Gophers’ new stadium builds hope for success

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Bill Rabinowitz 
Columbus Dispatch
 

The drought has persisted so long that one might think they’d do anything to avoid mentioning it.

Not since 1961 has Minnesota gone to the Rose Bowl. So it might seem odd that when the Gophers come together as a team, they break the huddle with these words: “Big Ten champs! Rose Bowl!”

“It’s something we talk about each and every day,” Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said.

Barring a miracle, the Gophers once again won’t be heading to Pasadena, Calif., this year. They are 4-3 with two conference losses heading into a game Saturday at Ohio State.

But with the energetic Brewster as coach and a new on-campus, outdoor stadium, the Gophers believe they finally have the foundation to build a championship program.

Unlike their Big Ten brethren, the Gophers didn’t have a stadium to call their own until TCF Bank Stadium opened in September. For the previous 28 years, they played in the Metrodome, home of baseball’s Twins and the NFL’s Vikings.

The Metrodome is only a mile from campus, but as Brewster said, “it might as well have been 500 miles.”

The Gophers were mere tenants in a building that lacked a college ambience.

Former Ohio State assistant Glen Mason, who coached the Gophers from 1997 to 2006, calls the Metrodome “a dump.”

“It was terrible,” he said. “You go in there and had the look of the Twins and Vikings. Everything was blue or purple, not our colors. In the stands and boxes, they’d serve everything with purple plates and ‘Vikings’ on it. We had to adjust our (game) times if the Twins made it to the playoffs. We didn’t have our own locker room. We had the visiting locker room that the Twins used for a day-care center during the baseball season.”

Alumni would fly in for games and never set foot on campus.

“There was a disconnect there,” Brewster said.

Not once in the Gophers’ 28 years in the Metrodome did they finish higher than tied for third in the Big Ten.

The stadium also became a symbol of the school’s perceived lack of commitment to football. Rival recruiters were not exactly shy in exploiting the Metrodome’s shortcomings.

“You think?” Mason said. “Both Iowa and Wisconsin had coaches on their staffs who used to coach over here. They knew all about the problems. When we had to move games to Friday nights or Thursdays because of conflicts with the Twins, those guys would be on the phone with recruits right away saying, ‘What, are you kidding me?’ I can’t overstate how bad it was.”

Now, Brewster can’t overstate how much of a difference TCF Bank Stadium will make. The horseshoe-shaped stadium seats 50,000 and is expandable to 80,000.

“We have the finest stadium in America,” Brewster said. “Obviously, there are some that are bigger, but none are nicer. It is a ‘wow’ in every way.”

He took Minnesota alumnus and former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy on a tour recently.

“Obviously, Tony has been around the world and seen every pro and college stadium, and he was in awe of TCF Bank Stadium,” Brewster said. “It’s made a huge impact on our players and our fans and everybody.”

If “everybody” includes recruits, then Minnesota could return to national prominence.

“There are a lot of people who don’t know Minnesota has six national titles and 18 Big Ten titles,” Brewster said. “We want to reconnect with that history, and we’re working very hard to do that.”

Brewster has proven to be a master recruiter in his 2 1/2 years at the school, and he’ll have to be. Minnesota isn’t a particularly populous state and has had trouble keeping its elite players in state. See Laurinaitis, James for Exhibit A.

“If you talk about the top five recruits in the state annually,” Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi said, “what we have not done successfully, consistently is get many of them. If there are 13 (Division I prospects), we get eight or nine, but often times, three of the top five we don’t get. What we need to do is make sure that talent stays home, and nobody works harder than coach Brewster.”

Mason said Minnesota’s relatively small talent pool might make it impossible to challenge Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State over the long haul. But the new stadium should at least even the playing field against rivals such as Iowa and Wisconsin.

If Minnesota can consistently become a strong second-tier school, then the Gophers could become like this year’s Hawkeyes every so often.

“Our goal is to take the Gopher Nation to Pasadena,” Brewster said. “I believe with all my heart we’re going to accomplish our goal.”