MINNEAPOLIS – For a handful of spring days and a week in August, a crowd of dedicated, maroon-and-gold-clad fans congregates on the sidelines of the Gophers’ football practice field.
For those late mornings and afternoons, which range from bitter cold to miserably hot, any Gophers fan willing to don a nametag and voluntarily watch a team that last year finished 3-9 is welcome to. And, somewhat surprisingly, they do, tapping those in the know on the shoulder to get as much information as they can.
Second-year football coach Jerry Kill has prided himself on creating a culture of accessibility around his football team. Preseason practices may be filled with a cadre of convoluted rules – can’t talk to this player because of his age, because of the amount of times he’s played in a game, because he’s a transfer, because his big toe sort of hurt a bit last Thursday – but for a good portion of them, anyone with a hankering to fill his shoes with rubber pellets from the field turf is allowed to attend.
And so they bring their kids. They pull out their favorite Gophers T-shirts. They dedicate their evenings to this, to a 3-9 team. If that isn’t passion, what is?
Norwood Teague, the new director of athletics at the University of Minnesota, took over his post in late June. He had a month and a half to wait for football, but by the time he visited his first practice of fall camp, he can’t have been surprised by what he saw. Teague, a self-proclaimed fundraising aficionado, has immersed himself in the Twin Cities community since taking the position, and just two months into his job, he’s most astonished by the level of passion that surrounds the university and will, he believes, make the task that awaits him even easier.
“There is as I thought… an incredible amount of passion here,” Teague said. “Arguably compared to where I’ve been and some other BCS schools, there’s greater passion here. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been at a place where a university means more to a place and a city than it means to the state of Minnesota and the Twin Cities. We’re really important in a lot of ways, not just through athletics.”
Listen to Teague, and you’d think he’d inherited a program with at least a kernel of recent success in one of its revenue sports. But in reality, football and basketball have been mired in struggles for years. The football team has not had a 10-win season since 2003, and the basketball team hasn’t advanced past the first round of the NCAA tournament since 1997, when it was also declared academically ineligible. Knowing all that, it would be easy to call Teague a phony, to say that he’s just talking about enthusiasm because he’s paid to.
But in this world of Minnesota sports, where passion and losing many times go hand-in-hand, Teague might actually be genuine. He’s seen this kind of enthusiasm first-hand before, most recently at Virginia Commonwealth University, where a little-known school from the Colonial Athletic Association (it moved to the Atlantic 10 Conference on July 1), rallied around a young basketball coach who brought the Rams to basketball dominance. Teague is no stranger to this kind of dedication and fandom, the kind that can surround a team as it catapults into a real contender, and he believes he has found it again in Minnesota.
“I knew that (the passion) was strong,” Teague said. “It’s a Big Ten school, a great area, a great school… But there is a huge hunger for us to succeed. People really want to see us succeed. That’s probably surprised me, the degree of that.”
Sure, Teague must have expected some level of dedication from what he saw on paper, from statistics like last season’s average attendance at TCF Bank Stadium of 47,714, 95.4 percent capacity. But numbers like that can’t fully capture support. How much of that figure is due to the new stadium itself? To inflated statistics? Teague has been in this game long enough to know not to count on a spreadsheet to gauge the temperature of support.
For true fans, support is one thing. Winning is another beast, and when things on the field and on the court get frustrating, it will be easy to blame Teague, to say that he isn’t doing enough, that his “passion” isn’t translating into anything but bureaucratic babble. But before jumping to that conclusion, remember: The university hired Teague in April. He started in June. This is a process, and to get the process started – for Norwood Teague, not for Jerry Kill or Tubby Smith – support is the lynchpin.
It isn’t up to Teague to decide which players to start and what decisions to make in a game’s final seconds. His job is to put the people in place to make those decisions, to build the climate in which those decisions become easy because of better players, better infrastructure, better support. The last step, winning, is in coaches’ hands, and they’re the ones who can’t be allowed to gloss over losing with talk of passion and support and excited fans.
“There’s people in this great state that love football, that love the Gophers,” Kill said. “They want to get a product out there that represents them. We haven’t done that, but (enthusiasm is) the least of our worries. We’ve got plenty of passion.”
“We haven’t done that” can be Kill’s refrain, Smith’s even. But it won’t be Teague’s. Teague deals not in what the program hasn’t done but in what it’s setting out to do and why people should believe.
And so for Teague, who builds with handshakes and relationships, support is the first step, something he measures and considers daily. Support has made his job easier, through proximity to fans and the resources that a large city provides, and though it might be more work to compete with professional sports, Teague will take the tradeoff anytime.
“If your fan base is closer by, they need more attention,” Teague said. “They’re with you all day, every day, and you see them a lot. I like that. I’m not one that doesn’t like that. I don’t want to keep them at arm’s length.”
So at least for a few months, let Teague shake hands. Let him meet people and make friends and negotiate the landscape of his new home. Believe his praise of the city and the Gophers fans, at least for now, at least until there’s a reason not to. Right now, Teague’s job is to sell a school and a program. If he does it right, changes come next.