The Long Bomb

The last time our Golden Gophers won a Big Ten football championship, none of this year’s players had been born. It’s possible that some of their parents hadn’t either. In 1967, we had a shifty quarterback named Curt Wilson, a bruising fullback from South St. Paul named Jim Carter, and an All-American defensive end in St. Louis Park’s Bob Stein. The team finished 8-2 and shared the conference title with Indiana and Purdue.

The Rose Bowl invitation went to the Hoosiers, even though the Gophers had trounced them 33-7 during the season (conference officials gave them the nod because Indiana had never won a conference championship). Even as a sixteen-year-old fan I was convinced that some sort of curse had been placed on my team, though I told myself hopefully it wouldn’t be long before the Gophers would rise again. They never did.

It’s been nearly forty-two years since the Gophers have been to Pasadena, California, home of the Rose Bowl, on New Year’s Day. Four decades have passed since that marvelous 1960 team—featuring the legendary Sandy Stephens, Tom Brown, and Bobby Bell—was crowned national champion. Since then, the University of Minnesota’s football program has wheezed its way through five coaches, a handful of minor bowl appearances, and an annual struggle with major college football reality.

Sure, there have been moments; but shockers like the 1977 upset of top-rated Michigan and the 1999 squeaker over second-ranked Penn State really only served to illustrate the futility of the team’s mission. And the periodic trips to places like Shreveport or Memphis for bowl games named after lawn-care equipment have done little to push the program toward respectability.

The sad fact is this: The economics of major college football essentially disqualifies the Gophers from competing with the Ohio States or the Michigans or the Penn States of the world. And to spend any time, energy, or money on this particular pipe dream is neither helpful to the university’s mission nor charitable to the dwindling number of Gopher football fans who still happen to care.

Since 1997 the University of Minnesota has invested more than $17 million on a football program that in a good year might generate $12 million, about what Michigan takes in from a couple of home games. And now there’s talk of building a new stadium on campus, a $100 million exercise in delusion that, coming on the heels of major budget cuts at the university, is guaranteed to generate more campus controversy than quality competition.

It is, in fact, a kind of neurotic enabling pattern, not unlike offering a drink to the guy right out of Hazelden. There’s nowhere to go but down. Yet here we are again this fall, hearing the perennial silliness about Rose Bowl prospects and the great young running backs and the improved defense and how, if things break just right, anything can happen.

You can argue, of course, that this is no different from any dreamy-eyed sporting delusion that strikes at the beginning of any season, but it’s different when you’re talking about Gopher football. Here the deck is stacked as it is nowhere else in sports. Not only do the Gophers have almost no chance to rise to the top of the Big Ten, they have almost no choice not to try.

Writing in the New York Times Magazine last year, Michael Sokolove described the trap that is major college football thus: “Football is the SUV of the college campus: aggressively big, resource-guzzling, lots and lots of fun and potentially destructive of everything around it.” To Sokolove and other critics, big-time college football is a no-win situation for all but a handful of schools whose gridiron tradition easily lures the top high school recruits, rakes in millions in endorsement and TV money, and supports a lavish athletic department. None of these apply at the University of Minnesota. The football team averages barely 40,000 fans at its home games and generates less revenue in a season than the University of Michigan rakes in during a couple of home games.

Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi understands the ultimate futility of this pursuit probably better than anyone else in town. His arrival last year coincided with the near-death experience of three Gopher teams during a massive athletic department budget deficit. The men’s and women’s golf teams and the men’s gymnastics team eventually cobbled together enough donations to survive another year, but the cup-in-hand episode (which included a uniquely humbling telethon) had to inspire some doubts about the viability of Gopher sports in general and the football program in particular.

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