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Kevin Schnepf, Published September 13 2009

Simply fan-tastic: Gophers fans impressed with new outdoor stadium

Minneapolis - At 2 p.m. Saturday – four hours before the University of Minnesota christened its new $288 million football stadium – Kyle Nelson and his buddies scored a major victory.

Purely by luck, they were offered a tailgating lot worth $2,500 from a fan who didn’t want to use it. The group of 14 from the Ada, Minn., area were grilling their Polish sausages just across the street from the TCF Bank Stadium.

Like the 50,000 other Gophers fans who brought tailgating and outdoor football back to life, Nelson and his buddies were basking in the warmth of the September sun.

“It’s like night and day,” Chris Ellingson of Fertile, Minn., said when asked to compare outdoor football to the indoor game the Gophers had been playing in since 1982 in the Metrodome.

“This stadium stabilizes things for the Gopher football program for fan interest,” said the 37-year-old Nelson, a Fargo real estate appraiser who grew up in Hawley as a self-proclaimed Gopher nostalgic freak. “It’s more than just a game. It’s an event.”

It indeed was on Saturday – the same day President Obama spoke at nearby Target Center. Sorry Mr. President, but the state-of-the art TCF Bank Stadium was the talk of the U of M campus.

The facility boasts:

- 37 suites that cost $40,500 each per season.

- 57 low-walled mini-suites priced from $9,000 to $13,500.

- Indoor club seating for 259 that costs $2,000 per season.

- A luxurious 20,000-square-foot Dairy Queen Club Room.

- A 20,000-square-foot area devoted for the Gopher marching band, equipped with its own lockers and showers.

- A Gopher locker room measuring 60 by 20 yards, reportedly the largest in all of football.

- A video board the size of a basketball court, competing for a horizon view with the Minneapolis skyline.

“Everything is first class,” Nelson said.

While Nelson and his crew were eating brats and quaffing some brew, Justin Conzemius was driving down University Avenue. For the first time since 1981 when the Gophers last played outdoors and on campus in Memorial Stadium, the campus was full of life – according to Conzemius, a Fargo South High School graduate who was a defensive back for the Gophers in the mid-1990s.

“When you would pull in before a game at the Metrodome, Minneapolis was a like a ghost town,” said Conzemius, a marketing manager for General Mills in Minneapolis. “I still have goose bumps today. I have to think the emotions of the players are extremely high. I think a lot of the players who committed to play here came here for this day.”

TCF Bank Stadium was built to replicate, in some ways, Memorial Stadium – which sat two blocks to the southwest until it was demolished in 1992. The exterior brick façade and the horseshoe-shaped seating are similar to Memorial.

It cost the state of Minnesota $137.2 million to build. The rest of the money, $152.3 million, was non-state dollars – with $10 million coming from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, $2.5 million from Dairy Queen, another $2.5 million from Best Buy, $2 million from Target and the $35 million TCF Bank chipped in for the naming rights.

Gene Allen, the North Dakota native who helped bring minor league baseball back to Fargo with the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, was part of a three-person TCF Bank team that negotiated the naming rights deal with the university. Allen and his wife, Mary, were among the throngs who lined up on Oak Street to greet the Gopher football team as it walked into the new stadium at 4:10 p.m.

“The difference is ten-fold,” Allen said, comparing Saturday’s atmosphere to the Metrodome environment.

Just then Adonis Lewis, wife of Gopher assistant coach Derek Lewis, greeted the Allens with big hugs. She and other coaches’ wives traveled with the Allens to last year’s Gopher game at Ohio State – a school with one of the most storied football traditions in the country.

“We’ve got a long ways to go to catch up to Ohio State,” said Allen, who now has an independent law and consulting practice in Minneapolis. “But the first step is getting football back on campus.”

The last time football was on campus, Bob Stroup was a fullback for the 1981 Gophers. The next year as a senior, he and the Gophers moved to the Metrodome. At 5:40 p.m. Saturday, Stroup and 400 former Gopher players gathered on the field and received a salute from the current Gophers and a standing ovation from the crowd.

“This is no Brickyard,” Stroup said of Memorial Stadium. “But this is pretty neat. I’m so glad they are back.”

Stroup, a Fargo North standout, has a brick from Memorial Stadium displayed in his Fargo law office. He remembers the sentiment that moving to the Metrodome would help recruiting. Ironically, nearly three decades later, the sentiment again is that the new TCF Bank Stadium will help recruiting for a program that hasn’t played in a major bowl game since 1962.

“There was a sense that Memorial Stadium had used up its usefulness … something needed to be done,” Stroup said. “But once the season at the Metrodome got going, there was a sense on our team that we never recaptured that atmosphere that we had at Memorial.”

The atmosphere was back by the time Air Force kicked off to the Gophers at 6 p.m. Saturday. Stroup was watching from his first-deck, 40-yard line seat that cost him $500 per season.

Allen and his wife were watching from their upper-deck, 35-yard line seats that cost him $275 apiece.

Conzemius, his wife Dina, 5-year-old son Cade and his father Mike were watching from their upper deck, 25-yard line seat package (including preferred parking) that cost him $2,000 for the season.

The group from Ada, Minn., found their way to their northeast, upper-deck end-zone seats in Sections 231 and 232. TCF Bank Stadium bratwurst: $4.40. Season tickets: $275 apiece. The chance to cheer outdoors: priceless.

“The costs kind of add up,” Nelson said. “But it’s all worth it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549