An early look at the next Big Ten stadium

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- A new era in Minnesota football begins on Sept. 12, 2009, when the team plays its first game at TCF Bank Stadium. The $288.5 million facility brings Gophers football outside and back to campus for the first time since 1981, when the team played its final season at Memorial Stadium.

Construction is in full swing on the new stadium, situated southeast of Williams Arena (basketball) and Mariucci Arena (hockey), and I had the chance to tour the site Friday afternoon.

After meeting briefly with head football coach Tim Brewster, who has a view of the stadium from his office, I drove over to the site and met up with associate athletics director Phil Esten, who leads the tours of the new facility. All members of our group put on hard hats -- they actually had one that fit my ginormous cranium -- and bright-colored Mortenson Construction vests, and we also signed waivers in case something went wrong during the tour.

Before entering the site, we saw one of the stadium's highlights, the massive scoreboard in the west end (unlike most football fields, TCF Bank Stadium runs east-west rather than north-south).

At 110 feet tall and 50 feet wide, it will be the nation's second-largest scoreboard behind the one at Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Massive speakers are currently being installed at the top of the scoreboard, which is situated in the open end of the horseshoe-like facility. Most of the signage in the stadium will be digital.

Several features of the stadium create an intimate feel for fans.

First off, the capacity is only 50,300 -- with the possibility of expanding to 80,000 by adding a third deck to the north side -- so the cavernous feel of the Metrodome won't exist in this place, though the noise level could be the same. Esten said the idea is to have 50,000 fans sound like 100,000. The stadium has a rounded design, so even the seats in the corners face the midfield area (35- or 40-yard line), improving the sightlines.

There are two decks of seats, but there's minimal space between them, and unlike many facilities, fans can see the field from the main concourse, which is twice as wide as the Metrodome's. Though the lower deck has the same number of rows as the first deck at the Metrodome, the field footprint is much smaller, so the action will be closer.

The stadium will feature individual seats between the 20's and benches behind the end zones. Minnesota's 10,000-seat student section (6,000 lower level-4,000 upper level) will be in the east end, along with a section for the band next to the main tunnel.

Our tour group took a makeshift elevator to the suite level, which, like areas of the stadium, has a great view of campus and downtown Minneapolis. Esten noted that the sites for Minnesota's previous stadiums -- the Metrodome (1982-present), Memorial Stadium (1924-81) and Northrop Field (1899-1923) -- can be seen from the new facility. Though each individual suite has an enclosed space for food and drinks, the seats are outside and not separated from the next group over, an homage to Minnesota's "populist traditions," Esten said.

After touring a suite and the loge level, we went back down to the field level. The brick exterior of the stadium is lined with archways, and all 87 counties in the state are displayed around the facility. The stadium also will feature 12 elevators, seven more than any other Big Ten facility.

My fellow scribes will be pleased to know the post-game interview room is quite spacious, and the stadium also features large rooms for entertaining recruits and past players. The marching band will be headquartered in the stadium, with a 20,000-square foot area used for rehearsals, equipment storage and the library/archives.

Undoubtedly the stadium's best feature is the home team locker room, which, at 60 yards long and 25 yards wide, is the largest around. The room is shaped like a football and contains a massive LED light fixture overhead in the shape of the Minnesota 'M'. Another 'M' will be featured on the locker room carpet when it's installed. The numbers and names of previous Gophers players will be displayed above the 120 lockers. The middle of the massive room will be left empty, for the most part.

The stadium also features four auxiliary locker rooms, two of which will be used for visiting football teams. Minnesota is also involved in Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics and would host soccer matches at TCF Bank Stadium.

Our final stop was the field, which is currently just dirt. Eventually, FieldTurf valued at $1 million will be installed.

It wouldn't have taken much for Minnesota to top the Metrodome, but TCF Bank Stadium is shaping up to be an excellent Big Ten facility. Minnesota didn't go overboard with the capacity (50,300), and the intimate feel should be a hit for both home and visiting fans. Aside from some potential parking problems -- there's not much around the stadium -- the facility should be a major boost for the program.