For Gophers, Metrodome went from blessing to curse

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 27, 2013 - 12:10 PM

The Metrodome, first seen as a recruiting advantage for the U and later as a curse, will lose its college tenant Saturday. The football program thrived at first, but after Lou Holtz left, 'You didn't know what time of day it was.'

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Mike Hohensee was the quarterback for the Gophers in 1982 as they ushered in a new era under the Teflon-coated ceiling of the Metrodome. He can still vividly recall the sights and sounds of that historic season.

The buzz in the community. The near-sellout crowds that showed up for Big Ten games. The speed of the turf. The incredible noise of game days.

"I can still remember the way the sound echoed," Hohensee said. "That's one thing that still comes back to me. Sometimes it was so loud that it would echo in your helmet."

It was, Hohensee said, a great college football environment. He is not alone in that view.

"A great building," said Rickey Foggie, Hohensee's successor as starting quarterback.

The Gophers will play their final game in the Metrodome on Saturday, ending 27 years of what now seem to be mostly bad memories. The Dome has been denigrated in recent seasons both as a place lacking in atmosphere and for its inability to produce revenue required of a major college program. Getting the chance to leave the Dome might have been the best argument for building the new on-campus stadium that will open next fall.

But is the Dome really to blame for the Gophers' woes of almost three decades?

Most who have more than a passing knowledge of the football program say no. The blame lies not with the building, according to numerous past university administrators, coaches and players, but with a combination of factors that included coaching, cultural changes and a lack of commitment from top university officials.

The building? It was billed as a place that would attract skill players from warmer climates. And, to a large extent, it did.

"It was a great recruiting tool," Foggie said. "We had a lot of guys from Florida, a lot of guys like myself who would have never even made a recruiting trip to Minnesota without the Dome. For us to come and play outside? No chance."

Make no mistake, things did go terribly awry for the Gophers in the Dome. Their history in the building is a litany of losing seasons, heartbreaking defeats and a dwindling fan base.

But players such as Hohensee and Foggie, as well as civic leaders and university administrators, say it could have been different.

Turning point

Say what you want about Lou Holtz's lack of loyalty when he bolted for Notre Dame after two seasons, but this much is undeniable: He re-energized the Gophers football program when he replaced Joe Salem before the 1984 season. Nobody embraced the Metrodome more than Holtz, who saw the artificial turf as the perfect complement to his trademark option offense.

The university in essence had a two-year trial, with an out clause, when it moved to the Dome in 1982. But in December of 1984, shortly after he was hired, Holtz gave an emotional 10-minute speech to university regents who were debating whether to sign a long-term Dome lease or move back to Memorial Stadium.

"No doubt about it, the athletes want to play in the Dome," Holtz told the regents. "We're going to own that sucker when we walk in there."

The debate was over. Regents approved a 27-year lease, and Memorial Stadium -- home to six national championship football teams -- was destined for the wrecking ball.

Fans embraced Holtz's boundless energy and enthusiasm. In 1985, his second season, the Gophers averaged 60,985 fans for seven home games.

On the field, Holtz took the Gophers from the debacle of the Joe Salem era, which concluded with 17 consecutive Big Ten losses, to a .500 conference finish and a bowl bid in two seasons.

Then it was over. Holtz took advantage of his own out clause, bolting for his "dream job" of Notre Dame. The Gophers handed the reins to Holtz's defensive coordinator, John Gutekunst.

Three seasons later, in 1988, the Gophers were winless in the Big Ten (0-6-2) and average attendance slipped to 44,665. The Gophers would not average more than 50,000 a game until 2006, and that season's total increased because of 60,000-plus crowds against neighboring North Dakota State and Iowa. Over the years, the attendance figures were frequently inflated because the announced figures were generally greater than the actual attendance.

"Lou would have built a consistent winner," said McKinley Boston, a former Gophers athletic director who is now AD at New Mexico State. "He had that 'it.' I don't think we ever had that kind of special leader again with the program. Glen [Mason] had some moderate success. But certainly as many people that loved him hated him. After Holtz, there was never that feeling of, 'We're all on this ship behind this guy and this program.'"

The failure to find a coach of Holtz's stature had a domino effect. Recruiting pipelines that opened in the south before southern schools integrated, pipelines that led to the 1960 national championship and 1967 Big Ten title, dried up.

The university administration lacked the commitment needed for successful athletic programs, according to some athletic administrators and coaches. Boston said that during his tenure as AD, several athletes told him they couldn't wear their letter jackets to class because professors were so negative toward athletics.

"Anyone who says we lost because of the building ... I would be 180 degrees diametrically opposed to that opinion," said Twin Cities businessman and university booster Harvey Mackay, a prominent Dome supporter. "If you look at every business that fails in the United States, both big and small, you'll find poor management, No. 1, and lack of money, No. 2. It's no different at Minnesota. When you have good coaching staffs and management [at the university president level], you succeed."

Curse of the Dome

When things went bad for the Gophers after Holtz left, the Dome became a target of criticism. An easy target, because its faults were legitimate.

"It went from the Dome being no factor to really disliking playing here," Mason said of his 10-year tenure. "To me, it wasn't college football. It was like going to Las Vegas. You didn't know what time of day it was. ... When you were inside, it was a dark feeling, kind of a depressing feeling, and it wasn't ours."

Gutekunst, too, said he missed the atmosphere that comes with on-campus, outdoor football. "I guess I'm too old-fashioned," he said. "I'm not an indoor type guy."

The state of Minnesota produces between eight to 12 legitimate Division I prospects each year, making it imperative to recruit out-of-state. The Dome might have helped early. But the building, coupled with the failure to win, became a tough sell.

Even players who did come to Minnesota sometimes felt second class.

"It can get loud with 40,000 to 45,000 people, just because it's a dome," said Sean Hoffman, a linebacker from 1997 through 2000. "But what you noticed as a player were the 20,000 to 25,000 empty seats. You didn't always get as fired up as you did going to Iowa or Wisconsin and seeing the atmosphere those kids got to play in."

And the Dome's bottom line was not kind to the U. Minnesota ranked ninth in the Big Ten in revenue generated from football in 2006 -- the most recent year numbers are available -- with $17.39 million. The new stadium should add at least $3.3 million of revenue, according to school officials.

But there was another problem with the Dome. Something inexplicable. The number of bizarre losses defied explanation. Coaches, players and fans came to expect bad things to happen.

"It was almost like a curse, and I say that because of some of the crazy things," Mason said.

And so, for all those reasons, there will be very few tears shed Saturday when the Gophers lower the curtain on the Dome.

"Good riddance," Boston said when asked of his emotions.

But not everyone feels that way.

"I'll definitely be at the game [Saturday], and it's going to be bittersweet," Foggie said. "The new [TCF] stadium is unbelievable. ... But a part of me just hates to see them go away from the Dome. The four years I played, we probably averaged about 60,000 a game, and it was a great atmosphere."

  • GOPHERS VS. IOWA

    6 p.m. Saturday • Metrodome • TV: Big Ten Network (830-AM)

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