TAMPA, Fla. – As the University of Minnesota marching band played the fight song down Seventh Avenue in the historic Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa., Fla., on Tuesday night, the sidewalks flooded with Gophers fans.
Colorful Mardi Gras beads dangled around their necks, swinging across the Gophers logos emblazoned on their T-shirts. Parents, children and college students were singing along, snapping iPhone photos and generally reveling on New Year’s Eve ahead of the Gophers game Wednesday against Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
Gophers fans have invaded the area, spotted everywhere from the beach to the city streets to the Gophers team hotel lobby, which was in full-swing crowded happy hour mode Tuesday afternoon.
“If we went to the mall, there’d probably be, like, one every 500 feet,” is how defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway estimated the number of Gophers fans readying to support the team at Raymond James Stadium.
Athletic director Mark Coyle put a more official number on it, saying the Gophers sold 8,000 tickets for the game and filled several charter flights with fans.
“I can tell you being at the beach yesterday in Clearwater and being in downtown Tampa last night and again this morning, it seemed like there’s Gophers fans everywhere,” Coyle said. “So just really grateful for people who bought tickets and are coming down here. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of Gopher fans in Naples and Fort Myers area that are coming to the game, too. So it should be a good turnout for us.”
Jason Hernesman, 51, of Apple Valley was already in the state visiting family for the holidays but made the 2½-hour drive across to the opposite coast for the game with his college-aged daughter and son. The lifelong fan said he remembered “a lot of dark days” supporting the Gophers, but that might have been hard to recall when on a warm beach Monday, basking in a 10-2 season.
Gophers alum Emily Heinbockel, a 29-year-old Prior Lake native, came down from Charlotte, N.C., with a friend. She said she was “super excited” to watch the Gophers play a big-name opponent in Auburn even if the Outback Bowl isn’t quite as cool as the Rose Bowl, which the Gophers were in contention for until the final game of the regular season.
But in one way, the Gophers have already won their postseason.
“I’ve seen more of them than Auburn fans,” Heinbockel said of Gophers supporters.
The strength of the Gophers contingent has importance beyond just cheering power at the game. Coyle said during the evaluation process for which teams a bowl game might invite, fan presence is a big component.
“If you can tell a really good story about your fans traveling and how well they travel, and obviously, the excitement of the season, going 10-2, playing a great opponent in Auburn, it’s a great story,” Coyle said. “I can tell you, the Outback Bowl is thrilled with what we’ve been doing. Jim McVay [Outback Bowl president/CEO], in talking with him, is just so excited about the number of donors who come down, regents who have come down, and our president’s been at the events. It’s been a great turnout. They’re really excited about what we’re doing, and that kind of spreads throughout the bowl community, which only helps us as we continue to build our program.”
Coyle said now the Gophers’ job is to not take their collective foot off the gas pedal and keep the sense of urgency around the program to build from this season.
But for Wednesday, at least, the only item on the to-do list was to relish the moment. Like couple Dan and Ashlie McCauley, who grew up with Gophers coach P.J. Fleck and have followed his career. Their sons, 8-year-old Daniel and 5-year-old Scott, played catch in the Gulf of Mexico with some of the Gophers players Monday at an Outback Bowl event.
For the McCauleys and many other fans, seeing the Gophers in the Outback Bowl has been an excuse to take a trip, whether that be for family fun, relaxation or just an escape from the cold. And making that possible for so many is what has one Gophers player most proud.
“If you look at our season, I was saying that we lost two games, so that was kind of not in our goals. But for the fans, you know, it’s something that’s never been done, and they get to enjoy it and get to bring their families down,” Dew-Treadway said. “It’s definitely cool to see everybody traveling, and it’s good to just see people with their families on holiday, so that’s pretty cool. I like that a lot.
“See people happy during the holidays. Not everybody gets that opportunity.”