A procession of cars snaked down 5th Street alongside Mariucci Arena as Gophers fans waited for Lot 37 to open for tailgating.

Alec Charais was first in line. He arrived at noon — two hours before the lot opened, eight hours before kickoff of the season opener.

“We’re crazy,” he said, his car parked outside the gate.

Not crazy. Just excited, and that’s perfectly understandable, because for the first time in a long time, the Gophers hosted a game that felt like an event Thursday night. A game that carried significance because of its potential impact on a program transitioning to relevancy.

The anticipation of the Gophers vs. TCU opener created the kind of atmosphere that makes college football a wonderful spectacle, a palpable buzz that Gophers fans have experienced too infrequently through decades of losing.

A confluence of factors made for a perfect setting to open a season — highly ranked opponent, renewed optimism over Gophers football on the heels of a New Year’s Day bowl game, increased expectations, prime-time weekday game, students back on campus, perfect weather.

This is what big time college football looks like. What it feels like in places where college football matters. Gophers fans enjoyed their taste of it.

Campus felt alive all day Thursday.

Fans flooded streets and tailgate lots hours before kickoff. Some fans apparently arrived before sunrise, which means they’re both loyal and probably experts at beanbag toss.

Dance music blared from fraternity houses along University Avenue. Freshmen walked campus in groups, dressed in maroon shirts, probably a little wide-eyed by the energy.

Most seasons begin with a cupcake opponent, a snoozer. TCU brought a No. 2 national ranking and lofty expectations. The circus came to town.

ESPN set up a mini-studio on the field. Sports Illustrated, USA Today and the New York Times staffed the game. Fifteen NFL teams requested credentials for scouts and front-office personnel.

“I can’t remember a season opener [like this],” said Andrea Hjelm, a 1965 graduate and former Gophers cheerleader.

Hjelm speaks from experience. She’s held season tickets for 30 seasons and describes herself as being from the “era of the Rose Bowl.”

In other words, she’s watched many non-Rose Bowl teams, which hasn’t dimmed her optimism.

Hjelm dined on campus Wednesday night and was struck by the sense of anticipation.

“We can be really effective if the fans are engaged,” Hjelm said.

Deep-rooted apathy for Gophers football cost the program several generations of fans, but the momentum created under Jerry Kill has started to recapture the state’s attention.

Fans believe in the direction now, and big games like the opener help foster that attachment. Thursday’s game became a popular topic of conversation in offices, at bars and at the State Fair in the buildup.

Chuck Killian, captain of the 1966 Gophers team, played several rounds of golf this week, and the same two questions were asked by friends after each one: How did he play and what does he think about the big game?

Killian ran into a guy he hadn’t seen since March the other day. Same question.

“How do you think your boys are going to do [Thursday]?” the man asked.

“It’s been top of the mind for a lot of people,” Killian said.

None more so than Ron Leafblad, a season-ticket holder for nearly 28 years and owner of Gold Country and Goldy’s Locker Room stores. Gophers football is both business and personal to him.

Leafblad joked that he entered the “ticket business” this week because of all the requests from employees and clients. Sales in his stores at the State Fair are on record pace, and his company has seen an increase in interest in Gophers football apparel.

“This is the first game in a long time, going into the season, you feel like we’ve got a chance,” Charis said.

The next step for the Gophers program is to maintain the momentum created from the festive opener. Make every home game feel like a big event, the way it does in other college towns.

This was a good start. A big game, beautiful weather and a lively campus filled with fans that came to party and enjoy the start of a college football season.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com