Minnesota longs for home all its own

MINNEAPOLIS -- Close your eyes, open your ears and it's a typical college football Saturday. The marching band blasts the "Hey" song. Cymbals crash deep in your ears. A bass drum shakes your feet. Scratchy-voiced cheerleaders force you to yell. And 65,000 screaming fans make you feel invincible.

Now open your eyes.

You're inside.

What once seemed perfect is now terribly flawed. The playing surface is a scientifically created, not-so-natural shade of green. A Twins logo is painted next to the end zone. The dirty, off-white roof is held up by pressurized air. Eight hundred feet of digital advertising screens cover the facing of the upper deck, bringing a rainbow of pinks, teals and neon greens to the background of every play.

And this is home. The Metrodome. The place that Mike Ditka once referred to as "the Rollerdome." The place you share with the NFL's Vikings and Major League Baseball's Twins.

The commercial culture of professional sports, along with the Cracker Jack, Budweiser and Papa John's ads that come with it, sucks the amateur atmosphere out of each home game. And if you're Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi, it's time to do something about it.

"College football Saturdays are an event, an experience," said Maturi, who lived for 29 years in Madison, Wis., and graduated from Notre Dame. "Ours are just a game."

But perhaps not for long. Maturi and school president Bob Bruininks are working to "bring Gopher football home," proposing an on-campus stadium that would open in time for the 2008 season opener.

In a state suffering through a budget crunch, with two professional teams also begging for new stadiums, it's an uphill battle. But while the Twins and Vikings are banking largely on public financing, the Gophers are asking the state to foot the bill for 40 percent of the estimated $222 million a new 50,000-seat stadium would cost. The rest, they believe, they can raise themselves. Some believe that's catapulted the Gophers from third on the state's stadium priority list to first.

"We see this as a 75- to 100-year investment in the state's educational institution," Maturi said. "It isn't like we're ever going anywhere - we're not going to be the L.A. Gophers."

Minnesota left the on-campus Memorial Stadium and moved home games to the dome in 1982, sharing the facility with the Twins and Vikings. The Gophers do everything they can to make the cavernous dome feel like home. Inside, 36 Gopher banners line the facing of each first-floor section. Maroon and gold Minnesota banners encircle the playing field. There's a maroon "M" at midfield and maroon "Minnesota" in both end zones.

Outside, Golden Gopher football highlights blast from a PA system. The band marches through the parking lot into the stadium. But there's minimal stadium parking and thus little room for tailgating. And situated in the shadows of downtown Minneapolis, the stadium lacks personality.

"The Vikings rule this stadium, not the Gophers," student Craig Sprowls said. "Despite all the banners and signs, we walk in here knowing full well this isn't really our home. It's just a strange place to watch football."

Said Gopher fan Paul Minoca: "It's the same place you come to for the monster truck show. "That's not right."

On this Saturday, some 30,000 Iowa fans fill the dome, making it feel like more of a bowl game than a Golden Gopher home game. Chants of "Let's go Hawkeyes!" drown out those of "Let's go Gophers!" After Lloyd Rhys misses a 51-yard field goal and Iowa survives 29-27, the Hawkeyes celebrate with a victory lap, reaching up into the stands to high-five fans that have scampered down to the front row.

With an on-campus stadium, Maturi doesn't think such a scene would take place.

"They wouldn't be able to gobble up all those tickets," Maturi said. "Those seats would be filled with our people."

Minnesota is the only Big Ten school without an on-campus stadium. It's one of only two BCS conference schools -- Syracuse is the other -- that plays in a dome. But stadium construction in college football is rare. Louisville, Connecticut and Southern Methodist have recently built new stadiums, but in the Big Ten, the Metrodome is the newest structure.

"And they want to tear it down," Maturi said. "What does that tell you about professional teams?"

The University's lease at the Metrodome expires in 2011 and with the Vikings and Twins both seeking new facilities, the future of the only stadium to host the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Final Four and Major League Baseball's All-Star Game is uncertain.

The school estimates it would cost approximately $6 million to $10 million a year to operate as the dome's sole tenant while a new on-campus stadium would bring between $3 million and $5 million in added revenue.

The Minnesota legislature will decide in four to five months whether or not to approve the university's request for financing. In the meantime, Maturi is hitting the pavement, courting boosters and businesses for private funding.

Boosting his case is the support of the students, who are bussed from campus to the Metrodome for games. A student oversight committee has already voted in favor of a $50 tax per student that would go toward funding for a stadium.

"And you know students, God bless them, but they won't vote in favor of spending an extra dollar on pizza," Maturi said. "But they understand -- they have high school classmates that go to Wisconsin, friends that go to Iowa and they know this isn't the typical college football experience."

After Saturday's loss to Iowa, a pair of Gophers walked down a Metrodome tunnel, tossing their equipment bags atop a massive pile. Student managers rolled trunks down a hallway and waited for the Gopher equipment truck to pull in.

But Iowa's truck was in the way.

"People don't realize, it's an away game for us, too," Maturi said. "We have to truck all our stuff over here, we don't get to practice in here or walk through the week before the game. It's almost like a neutral site. It's something we want to change."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.