MINNEAPOLIS -- It is one thing to claim you “row the boat,” in support of coach P.J. Fleck and his mission of revival in the Minnesota Gophers football program. Brian Slipka has taken his fandom to another level. Slikpa, 43, of Shoreview, actually owns the boat.

A few years ago, in support of a local charity, he plunked down a few thousand dollars for a rowboat painted maroon and gold and festooned with Fleck’s rallying cry. The small craft was featured prominently on ESPN’s College GameDay last November when the popular national show made its first Minneapolis appearance (after previous stops in Brookings, S.D.; Ames, Iowa; and Fargo, twice).

Slipka expects to see his boat on TV Saturday morning when the GameDay crew returns to Gopherland, with a pandemic-related twist.

“ESPN borrowed our boat for College GameDay last year, and it was a huge success,” said Slipka, who owns courtside seats for Gopher basketball and a suite at TCF Bank Stadium. “This year they called, and the same producer said they can’t do anything. They said I can drop off the boat at the stadium, because everything has to be confined in the stadium, then you can come pick it up on Monday. No fans, no nothing.”

With few to no fans allowed in their previous stops this season, the GameDay crew has seen people make adjustments to the new world of college football fandom in a time of pandemic. While last season there were crowds and signs and all of the hallmarks of the popular Saturday morning show on the U of M campus, this year has produced creativity among fan bases.

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"At Wake Forest there was a drive-in group in the parking lot that came and did some signs and things like that," said Rece Davis, the show's host. "We don't get out and about much and we try to be careful, but when we do we kind of sense the excitement and enthusiasm around it. I think there's some disappointment with the fans but I also think they understand. They know the situation we're in ... It's been good, but certainly it's been a different experience without the big crowds."

'Could be worse' attitudes

Such is the current state of Gopher football fandom. Coming off an 11-2 season and a bowl game win, hopes are as high as they’ve been perhaps since Lou Holtz was prowling the Metrodome sideline in the 1980s. But the cruel twists of COVID-19 mean fans can only watch from afar as the national media comes to town and the team opens the season against Michigan on Saturday night.

And in stereotypical “could be worse” Minnesota fashion, the die-hards are finding new ways to express their fandom.

“As my beloved mother would say, ‘it is what it is,’” said Bob Hughes, 68, of Orono.

Hughes has not missed a home game since the early Metrodome days, and has only missed eight Gophers road games in the last 15 seasons, but the retired advertising sales executive will be watching on TV with family on Saturday.

“We’ve got people suffering from COVID-19, so we’ve got to make the best of the situation.We’re going to have theme tailgate parties at home," Hughes said. "My son-in-law has a TV in the garage, a TV in the basement and a TV in the family room, so we’re going to be in our bubble and cheer like we always cheer and have lots of fun.”

When he was a junior at the U of M, David Ewald spent $10 on an extra set of Gophers season tickets at Memorial Stadium in hopes that his girlfriend Susan would accompany him to games. Now 61, the association management company owner from Shorewood has been married to Susan for 39 years and they have missed just one game at TCF Bank Stadium since it opened in 2009. This may be the year they have waited for, hoping the Gophers contend for their first Big Ten title since 1967.

“Susan has said, since it is 2020, you just know the Gophers are going to the Rose Bowl,” Ewald joked, recalling a trip to Pasadena to see the Rolling Stones a few summers ago, when the husband and wife watched Keith, Mick and company while decked out in Gophers gear. “We’ve been saying all our lives that when the Gophers get there, we’ll go, and they won’t have fans this year.”

Bringing the fun home

The Ewald family tailgate, held in a parking lot just north of the Gophers’ hockey rinks, draws a dozen friends and family on bad weather days, and more than 60 when it is sunny and warm. It will be moving inside, to the family’s basement, where they will set up their traditional tailgate tent and cheer from afar.

In Blaine, Allison Pearson and her family hope the recent cold snap subsides enough for them to hold a driveway tailgate party on Saturday. In a normal year, Pearson’s family and three other families set up in the Minnesota State Fair parking lot on home game Saturdays, then take a shuttle to the game.

“It’s a little different than being near the stadium, but you can take as many parking spots as you want, so we take about eight,” said Pearson, 41, who started tailgating or Gopher games during their final season at the Metrodome. “We have a few tents, a bunch of flags, a fire pit, grills, crock pots and other stuff depending on what menu we have.”

Some believe the restrictions have gone too far, and that the U of M should allow reduced and scattered crowds at games, similar to what has been done for college football games in the South. Others have accepted this situation as another temporary wrinkle that 2020 has produced.

"What the heck, at least we have college football to watch," Hughes said.