On Oct. 10, 2003, I was at a very dramatic football game in the Twin Cities: Armstrong 21, Wayzata 20. On the deciding play, a two-point conversion attempt by Wayzata after a touchdown with 9 seconds left, Dom Barber was brought down short of the goal line by about a foot.
After the game ended — before the era of widespread smart phones — I learned from someone on the sideline that the Gophers were ahead 28-7 over Michigan, the game being played on a Friday night because of a potential Twins playoff conflict. I assumed all was well, that Minnesota would cruise to 7-0, so I wrote my game story and went home.
As it turned out, of course, it wound up being a double dose of bad news for the Barber family. Over at the Dome, older brother Marion’s 197 rushing yards had gone to waste.
That Michigan game in 2003 nobody can forget was notable for so many reasons, but try this one: It was the first time since 1987 that the Gophers had drawn more than 60,000 fans to the Dome for an opponent other than Iowa or Wisconsin. And after a 28-7 lead evaporated in a flurry of screen passes and a 38-35 loss, 62,374 people went home shocked, mad or both.
It turned out to be the last time the program has hit that attendance mark at home against opponents other than Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota State.
Once you get them in the building, you have a chance to keep them there. It’s as simple as that. And those are the games in which the Gophers have so often come up short — with Michigan being the most memorable scar of many.
59,004 fans at the Dome against Northwestern, the second-highest non-rival attendance of the Mason era, in the first home game after upsetting Ohio State in 2000? The Wildcats rally from 35-14 down in the second half to win 41-35.
65,089 fans for Wisconsin in 2005, with the Gophers sitting at 5-1 and coming off a dramatic win at Michigan? The blocked punt for a touchdown with 30 seconds left in a 38-34 loss.
53,090 fans for Wisconsin in 2013 at the smaller TCF Bank Stadium, with the Gophers at 8-2 after four straight Big Ten wins? A 20-7 loss.
Crowds of 50,000+ in 2015 for games against Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin? Loss, loss, loss.
At least back before 2009, Gophers fans had climate-controlled despair. Some fans genuinely like outdoor football. Many more, in my estimation, like talking about it more than experiencing it — particularly once we get to a chilly November.
When you’re disappointed and you’re freezing? That’s an extra tough sell, and a sneaky reason I imagine that the aforementioned 2015 sellout against the Badgers was the last one until Saturday against Penn State, with 26 home games in between (including two against Iowa and one against Wisconsin).
TCF Bank Stadium is a decade old, no longer new and exciting. The stadium itself won’t sell tickets.
Four head coaches (five counting interim Jeff Horton in 2010) have roamed the sidelines already, trying stir up passion in the fan base while getting over the hump competitively — two notions that are fiercely tied together.
The latest coach to try, P.J. Fleck, has the best chance since Glen Mason in 2003 of doing both.
This game against Penn State probably won’t be the only chance, and I dare say the one three weeks from now against Wisconsin will be even bigger once it arrives.
But the cold reality is this: At some point, the Gophers are going to have to do the thing they haven’t done in as long as anyone can remember and win a program-changing game.
Might as well start Saturday.