive.
The answer to that, of course, is to achieve success on the field, which is not exactly a news bulletin. Decades of losing football have driven away fringe fans who have found other ways to spend their fall Saturdays. Winning breeds excitement, drives interest and creates a bandwagon effect. That's Jerry Kill's mission. And that's what I heard and felt in many conversations Saturday morning.
10 a.m., Lot 37
Owatonna resident Chris Holm had breakfast burritos on the grill, beverages on ice. A season-ticket holder since 2000, Holm and a group of buddies attend every home game and make one Big Ten road trip each season.
Holm was less than thrilled with the recent decision to cancel a home-and-home series with North Carolina, but not enough to make him stay home. He went to school during the Wacker Era, so he has had his faith tested.
"There's plenty of diehards," he said, "but not enough to make it 50,000 strong every single Saturday."
11 a.m., Gateway Lot
Paul Sommerstad played football at St. Thomas and never attended the U, but he and some friends spent $2,000 on a school bus formerly used to transport prisoners in Faribault and dubbed it the "Killwagon." They make several stops at bars along the way to the stadium to pick up fans.
Their party includes a DJ and usually draws a large crowd. The guest list Saturday included a guy dressed as ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian for Halloween who did a spot-on imitation while holding a microphone.
"We're doing our part to improve the atmosphere and have a good time and bring in more people," Sommerstad said. "I just don't comprehend why more people don't want to come out and socialize."
Noon, Maroon Lot
Brandon Ulstad lives in a Minnesota town named Madison -- "Don't say Wisconsin," he joked -- on the South Dakota border. He makes the three-hour drive for every home game.
"We live where everybody hunts," he said. "People ask me if I hunt. I say, 'No, we get up a 4 o'clock and we go to Gophers games instead of going out and hunting for pheasants. It's the thing I love to do."
He parks in the same spot, a short walk from where the Gophers begin their Victory Walk into the stadium. His spread included an unhealthy but delicious pan of Fruity Pebbles bars, which seemed a bit curious since Ulstad is a dentist.
"They're really good," he said, smiling.
Ulstad owns six season tickets but said he and his wife, Courtney, have trouble finding friends to join them.
"The stadium is awesome," he said. "I want them to win. I want to have fun. I want my kids to have a history of watching them win and do well."
Recent graduates Brandon Walter and Stephen Lyngstad tailgate next to Ulstad. They view gameday atmosphere from a student's perspective and wish tailgating was more affordable to that demographic.
"That's really what Big Ten football is all about," Walter said. "Obviously the game itself is a whole lot of fun, but it's the atmosphere before and after the game as well. You see a lot of times where people come in two hours before game time. That doesn't really build an atmosphere from that standpoint."
1 p.m., Ski-U-Mah Lot
Former Gophers players Ben Utecht, Dan Nystrom and Ron Johnson arrived at the same time and stopped to chat. Utecht attends every home game possible and is scheduled to sing the national anthem this Saturday before the Michigan game. The former NFL tight end sounded particularly disappointed in the dismal student turnout against Purdue.
"You look to that side of the end zone and it's just bare," he said. "We brought the stadium back [on campus] to promote student participation. If I had any challenge, it would be to the students. I can't stress to them enough how important it is to a player. If I could put it in bold letters, we need you. That's how we feel. We need you. Show up, please."
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org