ORLANDO – David Cobb was at the pep rally Wednesday, saluting the Gophers fans who’ve flooded this city for the Citrus Bowl. The record-breaking senior running back had heard about the six busloads of University of Minnesota students who left Tuesday morning and rode straight through the night.
“I love the game of football,” Cobb said, “but I don’t know if I could ride 30 hours on a bus. This turnout is amazing.”
The bus ride actually took 31 hours, sophomore Mike Brathol said, but he and two buddies were eager to join the rally and subsequent party at the team hotel. They planned to ring in the new year, and then get ready for Thursday morning’s tailgate.
When your team hasn’t played a Jan. 1 bowl game in 53 years, sleep is overrated.
“We’ll sleep on the way back,” Brathol said. “We have 31 hours.”
The Gophers announced they sold about 8,000 tickets for the game, while Missouri sold about 6,500. Both teams expect thousands more to turn out in their respective school colors after securing tickets on their own.
Former Gophers receiver Eric Decker, now with the New York Jets, plans to be there. He bought 19 tickets. Hall of Famer Bobby Bell was at the pep rally. He was an All-American defensive tackle when the Gophers defeated UCLA 21-3 in the 1962 Rose Bowl, their last Jan. 1 game.
“It’s overdue,” Bell said, gazing through his glasses at all the people he saw in maroon and gold. “The thing about it is, Coach [Jerry] Kill’s just turned this thing around.”
It was 68 degrees for Tuesday’s annual Citrus Bowl Parade, and a light rain fell over downtown Orlando, sending Gophers fans for cover under the awnings along Orange Avenue.
John and Susan Mahanna didn’t mind one bit.
The two longtime Gophers season-ticket holders had been waiting to make their first bowl trip until the team landed a New Year’s Day game. On Dec. 7, when the bowl selections were announced, they got their wish.
“This is a bucket-list item for me,” Susan said, moments after the Minnesota marching band thundered down the parade route playing, the “Minnesota March.”
That feeling was common among the scores of fans who filled restaurants and bars along International Drive this week. Sudden versions of “The Minnesota Rouser” would break out, leaving other tourists amused as those fans celebrated their spelling triumph: “M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A!”
The first fan charters arrived Saturday, allowing those people to enjoy three 82-degree days. It cooled a bit with the rain, but the forecast says it will be partly cloudy and 77 degrees for kickoff. Factoring windchill in Minnesota and heat index in Florida, fans traveling Wednesday would have experienced a 100-degree jump in “feels like” temps.
Asked how much Minnesotans were enjoying their escape from the subzero air back home, Kill said, “We had people out there swimming [Tuesday] when it was raining. So that will tell you something.”
By Wednesday afternoon, the Gophers contingent seemed to feel the full force of its collective mass. This year’s ticket sales beat the number Minnesota sold (6,538) combined for its two previous bowl games, both in Houston.
Bob Hughes, president of the Goal Line Club, said Florida has the second-biggest number of Gophers fans, outside Minnesota.
Lou Bushard, 72, flew down on the same charter as Hughes. Bushard was an undergraduate at the university in 1962, and said it was easy being a fan then.
“Every game I went to they were playing for the No. 1 spot in the country,” he said. “Then it got painful. … Now, it’s less painful.”
Bushard and his wife, Maureen, live in Roseville and have been to about 10 of the Gophers’ bowl games. They went to El Paso, Texas, and Nashville twice, Tempe, Ariz., and Houston twice, but said none of those trips was quite the same as this.
For the pep rally, in an outdoor courtyard, Gophers fans filled staircases and were backed up 10-deep behind railings, with an overflow around corners. Kill, Cobb and Cameron Botticelli all spoke to enthusiastic roars. Fans streamed back to the hotel for the party, where a huge ballroom felt almost suffocating with people.
When Susan Mahanna thought about her bucket list, she had wondered if this kind of celebrating really will be a one-time deal for the Gophers.
“This may or may not be a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” she said. “Hopefully this is the beginning of an era.”