Fans back U football team

by Todd Zolecki

Minnesota’s hiring of Kansas football coach Glen Mason came at a steep price, more than double the salary of former coach Jim Wacker, but it already appears Mason’s presence on campus is paying off.
Since men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart introduced Mason as the Gophers’ 25th head coach on Dec. 14, fans have placed more than 600 new general public season ticket orders for the 1997 season. Men’s athletics department officials expect that number to grow.
“We sold 400 to 500 season tickets in the first week he was hired,” Dienhart said. “I don’t remember that ever happening before.”
Last year the ticket office sold 705 new season tickets throughout the entire spring and summer.
“Hopefully this is the tip of the iceberg,” said Ken Buell, assistant athletics director of internal operations. “When we start sending the message about Coach Mason and the things that he’s done, then we can build quite a sales campaign on this.
“I’ve been here for a long time, and the Lou Holtz years are the only years which compare to this.”
Holtz arrived in 1984, led the Gophers to the Independence Bowl in 1985, but left for his dream job at Notre Dame. Minnesota played in the Liberty Bowl a year later, but hasn’t appeared in a bowl game since.
Usually the Gophers’ ticket office wouldn’t begin to take new season ticket orders until spring, but since Mason generated such a positive response, Buell said it was best to act fast.
“We didn’t want to lag behind too far,” he said. “These are people calling us. That’s what’s really good. They have made up their minds to go ahead and make the investment. That says a lot. That’s a significant amount of tickets to come 10 months ahead of the season.”
Buell said the ticket office won’t begin to solicit reorders for season tickets until April or May, but the early response leads him to believe the reorder percentage will be high. The Gophers sold about 23,000 season tickets last year. Officials believe it’s possible to sell 30,000 tickets before next season.
Pat Forciea, assistant athletics director of external operations, said ticket prices won’t be raised for the upcoming season, saying it would be unfair to take advantage of the situation.
Buell and Forciea are excited because the marketing department hasn’t even begun its advertising blitz. Forciea heads the Gophers marketing department and said plans include mailings and public appearances to make Mason a prominent Minnesota figure.
New Year’s postcards from Mason and his family were sent to current season tickets holders. Forciea said that will be followed by another Mason postcard sent to every person who has purchased a Gophers football ticket over the past few years.
Mason plans to meet with fans around the state this month. A reception with him and Minnesota high school football coaches will be held in mid-January. Another reception will take place with former Gophers players in the Twin Cities area. Other opportunities for season ticket holders and those in the corporate community are also scheduled.
“He’s been terrific,” Forciea said of Mason. “He’s been eager to get to know as many people as quickly as possible. He seems to me to be virtually tireless. He’s only been here for a few weeks, and we’re excited about what’s happening in the short term, but we’re more excited about what is happening in the long term.”
Forciea and Buell hope the enthusiasm that surrounds Mason will continue to infect the state.
“I’m obviously a little biased, but I’ve felt for some time that if Gopher football ever got up on its feet that it would be the most popular sport in the state,” Forciea said. “It’s stretches of time like these past two weeks where you get a little feel for what can happen.”
Forciea hopes the Gophers can put more fans in the Metrodome on Saturday afternoons than Minnesota Vikings games on Sunday afternoons.
“The whole Vikings situation is a little precarious right now,” he said. “There’s kind of a wonderful opportunity for us to get healthy real quickly if we can get people the kind of product they’ve been waiting for.
“Mason has given us a huge short term boost. And most importantly, people seem to feel that he has all of the traits you need to successfully rebuild a college football program. There seems to be a high degree of confidence.”