You might not know it by looking at him, but Jerry Kill is a party guy. And not the small, intimate-gathering cocktail-party type, either.
"Let's get it on. It should be the biggest party in the state," the Gophers coach said this week, by way of issuing 5 million invitations to his latest bash. "That's the way it ought to be -- I'm not going to apologize for saying that."
No, it's the excuse-me attitude of Gophers crowds in the past that he's hoping to charge up. At Kill's behest, the university, with the city's approval, will close Oak St. between 4th and 5th Streets --the road between TCF Bank Stadium and Mariucci Arena -- at 10:30 a.m. Saturday for the first of what Kill hopes becomes a long tradition of student tailgate parties.
"There's no place for them to really tailgate. So we're saying, the students are important," Kill said. "That's why we all get paychecks -- the students. We always complain about the students, but none of us would have a job if it wasn't for the students. So I think we ought to take care of them."
Now all the Gophers have to do is find enough partiers to fill their stadium.
More than 1,200 tickets for Saturday's home opener against New Mexico State remained as of Thursday, plus roughly half of the 10,000 student tickets for the east end zone. The Gophers are hoping the forecast of sunshine and 80 degrees creates a walk-up crowd, but associate athletic director Jason LaFrenz conceded that the effects of the football team's 3-9 season in 2010 still lingers, despite the optimism Kill's hiring has created.
"It's tough to gauge how far behind that has put us," LaFrenz said. "Let's just say, we've got to sell a lot of tickets in the next two weeks."
About 3,500 seats worth of season tickets weren't renewed this year, he said, roughly 10 percent of the Gophers' base. Some springtime marketing around Kill's debut added 2,000 new ticket-holders, but "we got a lot of responses that basically said, 'We're waiting to see if the team is competitive,'" LaFrenz said.
The Gophers were competitive at Southern California last Saturday, falling 19-17 only after a last-minute pass was intercepted, and "that's created a lot of buzz around the team," LaFrenz said. "That should help. Whether it's enough to sell out the nonconference games, we're going to find out soon."
The conference games are another matter, especially with Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa all visiting TCF Bank Stadium this year. With prices for those games in triple-digits on secondary-ticket markets such as StubHub, LaFrenz said he has heard of a few Nebraskans buying season tickets, just for the Huskers' Oct. 22 visit. "We've been encouraging our season-ticket holders to hold on to their tickets, so they can attend a great game," LaFrenz said. "We could probably have taken out an ad in the Omaha Herald and sold a bunch of tickets, but we want our fans to keep the red out of TCF Bank Stadium."
As for the students, LaFrenz said slow early sales picked up once classes began this week, but the $84 season tickets might still fall behind last season's level, at least until Big Ten games start next month.
That's why Kill's initiative to attract more students is so important. A band will entertain the crowd, while the school will be setting up games, selling food and drinks, and this Saturday, giving away several hundred pizzas. The football team will continue its "victory walk" tradition to the stadium through the crowd at 12:15 p.m., with Kill leading the way.
A walk through campus in the spring caught Kill's attention, the coach said.
"They had the spring bash or something, and they had everything shut down. Just one big hoopla party, everybody's having a great time," Kill said. "And I said, 'Why don't they do that on game day?' ... You go to Nebraska and Lincoln, that's what they do. We should be user-friendly, that's all I'm saying."
Funny thing is, Kill doesn't get to enjoy his party; he's so locked into his game-day responsibilities, he barely notices the atmosphere, he said. But he knows how to market his team and his sport.
"It's got to be fun. It's not going to happen overnight -- we've got to win some football games, too," Kill said. "Everywhere I've been, [the atmosphere around games] has gotten better, and it's still going pretty good."