The quest to move TCF Bank Stadium from vision to reality was an arduous one, a complicated process that included setbacks, sales pitches and just about every emotion on the spectrum for those involved.
A stadium to call their own and not have to share was a need, not a want, former coach Glen Mason often (correctly) noted. Others clung tight to sentimental value of being back on campus.
“We are getting a heart transplant,” former player George Adzick said back in 2008, a year before the stadium opened.
Fast forward to today and if you want to feel old, consider that TCF Bank Stadium begins its second decade as the Gophers football home Thursday night with the season opener against South Dakota State.
Ten seasons in the books, well past the fresh scent stage, so we wondered whether that new heart has fulfilled its promise?
Short answer: Mostly but not entirely. This isn’t a black-and-white discussion.
Start with an indisputable fact: Watching college football on a sun-splashed fall Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium runs circles around the experience at the Metrodome. It’s not even close.
Being outside with views of the Minneapolis skyline in the distance in a football-only stadium located in the heart of campus should bring joy to any fan. This is how college football is meant to look, not in a darkened Dome outside campus borders. Plus, no more sharing their home with tractor pulls and other events that force them out at key times of the year (recruiting season).
College football’s beauty extends beyond the actual game. That’s only part of it, albeit a big part, but game day should feel like an experience, an event that you can’t miss.
As a kid, I would get butterflies on Saturday mornings waiting for my beloved Tennessee Vols to come on TV or radio. I still remember my first visit to Neyland Stadium. Walking out into the upper deck and looking down at the field was sensory overload. I thought I had found heaven.
I remember the band, the noise of 100,000 fans, the energy, all that orange everywhere, “Rocky Top” being sung over and over. I couldn’t sleep that night. To me, Neyland Stadium was magical, or mythical. Still is.
Has TCF Bank Stadium created that same emotional attachment with Gophers fans? Doubtful. Not yet.
To be sure, the stadium’s existence has proved false any belief that it’s as simple as “build it and they will come.” If only it were that way.
Once the gawkers came and left, reality set in: Winning trumps everything. The stadium doesn’t win games or set ticket prices. The Gophers haven’t won consistently enough to create the kind of gravitational pull that jam-packs University Avenue, every corner of campus and every section of the stadium.
Last season the Gophers had their lowest average attendance (37,914) since 1992. Getting students to walk across campus has been a challenge. Seeing a 50,000-seat stadium half-empty for an important game in November is sobering. Norwood Teague’s scholarship seating plan was an abject failure that caused significant damage in fan relations. I would argue the university is still trying to recover from it.
We have witnessed The Bank’s full potential on occasion. Air Force in the 2009 stadium opener. TCU in 2015. Wisconsin any year. The stadium comes alive in big moments. There just needs to be more of them.
The administration has taken measures designed to create a more robust gameday atmosphere. They added beer sales for the general public a few years ago and offered discounted tickets in certain sections this season. Smart moves. A successful season would provide the biggest boost.
Some factors are out of their control, namely the weather. A miserably cold day tests fan loyalty and affection for an outdoor stadium, but that’s part of the deal, which is easier to say from a warm press box.
The Bank should be rocking for Thursday’s opener. Night game. New season. Higher expectations after a strong finish to 2018.
The stadium remains a gem. The atmosphere inside remains a work in progress, but I’d take The Bank over The Dome as a college football showcase every day of the week.