Forget the Alamo, Gophers headed to El Paso

by Aaron Blake

With one phone call Sunday afternoon, Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi knew it was time to forget the Alamo. Now he hopes the Sun will reflect warmly on his program.

Despite an exhaustive campaign Maturi and his staff waged to convince the Alamo Bowl that the Gophers should be picked over Michigan State, the call was to offer Maturi an invitation to the lesser Sun Bowl. He accepted, and the Gophers will play Oregon on New Year’s Eve in El Paso, Texas.

“We certainly put a lot of effort into receiving an invitation to the Alamo Bowl,” Maturi said. “Based on that effort, we were hopeful of receiving the invitation to that bowl. But to say that we’re disappointed, I don’t think is fair.

“We felt we were going to go to Texas. Now it’s El Paso instead of San Antonio.”

The invitation sets up a rematch of the 1999 Sun Bowl in which the Ducks beat the Gophers 24-20.

Minnesota brought 3,792 fans to El Paso that year – a number Wisconsin and Purdue have failed to top in the three years since.

But the rest of Minnesota’s traveling history isn’t quite so appealing to bowls, and Maturi admitted it probably played a big role in the 8-4 Spartans overtaking of his 9-3 team.

“The fact is (Michigan State) beat us head-to-head,” Maturi said. “The fact is we have the same record in the Big Ten. The fact is they have 70,000 people who attend their games on Saturday, and we have 40-some thousand. We need to convince our faithful that that’s what we have to change.”

The Gophers are trying to stay positive about being in a bowl game at all. But a season which began with hopes of a Rose Bowl appearance wasn’t supposed to end like this.

Safety Eli Ward admitted it was a little disappointing, but he said he and his teammates would treat the Sun Bowl like any other game and prepare accordingly.

“I don’t know if we deserve it, because we did lose a couple close games,” Ward said. “If we would have pulled those out, we might be going somewhere better.”

With the announcement, all involved begin a shortened campaign to get fans to travel to El Paso. Because the Big Ten needed to wait for the BCS scenarios to play out, Minnesota has less than four weeks to prepare.

Oregon has a week head-start in this arena.

This shortened window for selling the game to fans should pose an even tougher challenge for Maturi. Sun Bowl Committee Chairman John Folmer admitted the situation is regrettable.

“Even though the economy’s getting a lot better, it’s still tough to get here,” Folmer said. “There are a lot of avenues and a lot of ways to get to El Paso, but fans need to plan.”

And now the process begins for Maturi and his staff to prove Minnesota fans don’t travel as poorly as perceived.

They just won’t be able to do it in San Antonio.

Fresno on the schedule?

Maturi has received word that Fresno State is interested in filling the schedule vacancy next year left by Baylor, who dropped the Gophers from their 2004 schedule.

“I was told by somebody that they are interested in coming here,” Maturi said. “If they are, I’ll talk to them.”