Alamo Bowl reps compare Gophers to ’97 Purdue

The Bowl invited then-poor-traveling Purdue in 1997; the Boilers filled their allotment.

by Aaron Blake

Though his school is doing everything it can to assure the Alamo Bowl that it can bring fans with its team to San Antonio, Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi stops short of comparing his team with Michigan State, whom it is battling for the invitation.

The funny thing is that another comparison might be its saving grace for earning the trip.

The board at the Alamo Bowl has been relating Minnesota’s ascent and poor traveling reputation with a Purdue team it invited in 1997. This experience could make people in San Antonio more willing to roll the dice on the Gophers.

“With every team we select, we hope that the school’s really committed to growing their travel reputation,” Alamo Bowl Vice President of Marketing and Communications Rick Hill said. “We’ll be more than happy to be the recipient of the concerted effort to do so.”

The Alamo board selected the Boilermakers in 1997 despite a poor travel reputation similar to the one Minnesota currently has. But Purdue filled their fan allotment and used the game as a springboard.

The people in San Antonio were happy to invite Purdue back again the following year, and Boilermakers fans came out even stronger than the year before.

Then, in 1999, Purdue beat out Penn State for the Outback Bowl. The Lions have always had devoted fans and were competing for a national championship before stumbling toward the end of the season.

“That just goes to show you what you can do in one or two years,” Hill said.

Hill also said the board at the Alamo Bowl is realistic about its place in the food chain. The people there know they don’t have a BCS or New Year’s Day game, but what they try to offer is a chance for teams to show the bigger bowls that they can travel well late in the year.

Enter Minnesota, which couldn’t even manage to bring 2,000 fans to Nashville, Tenn., for the Music City Bowl last Dec. 30.

Enter Michigan State, which brought more than 5,000 fans to the minimum-payout Silicon Valley Football Classic in San Jose, Calif., in 2001 after a 6-5 season, which barely qualified them for a bowl at all.

Comparing how the teams travel for the NCAA basketball tournament is a little less fruitful.

While the Gophers brought more than 5,000 to San Antonio for the regional games in 1997, Michigan State brought a similar figure to the Alamo City for their basketball regionals this past March.

“We can’t promise anything, and nobody can,” Maturi said. “We can only look at things like what the Gophers brought to San Antonio for the Sweet 16 in basketball. We can only tell them the belief that Minnesota fans are, quite frankly, tired of hearing they don’t travel well.”

Hill said the basketball example sheds positive light on Minnesota, but he also recognizes that football and, more specifically, bowl games are a different animal.

When basketball teams advance in the NCAA tournament, the schools have less than a week to get their fans to come with.

Though Hill laments that invitees might have as little as three weeks to prepare for the Alamo Bowl this year, this still leaves them much more time to fill their allotment.

It is also different than selling regular season home games, which teams have the whole year to do.

And this is an area where Minnesota has struggled.

After an announced crowd of 62,374 watched the then-undefeated Gophers lose a 21-point lead and heart-breaking game Oct. 10 to Michigan, the Metrodome saw nearly a 25,000-fan drop off the next Saturday versus the Spartans.

But perhaps the most painful moment for Maturi as far as fan support was Nov. 8 against Wisconsin.

The Metrodome seats were littered with red to the tune of what Wisconsin Assistant Athletic Director of Ticket Operations Corbin Hunt estimated to be about 20,000 Badgers fans, but seemed like closer to half of the 59,543 fans in the building.

“I don’t think it was half, but certainly it was a significant number,” Maturi said. “We’re going in the right direction. But that’s the hand we’re dealt.

“Those are choices people in this area have made. We need to convince them that part of the choice for Saturday morning or afternoon is to go to a Gopher football game, and that’s what we’re working towards.”

And, in the end, this goal might be what gets the Gophers a date in San Antonio this Dec. 29.