Darrell Thompson notices the jackets and hats now when he walks his dog. They’re not all the usual black North Face or Canada Goose parkas. Instead, he’s seeing more often those unmistakable shades of maroon and gold.
Thompson, a former star running back and current team radio analyst, said noticing this much Gophers gear in daily life — from the block “M” to coach P.J. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” slogan — is a first in his 51 years.
That subtle change signals a significant transformation: The Gophers are relevant again in Minnesota.
This year’s team is undefeated at 8-0, sporting a No. 17 College Football Playoff ranking and the best start to a season since 1941. This weekend presents the biggest game in more than a decade, when No. 4 Penn State, also 8-0, comes to a sold-out TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday morning. The Gophers have battled for significance in a saturated professional sports market for years. The team hasn’t won a Big Ten title or national championship since the 1960s, meaning many winning-starved Minnesotans haven’t progressed beyond casual fans.
Convert Andrew Wilson, 30, of Minneapolis, is a Pennsylvania native, grew up a die-hard Penn State fan and even went to school there, like his parents, before transferring to Minnesota in 2008. While he’s now a huge Gophers fan, he admitted to some culture shock when he first arrived on campus.
“It felt like a high school atmosphere,” Wilson said, comparing the Gophers’ crowds to Penn State’s 100,000-plus capacity. “… Got out here and was expecting more. But then I kind of realized the history, I mean, hasn’t been that great.”
That might be on the verge of change. The last time the Gophers seemed to have commandeered a spotlight this bright was when Michigan came to town in 2003. Ranked No. 17 at 6-0, the Gophers looked poised to beat No. 20 Michigan in front of a sold-out Metrodome crowd. Until they combusted in the fourth quarter and lost.
The Gophers coach at the time, Glen Mason, recalled the fervor that started around his team before that game, how that was the hardest ticket in town. But the next game, when the Gophers played No. 15 Michigan State at home, attendance dropped by more than 20,000.
“There’s a large part of Minnesota fans that are bandwagon fans. When things are going real good, they jump on. But they’re real quick to jump off,” Mason said, adding the Gophers’ historic year certainly has the team on the good side of that. “… The way you get them, it’s not through marketing, it’s not through all of that stuff. It’s through winning.”
There are die-hard fans, though, who have stuck with the team in hopes of having this success. But even the dedicated ones have the same is-this-too-good-to-be-true affliction of all Minnesota sports fans after many past instances, like that 2003 season, warning them against raising their hopes.
Penn State will be the Gophers’ first true test of the season. But with a two-game lead in the Big Ten West, Minnesota could still drop this game and make it to the conference championship. And with Fleck fresh off signing a new seven-year, $33 million contract, the Gophers have serious program momentum.
They announced Thursday that the game is sold out, the first time that’s happened for Minnesota since 2015. Thompson said he hopes fans come to Saturday’s game early and stay until the end to bask in the rare glory.
“This doesn’t happen all the time, every year,” Thompson said. “Hopefully, we get used to it a little bit.”
Not that the team itself is aware of any hubbub. Fleck’s culture preaches an 0-0 mentality, where the team only focuses on the next game. Keeping the outside hype at bay has worked so far, and Fleck said the players will have their chance to revel in retrospect.
“They have to understand, this is a time when you look back five to 10 years down the road, this is what you’re actually going to talk about,” Fleck said. “… That’s when you’re going to be able to have it all set in. That’s going to be the funnest part of this. Right now, you’re in the thick of things. Everybody else is enjoying it. You do it for other people.”
Those other people are the fans. Like 77-year-old St. Paul native Bruce Brill — named for Bruce Smith, the Gophers’ only Heisman Trophy winner, in 1941 — who road-tripped with five of his friends to the Gophers’ first Rose Bowl in 1961 during his freshman year at the school, when he paid $19 for all-sport season tickets and $1.75 for the bowl game. He’s retired to Florida now, but his voice tremors with palpable excitement when he talks about watching Saturday’s game on TV.
Kyle Leonard, 28, is a third-generation fan, with his grandmother, parents, three aunts and uncles, a cousin and both siblings all alumni. The family has a special connection with former Gophers punter Peter Mortell and former coach Jerry Kill, as the Leonards still display a team-signed football given to Eric Leonard, Kyle’s father, who passed away from nonsmoker’s lung cancer at age 55 in 2017. But Fleck has also charmed the family, changing the Leonards’ attitude from “We’re Minnesotans, we can’t have nice things” to a more confident outlook.
And it’s for 31-year-old Ryan Vanderbosch of Maple Grove, who went to a Gophers game with his dad and brother in 2005 about two weeks after his other brother died while fighting overseas in Iraq. They’ve been season-ticket holders ever since, with the brothers shot-gunning a beer in their middle brother Jake’s honor at home openers. Vanderbosch said if his brother could see the Gophers this season, he would think, “Finally.”
For this current Gophers team, it’s about the now, about stacking up as many wins as possible before the end of the season. But for Minnesotans, this moment means more, a culmination of many lifetimes of fun college antics, tragic personal losses and cherished family memories.
“It’s really cool when you have just the whole state, really, and people across the nation excited about Gopher football,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “It means a lot for our fans.”