The Mike Zimmer era unofficially begins Friday night when the Vikings trickle out of the tunnel at TCF Bank Stadium. Their preseason opener also kicks off a two-year stint at their new temporary home.
Officials from the Vikings and the University of Minnesota have been preparing for this moment for two years, even before reaching an official agreement last May. For the most part, TCF will look like the facility Gophers fans are used to seeing every Saturday. But the Vikings have taken strides to make the stadium feel like home on Sundays in addition to making $6.6 million worth of upgrades.
“We’ve been in constant contact with both the university and the NFL over the past two years to make this transition as smooth as possible,” said Jeff Anderson, Vikings executive director of communications. “It’s been an incredible effort and extremely collaborative, especially over the last eight months. It’s a strong partnership and we expect that to continue over the next two years.”
The costliest change was the installation of a hydronic heating system under the field and the purchase of a new FieldTurf playing surface, which cost the Vikings approximately $2.5 million. The Vikings — who watched former quarterback Brett Favre suffer a concussion in his final game after a hard tackle to the frozen turf when they were forced to play at TCF in December 2010 — pushed to make that change.
“As an organization, it’s always our focus to keep our player as safe as possible,” Anderson said.
Additional upgrades, not all of which will be noticed by the fans, include increased storage space for team equipment and gameday needs, winterizing the concourse restrooms, installing needed technology for NFL replay reviews, adding heaters to the loge boxes on the fourth floor of the stadium, and putting in 1,720 bleacher seats in the west end zone, bringing the stadium’s capacity to 52,525.
The Vikings also will pay the University of Minnesota $6 million in rent over the next two seasons.
Aesthetically speaking, the team’s Norseman logo will be painted at midfield before every Vikings home game and the end zones will be purple with “Minnesota” painted in the university’s block text. The Vikings also will utilize video boards and permanent banners to make TCF feel more like home, though they can’t do anything about all those maroon seats beyond keeping their purple-clad fans in them.
“We want to make it as much of a home environment as possible,” Anderson said.
The team is confident that the changes they have made — along with more points of entry to the stadium, the addition of more food and beverage kiosks in the concourse and the gameday closure of Oak Street outside the west end of the stadium to create a family-friendly hangout — will give fans a better experience than the Metrodome.
“Generally speaking, this is going to be a much better fan experience than what our fans were accustomed to at Mall of America Field,” Anderson said. “You’re going to have a more intimate setting, tremendous sightlines, state-of-the-art video boards, nearly twice as many restrooms and a variety of food and beverage options.”
The team’s football operations and coaching staff have been preparing for this move for a while, too. Zimmer has taken multiple trips to the team’s temporary home, though he did not take the whole team to TCF in anticipation for tonight’s game.
The Vikings did, however, send their special teams specialists — kicker Blair Walsh, punter Jeff Locke and long snapper Cullen Loeffler — there at times during the offseason, and they reported back to Zimmer and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer with detailed charts on wind patterns inside the stadium.
One decision Zimmer made based on his trips to TCF was to use the north sideline instead of the south one that the Gophers use. The reasoning was that the north sideline should be a bit warmer with the sun hitting it during frigid December or January home games, something the Gophers don’t have to worry about because their home schedule typically ends in November.
“We did a study on the wind. We did a study on the temperatures, things like that, which side is a little bit more conducive to the better conditions as opposed to the other side,” Zimmer explained.
Zimmer is aware that NFL teams typically have struggled while playing at interim home venues, but he spoke with his players this week about developing the mentality needed to buck that trend.
His players are looking forward to getting acclimated with their temporary home in the preseason, starting tonight.
“I haven’t been there before, but with our home crowd and our tremendous fan base, I think we’ll definitely be able to turn it into a home stadium,” quarterback Matt Cassel said. “Come Friday night when we get to see that sea of purple out there, we’ll go out there and it will be a lot of fun for all of us.”