Michele Tafoya was preparing for a “Sunday Night Football” telecast two years ago, when she grabbed her iPad to check the Gophers’ score. Jerry Kill’s squad had Nebraska on the ropes.
“I actually had Cris Collinsworth, Al Michaels, our producer and director all kind of sitting around this iPad, watching this great upset,” Tafoya said. “And I remember thinking, something may be happening in Minnesota.”
Last year only compounded that feeling for many fans, as Kill led the Gophers to their first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962.
As the Gophers get ready to open practice Friday, Minnesota has become a place where college football matters on a national level again. Longtime observers are calling the Sept. 3 game against TCU the Gophers’ most tantalizing season opener since O.J. Simpson and USC visited Memorial Stadium in 1968.
The schedule also includes prime-time national TV games against Ohio State and Michigan, along with the annual showdowns with Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin. Season-ticket sales have been comparable to last year, despite steep price increases.
The Gophers haven’t sold out a game at 52,525-seat TCF Bank Stadium since their home finale against Wisconsin in 2013. They have an 11-game losing streak against the Badgers and are 0-3 in bowl games under Kill.
But after drawing an estimated 20,000 fans for their Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri, and their largest spring-game crowd (10,100) since the Lou Holtz era, the Gophers would love to see that popularity soar.
“Nothing against the neighbors around the stadium, but I hope they enjoy noise,” said Bob Hughes, president of the Goal Line Club. “Because can you imagine how much fun that’s going to be – Michigan at home on Halloween night. For a college kid, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Bidding for the playoff
While the Gophers hope to build off back-to-back 8-5 seasons, Minneapolis will have its fingers crossed on another front. The city has a bid to host the 2020 College Football Playoff Championship Game at the new Vikings stadium. A decision is expected in October.
“I think the demonstrated excitement for the Gophers translates into a better bid [for the title game]. I think it’s one of the factors,” Gov. Mark Dayton said, noting that local Division II and Division III schools have been thriving for years on a national level.
“I kidded Coach Kill that we’re looking forward to having the Gophers be the first home team in the championship game,” Dayton added.
That might be a reach, but Dayton remembers when college football was king in Minnesota. The Gophers owned the spotlight when they were winning national titles in the 30s, 40s and then again in 1960. The Dayton family had four season tickets, and the future governor attended nearly every home game.
“I remember Iowa coming in the fall of ’60, — the No. 1 team in the nation and the Gophers were No. 2 [in the UPI poll],” Dayton said. “And the Gophers just stomped them.”
This year, Ohio State is No. 1 and TCU is No. 2 in the preseason coaches poll, with the Gophers at No. 34. Kill expects to have a formidable defense, but the offense must replace running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, leaving a big challenge for junior quarterback Mitch Leidner.
Hello, national stage
The Minnesota/TCU game falls on the first day of the college football season, and ESPN will be there for the 8 p.m., kickoff. When was the last time Minnesota had an opener this intriguing, combining high expectations for the local team with a big-time opponent?
“I’m thinking you go back to the ’68 opener against USC,” said Stew Thornley, a local author and sports historian. “The Gophers were coming off the Big Ten title [in 1967], and USC had O.J. Simpson, maybe the greatest running back in college football history.”
With a crowd of 60,820 crammed into Memorial Stadium, the Gophers grabbed a 10-0 lead, but Simpson gained 236 yards rushing and had 57 yards receiving, leading the Trojans to a nine-point win.
When it comes to other marquee September games, there aren’t many to pick from in recent Gophers history. They purposely played soft nonconference schedules under former coach Glen Mason, diluting the excitement for some of his best teams.
In 1985, Holtz’s second season, third-ranked Oklahoma visited the Metrodome. The Gophers battled the Sooners to a hard-fought 13-7 loss before a crowd of 62,446.
“There was something about the Metrodome, though,” Thornley said. “I don’t care how big the game was, you weren’t going to get that electricity at the Dome that you would at Memorial Stadium or now at TCF Bank Stadium.”
Fans paying the price
The Gophers drew 49,680 for last year’s win over Iowa and 45,778 for the one-touchdown loss to Ohio State. In December, the Gophers announced they were increasing their scholarship seating plan, which is a built-in donation program attached to season-ticket packages.
Student prices weren’t affected, but the number of seats impacted went from 9,550 to 28,050.
For example, lower-level seats between the 35-yard lines previously had a $500 annual scholarship seating fee. That amount raised to $650 this year, $850 for next year and $1,000 for 2017.
According to the Gophers, this year’s season-ticket renewal rate is still 88 percent. They have sold 32,520 season tickets, similar to last year, and have already sold 40,772 for TCU, compared to 32,236 at this time last year for the opener against Eastern Illinois.
“Obviously the scholarship seating was a tough decision,” said Gophers Athletics Director Norwood Teague. “But in the end we’re very happy with how things have turned out.”
Tafoya is biased. Her husband, Mark Vandersall, played baseball for the Gophers, and his father, Bruce, spent a decade as an assistant football coach under Cal Stoll and Joe Salem. Wherever Tafoya’s NFL travels have taken her, she’s kept one eye on the Gophers.
She’s excited for the chance to attend the TCU game with the family, as the NFL season doesn’t begin until the following week.
“I think that people will be excited,” Tafoya said. “I mean there’s always cautious optimism here in Minnesota. I just think it’s in our blood, but I think people will go in believing that they have a shot.”