In 2011, St. Peter, Minn., native Kurt Hildebrandt traveled to see the Gophers play USC at the L.A. Coliseum, a good 15 miles and at least a half-hour drive from the Rose Bowl.
Now 53, Hildebrandt figured that might be the closest he or his beloved Gophers would ever come to the “Granddaddy of Them All” — at least in his lifetime.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is maybe my chance,’ ” Hildebrandt said. “ ‘This is going to have to do in case something happens to me before they do get there.’ ”
Hildebrandt isn’t the only longtime Gophers football fan to feel that way. But in one of the greatest plot twists in Minnesota sports history, the Gophers are good. And not just that: They’re on track to make their first Rose Bowl since 1962.
ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and others have projected the Gophers to reach the Rose Bowl, with each predicting No. 2 Ohio State will be one of four teams picked for the College Football Playoff.
The Rose Bowl is not in the rotation this season for the CFP semifinals (the Peach and Fiesta bowls are). A Big Ten champion that does not qualify for the CFP will play in Pasadena on Jan. 1. If the Big Ten champion does make a CFP semifinal, then the Rose Bowl bosses decide on a Big Ten replacement team. That should mean the second-best team in the conference, which right now is Minnesota.
The No. 8 Gophers (9-0) have three regular-season games left, including Saturday at No. 20 Iowa, with a two-game West Division lead. Going 3-0 or even 2-1 would seal a trip to the Big Ten title game — and quite possibly the Rose Bowl. Two losses could pit Minnesota against Michigan, Penn State and possibly Wisconsin, though the Gophers beat Penn State, which beat Michigan. The Gophers face Wisconsin in the regular-season finale.
Also on Minnesota’s side: TV ratings. ABC’s broadcast of the Gophers’ 31-26 win against Penn State last weekend was the network’s highest noontime audience in nearly three seasons, with an average of more than 6.7 million viewers. Bowl executives rely on data like that to determine the excitement level within each fan base.
There is also the chance the Gophers make the CFP themselves, though they would almost certainly have to go 13-0, beating Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Since a CFP trip would mean missing the Rose Bowl this season, this has given some Gophers fans a real crisis of conscience.
Like e-mailer Hugh, who contacted the Star Tribune in October to share a hypothetical question: “If the Gophers win the Big Ten and get invited to the national championship playoffs, should they decline it and take the Rose Bowl?” Hugh wrote he’d “be tempted.”
Former Gophers coach Glen Mason said he has never-ending debates with fellow Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo about that. Mason is sure most Big Ten fan bases would choose the Rose Bowl over the CFP.
“I mean, that’s ingrained. That’s been a carrot that’s been dangled for a while,” Mason said. “… I’m sure there’s a lot of Minnesota fans thinking, ‘Man, I’m running out of years.’ ”
Like Hildebrandt, who told his wife upon their marriage that no matter where they were in life, if the Gophers made the Rose Bowl, he had to go because his dream is to see Minnesota painted in maroon and gold in one of the iconic stadium’s end zones.
Only a few have experienced that. Marshall’s Wally Brewers, 88, went to the 1961 loss and the 1962 victory, traveling on Route 66 to visit his wife’s family in the area for the holidays and staying for the game. He said he has “fingers crossed” for making a third Rose Bowl memory.
But 47-year-old Kyle Nelson of Moorhead had the take Gophers coach P.J. Fleck would probably endorse. While Nelson said he’d do “whatever it takes” to be at this year’s Rose Bowl, he’s also not letting his hopes rise too high — for Pasadena, the CFP or even Iowa this weekend.
“I’ve been a Gophers fan my whole life and seen a lot of heartbreak, and I’m a realist,” Nelson said. “It’s kind of first things first for me.”