IOWA CITY — Saturday’s game at Minnesota will mark the Iowa football team’s latest road-opener since 2001, when its first road game also was on Oct. 6.
“Feels good,” Iowa safety Amani Hooker said Tuesday. “Feels like we’ve been stuck in Iowa City the last eight weeks.”
Though Hooker is from Minneapolis, the experience at TCF Bank Stadium may feel foreign to him and his teammates in one specific way. The passion for the game doesn’t compare there to what the Hawkeyes have experienced in their first four games, all at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium.
About 5,000 tickets still remained for Iowa-Minnesota as of late Monday afternoon, according to a UM ticket sales staffer. That’s in a stadium with a seating capacity of 50,805. For a Big Ten home opener. Against Iowa, always one of the best draws for a Gophers home game.
The average crowd in the first five Iowa-Minnesota games at TCF Bank is 49,511. For the Gophers, 49,511 at a home game is great. They averaged 40,244 over their first three this season.
They haven’t had a home sellout since 2015. They averaged 44,358 fans last season. How big was the bump from hiring P.J. Fleck as head coach? Five hundred fans per home game from 2016.
An Aug. 31 Wall Street Journal story on the discrepancy between people in the stands at college football games and the announced attendance figures began by mentioning the Nebraska-Minnesota game of last Nov. 11.
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The announced attendance was 39,933. But just 25,493 fans were counted at the gates. Sold tickets don’t translate into actual attendance at many places. That isn’t an Iowa problem.
In fact, the reason why there will be a near-full stadium on Minnesota’s campus Saturday for a change is because of those Iowa fans. Just like Wisconsin supporters helped constitute a crowd of 47,327 at the Gophers’ home finale last year.
This is the Big Ten. It proudly claims 14 members on fairly equal footing academically, but has a clear class system in football.
As you saw last weekend, things don’t really change. Ohio State beat Penn State in college football’s game of the week. It was played before 110,889 fans in State College, Pa.
Ohio State, which played Tulane in front of 103,336 in Columbus the week before, is an elite program with enormous resources, just like it was a half-century ago. Penn State is an elite program with enormous resources, just like it was a half-century ago.
You can beat them once in a while. But they don’t fade away.
Iowa is at the next level, with consistently strong fan support and all that comes with it. It’s a program that wasn’t built overnight, but built it was over the last four decades, and there has been no erosion.
Further down the ladder is Minnesota, with home crowds that wouldn’t fill one side of the stadiums in Happy Valley or Columbus or Ann Arbor.
The Gophers haven’t won as much as a piece of the Big Ten football championship since 1967 and haven’t been to a Rose Bowl since 1962. Which means their fans are fewer, and the ones that exist don’t have connections as strong or emotional to the Gophers as Iowa fans’ are to the Hawkeyes.
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You don’t have to wander far in a Kinnick parking lot on a game day to see Hawkeye fans wearing a T-shirt or cap noting a Rose Bowl appearance or league title or other happy memory that isn’t ancient.
It isn’t that Minnesota has been bad. It’s that it hasn’t mattered. The Gophers have been to 14 bowl games since 1999. But the vast majority were Music Citys and Suns and Insights, forgettable games for forgettable seasons. Four of those bowl teams finished the season with 6-7 records.
Whether the program finally found its messiah in Fleck remains to be seen. He has a lot of recruiting and developing of talent to do for that to come true, just like all his predecessors.
Minnesota’s stadium was designed to be expanded to 80,000 seats if there was a need to do so. For now and maybe always, its 50,805 will more than suffice.
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