At the end of a snowy, slippery game, the celebration they’ve had on hold for 50-plus years slipped through the fingers of Gophers fans again.
Hopes for a Big Ten West title, the Gophers’ first overall Big Ten title since 1967, and maybe at least a Rose Bowl were all left snowed under Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
Of the two teams that took the field, one acted like it had been on the big stage before. The other struggled much of the day to make the plays it needed to cap a magical turnaround season.
Longtime Minnesota fans didn’t need to guess which one was the Gophers.
Still, a new optimism about the program persisted in the stands. Even as the score went from close to out of reach, Gopher faithful expressed pride in a team that made its way into the ranks of the nation’s top 10 and brought ESPN’s “Game Day’’ to campus in the ultimate sign that Gophers football is once again relevant to the rest of the country.
John Scheiderich, who lives in Eagan and tends bar at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, said he wasn’t even disappointed.
“Yes. I’d love to have seen us win, but it’s a progression,” said Scheiderich, dressed all in maroon and clutching his last stadium beer of the season. “You don’t go from bottom-feeders to the upper echelon in two years.”
Woody Prechel of Minneapolis decked himself out in full maroon and gold for his first-ever game.
“I can’t wait to come to another,” he said. “I wish the score was closer, but we’re Minnesota fans — you know how it is.”
Bundled-up St. Louis Park hairdresser Darrin Miernicki. expressed his thoughts using Gophers coach P.J. Fleck’s trademark phrase.
“The Penn State game was much better, and we were here for that. This is especially bitter because it’s Wisconsin,” said Miernicki. “You’ve got to keep rowing; that’s what Row the Boat means.”
For hundreds of eager fans, game day started long before kickoff. They braved cold and snow to begin lining up shortly after 2 a.m. to snag the best spots to watch “GameDay,” spreading football energy that’s long been missing from campus. The show’s prognosticators even predicted a victory by a Gophers team boasting one of the nation’s best passing offenses and a team hungry for national recognition.
All those good vibes carried over into the beginning of the game, as the Gophers defense stopped the first Wisconsin drive before Minnesota struck gold with a bang, scoring on the team’s second offensive play.
After that, however, the game turned into a defensive battle the rest of the half as the stadium came to look more and more like a snow globe. Even with the Badgers taking the lead before halftime, Gophers fans stuck it out in hopes that Fleck’s squad could recapture some of the magic that helped his team beat Penn State and earned them a No. 8 ranking.
While a win would have opened previously undreamt of possibilities — a trip to Indianapolis to take on Ohio State for the Big Ten championship and perhaps an invitation to the College Football Playoff to determine the national title — the team is still almost certain to get a major bowl bid and will carry over this year’s excitement into the 2020 season. The announced crowd of 53,756 was the fourth-largest in the stadium’s history and would count as the largest if the Vikings’ two seasons at the stadium and additional temporary bleachers weren’t counted. Many fans stuck around even after the loss became a foregone conclusion.
Hours before the game, athletic director Mark Coyle said he hired Fleck to return the football program to the type of prominence and excitement that coursed through Dinkytown on Saturday.
Coyle hired Fleck before the 2017 season, and the former Western Michigan coach has seen the Gophers go 5-7, 7-6 and now 10-2 in his three seasons here.
“It’s awesome for our whole state to have a three-hour commercial,” Coyle said near the set of “College GameDay.” Fleck, he said, laid out a vision for the Gophers and delivered. “He’s connected not just our campus but our entire state.”
Gophers fans spent much of the day backing up Coyle’s words.
Justin and Rachel Smith, grad students who live in Inver Grove Heights, came for the early show and planned to stay for the game — which doubled as Justin’s birthday celebration.
Both went to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — she’s a Gophers fan and he’s a lifelong Badgers fan. He held an elaborately drawn sign that pictured Fleck in a tiny swimsuit and a sinking boat.
“I spent way too much time on it,” he joked. “ ‘College GameDay’ doesn’t come here too often. We figured it was the only chance we’d get for a while, especially because the Gophers …” He ended the sentence there with the implied crack about the team’s historic mediocrity.
Engaged St. Paul couple Jake Wakem and Jess Dobbs got up at 6 a.m. and came carrying a sign indicating that one of them will be sleeping on the couch tonight.
Dobbs, a native of Racine, Wis., and a true Badgers fan, wore red and white gameday suspenders and gear. Gophers backer Wakem was in maroon and gold suspenders. She is a Wisconsin grad. He got his degree from the University of St. Thomas.
“It’s an opportunity we couldn’t say no to,” he said of the morning pepfest.
The day’s weather called for fingertip-to-toe coverage, but some went lighter, slogging through the sodden sidewalks and streets in skinny jeans and sweatshirts. Many shifted their pregame preparations to Stadium Village coffee shops and bars along Washington Avenue as game time ticked closer. Fans ducked in and out of nearby open buildings designated as warming spaces. Some turned to coffee and hot chocolate. Others strolled up and down with beer cans in hand — normally a no-no, but on this day, apparently OK. It was a daylong party, after all.
And Gophers fans can now hope that the really big party that’s still on hold isn’t so very far away anymore.