Patrick Reusse: Bringing fan base back to life requires just the right jolt

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 5, 2010 - 12:51 AM

If officials realize how far off the radar football has fallen, they'd seize the chance to hire the best winner and character available.

The University of Minnesota's search for a football coach is being conducted by two gentlemen, athletic director Joel Maturi and consultant Dave Mona, who could be operating under this flawed premise:

A groundswell of Gophers football interest permeates Minnesota and only requires consistent success against former North Central Conference teams, current MAC teams and perennial second-division Big Ten teams in order to come to the surface.

Through the years, many Minnesotans have considered Gophers football to be a very important attraction on this state's sports scene, but unfortunately the largest share of those people are dead, and the rest of us are hanging on by our cracked fingernails.

For a couple of decades, we've been referring to the generations lost to the Gophers football fan base, although it was based more on perception than concrete examples.

The skeptics could cite Saturdays of dreadful attendance in the Metrodome, and we would hear it was because the Dome wasn't a true home for the Gophers. We would hear, "The students aren't going to a run-of-the-mill game played off campus,'' or, "You need pageantry; you need the band marching down University Avenue.''

And for these 20-plus years, we also would be reminded: "Look what happened when Lou Holtz came to Minneapolis. Gophers fans came out of hibernation and filled the Metrodome to the Teflon sky.''

Against all odds, U of M President Robert Bruininks signed on to the concept of bringing back football to campus. The university used a hunk of its fundraising and legislative clout and made it a reality:

The first new football stadium for a Big Ten school in 50 years.

The new brickhouse opened in fall 2009, and that's when we started to find out with 100 percent accuracy that Gophers football was a take it-or-leave-it proposition to dang near everyone under 60 in Minnesota.

Minnesotans have such an appreciation for new that, a decade ago, people from Eden Prairie, Plymouth and Maple Grove who had never been east of Hwy. 280 started flocking to downtown St. Paul to watch an expansion hockey team play in the shiny Xcel Energy Center.

That was repeated, and multiplied, with the 3 million-plus ticketholders who made their way into Target Field this year.

You could ask people who didn't know the difference between a baseball and a cantaloupe how they liked the ballpark and you would hear, "Can't wait to go back.''

A year earlier, TCF Bank Stadium opened for the Gophers, and Minnesotans showed up to take a look and what you heard was, "I've seen it; I'll be back when they win a bunch.''

Sellouts were announced, but by early October, the new Gophers stadium was out of the local sports conversation, and by mid-October, the students were no-showing at the on-campus football yard.

And then came Season 2 in TCF Bank, with visits from Southern Cal, Penn State, Ohio State and Iowa. Ticket demand was nil. And on the day Penn State was here, there weren't more than 35,000 bodies inside a 50,000-seat stadium.

You know how much public indifference it takes for a Big Ten football team to be in its second season in a new stadium to have 30 percent of the seats empty for Penn State?

That's what Maturi and Mona should have had in mind as they set off on this search: those rows, those sections of emptiness, when Joe Paterno brought his team to town.

And they should have been searching in the knowledge that it wasn't a latent madness for Gophers football that caused a jam-packed Metrodome way back in 1984 and 1985.

The attraction was Holtz, not the Gophers. The attraction was that a coach we knew as a star of his profession had chosen to come to Minnesota.

There was one such name available to Maturi and Mona, if they had chosen to forget the comparatively minor indiscretion that ended his Texas Tech employment:

Mike Leach.

He's not Holtz as an orator, but he's a name, and a character, and a winner, and a builder of record-breaking passing games, and for the U of M to pass on this opportunity to hire Leach, it would show the M&M boys don't properly appreciate how far off the radar Gophers football resides.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • preusse@startribune.com

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