Don’t remind Daniel Black that he ponied up for some of the best seats money could buy to glimpse Auburn’s bid for glory at the Final Four in Minneapolis.
As the crowd roared inside a transformed U.S. Bank Stadium during Saturday’s semifinal games, the investment banker from Birmingham paced before a TV screen in a lounge area just outside the frenzy, nerves frayed thin by the marquee event in college basketball’s biggest tournament. The evening dealt his team a last-second loss to Virginia before Michigan State and Texas Tech faced off.
“I’m so nervous I could barely sleep. I don’t have an appetite,” Black said in a drawl Southern enough to beg for a football reference. “I feel like we’re playing in the Iron Bowl.”
Never mind the rain and the daunting cross-country quests undertaken by truck, bus and plane. A crush of out-of-town visitors, estimated at 100,000 strong, crammed into the Twin Cities this weekend as the four remaining teams faced off at a stadium built for football.
Attendance on Saturday night at U.S. Bank Stadium was 72,711, and the area around the stadium, including the light-rail platform, was crowded at least until 11:30 p.m.
Ahead of Saturday night’s two semifinal matchups, fans milled around the rain-slicked streets in downtown Minneapolis in high spirits. Shortly before tipoff, they raised shouts, streamers and cups of beer before clasping hands during more turbulent moments.
Some drove through the night while others flew in from overseas. Fans came in cowboy hats, baseball caps and Spartan helmets, snapping photos with the Mary Tyler Moore statue and queuing up for the Ferris wheel on Nicollet Mall. One woman slipped on a custom Gucci tiger jacket to cheer on Auburn.
Minneapolis police nodded to Saturday’s rain for helping keep things “exceedingly quiet” in terms of trouble. Final Four organizers also reported smooth sailing and steady crowds, calling the damp weather a “nonissue.”
“Snow doesn’t stop Minnesotans. I’m pretty sure rain isn’t going to do anything,” said spokesperson Maggie Habashy.
In the lobby of the Hyatt Regency on Nicollet Mall, a group of Michigan State fans sat out the rain drinking coffee and snatching up the green and white gear for sale nearby.
Then, legendary retired pro Charles Barkley walked in, the colors of his alma mater, Auburn University, proudly on display.
“Mr. Barkley, Mr. Barkley,” some Spartan fans called out. But he rushed out the door and into a black SUV.
The rain showers also drove thousands of fans inside the Minneapolis Convention Center as they lined up for autographs and games at the Final Four Fan Fest. A man called Squeaky parked his wheelchair where crowds were thickest and fielded high-fives like a jolly lord of super-fandom.
“You’ve heard the Donna Fargo song ‘The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA?’ Well, right now I’m the happiest boy,” said Alvin “Squeaky” Marquart, 85, in town from Missouri for his 30th straight Final Four.
Matt Brokenshire from Lansing, Mich., showed up at Fan Fest decked out in a full Michigan State suit — from his green jacket to white pants with the Michigan State “S” logo to his green and white Nikes.
“We’re in Big Ten country, so I’m expecting a little more support here than anywhere else,” Brokenshire said.
Crowds quickly swelled Saturday afternoon on Nicollet Mall as fans jammed to the brassy sounds of university bands and the Ferris wheel creaked and loomed over huge lines.
Michigan State freshmen Carrie Blair and Michael Nguyen leapt up and down while their school’s band performed. The students brought along a few good-luck charms on their 10-hour drive to Minneapolis. Blair had on her fuzzy green and white socks, which she has worn for all the tournament games.
Nguyen made sure to sport his T-shirt signed by Spartan players Matt McQuaid and Cassius Winston.
“It was like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I said, ‘Why not? Let’s go do it,’ ” Nguyen said.
By 4 p.m., a thick parade of fans was already making its way toward U.S. Bank Stadium, sloshing beers at tailgates along the route and paying scant attention to the street preachers calling out from busier corners.
Jonathan Bailey drove 14 hours to Minneapolis with three fellow Texas Tech grads squished in the back of his Ford F-150. As he double-fisted cups of beer, Bailey recounted his team’s emotional win in the Elite Eight.
“I’m not ashamed to say I cried when we won the Elite Eight,” he said. “I bought tickets to the Final Four within an hour.”
Fans outside the stadium hollered their schools’ cheers. Chris Baum waved an orange streamer at other Virginia fans, shouting, “Go hoos!” Baum and her husband, David, first met in Charlottesville, Va., 40 years ago.
“We’ve waited a long time for this,” she said.
Crowds inside swept their eyes over a football venue transformed by $5 million custom curtains and additional seating to set the stage for spectators. The $1.1 billion stadium capacity increased to 72,000 for the games Saturday and Monday.
Kevin McEwan, an insurance salesman from San Antonio, wore a black shirt with “Got tortillas?” written on it — a nod to his alma mater’s proud tradition of tossing tortillas in the air ahead of a football game kickoff. McEwan has been to other Final Fours but said they lacked enthusiasm.
“Those felt like exhibition games,” he said. “Here, you can feel the spirit.”
As soon as the first game wrapped, cleaners descended on the student sections and picked up every scrap of paper before escorting Michigan State and Texas Tech fans inside.
The Spartans appeared to be close to filling their 600-seat section. In the back row was sophomore Greg Lamdis who, like many in the Spartans contingent, wore a new white headband handed out by the school in honor of star Cassius Winston.
“This could be the best sports moment of my life,” Lamdis said.
The energy spilled out of the stadium into nearby bars and hotels, where fans kept their eyes glued to television screens. Inside the Marquette Hotel, Megan Soderberg reveled with family members in Virginia’s win.
“I was confident he would make [the free throws],” Soderberg, the sister of UVA’s assistant coach Brad Soderberg, said of the clutch shots made by Kyle Guy to seal the game. Tomorrow, she said, she foresees some family downtime before the hunt for tickets to Monday’s championship game begins.
For some, the evening ended in heartbreak. Chuck Ellis, a state trooper from Albertville, Ala., lamented the controversial foul call that ended Auburn’s run.
“I feel sick to my stomach,” he said.
At his seat, Ellis shook his head and fought back tears for a dream deferred — at least until next spring.
Staff writers Jessie Van Berkel, Greg Stanley, Miguel Otárola, Rochelle Olson, Liz Sawyer and University of Minnesota student David Mullen, who is on assignment for the Star Tribune, contributed to this report.