This week’s NCAA Final Four at the Target Center was supposed to be a showcase for volleyball in the state, with the University of Minnesota as the beloved headliner. While nationally ranked all season and seeded second in the NCAA Tournament, the Gophers were no guarantee to win the whole thing. But the pursuit of their first national title in their hometown magnified the event’s appeal.
Then they didn’t make it.
Oregon eliminated the Gophers in last week’s Minneapolis Regional semifinals, bringing tears from the players and a collective sadness from a disappointed Minnesota volleyball community. It’s still tough for a lot of them to accept. Though both days of the Final Four sold out, the atmosphere inevitably suffered.
Several hundred Nebraska fans watched the Cornhuskers practice Wednesday afternoon, a gathering that would have been at least as large and probably more energized had the Gophers been on the floor. Nothing against Nebraska; their fan support is legendary, and Thursday night’s five-set semifinal victory over Illinois featured lots of boisterous Huskers noisemaking. That’s what five national titles gets you. And Nebraska twice accomplished what the Gophers could not, winning a Final Four in their home state, in 2006 and 2015 in Omaha, Nebraska.
“To see what it was like in Omaha (in 2015) when Nebraska was there, you know it would be similar to that, that it would be a great environment,” said Stanford Coach Kevin Hambly, then at Illinois and a past president of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. “You want great environments. You want to play in front of great environments. I think our team would be fired up if there were a bunch of Minnesota fans.”
Had the Gophers made it, though, Hambly doubted the Target Center would have provided a home court advantage. “I think the advantage would be if it was at the Pav,” said Hambly, meaning Maturi Pavilion on campus. “Here, it’s not going to feel like a home court to anybody. Now if we played at the Pav, that would be a totally different deal — a nightmare.”
Which is a long and winding way (sorry) to address a lingering issue for next year’s Gophers — whether the team has outgrown the cozy, comfortable, 5,500-capacity Pav, and should move at least some Big Ten Conference matches next door to Williams Arena, which holds 14,625.
Easier proposed than done.
Gophers Coach Hugh McCutcheon opposes it, and McCutcheon carries such gravitas in the athletic department that it has zero chance of happening without his support. He loves the noise and energy in the Pav, and Minnesota’s 61-3 mark there the last four years offers a compelling argument to stay put. (The university dropping major bucks to air condition the Pav next year is another.) Three of those four seasons saw the Gophers go unbeaten at home in Big Ten conference play, critical for landing a high NCAA seed.
“We’ve got it good where we are,” McCutcheon said before last week’s Minneapolis Regional. “It’s not broken. We’re not looking to fix it.
“If for some reason we knew we could get into Williams and sell it out, for example, then great. But as we know, the margins in our conference are incredibly thin. To take an advantage away from our team on the off chance that maybe we could get a better crowd or something, it seems like we’re not really honoring our commitment to the program by doing that.”
Fine. But our friends from Lincoln offer an intriguing counterargument.
The Huskers navigated a similar dilemma in 2013, moving from the raucous Nebraska Coliseum (capacity 4,030) to the larger, newly renovated Bob Devaney Sports Center. Nebraska was 454-30 in 37 seasons at the Coliseum, losing only six conference matches in that time, at one point winning an NCAA-record 90 straight at home. Nebraska Coach John Cook preferred to stay put. But Tom Osborne, the renowned and respected former football coach, was the athletic director at the time, and nobody says no to Tom Osborne.
“I didn’t want to leave because it was such a home court advantage,” Cook said. “But Coach Osborne had a vision to put volleyball over there.”
Nebraska’s per-match attendance almost doubled the first year, from 4,287 to 8,175. The Huskers jumped from No. 2 to No. 1 in the NCAA in attendance, and have remained there every since. Across both venues they’ve sold out 253 consecutive matches, an NCAA record. This year Nebraska averaged 8,205 in the 7,907-capacity Devaney Center, about 1,600 more than national runner-up Wisconsin. (The Gophers were fourth at 5,318.)
“It brought in a whole new generation, a younger generation, of families and young people,” Cook said. “Our crowd was getting older because those people had season tickets for years, and nobody could get new season tickets.”
That’s not yet the case for the Gophers. Though season ticket sales tripled the last four years, from 1,074 in 2015 to 3,616 now, and most Big Ten matches sold out, tickets could still be had for the NCAA Tournament. The Oregon loss drew 5,187, roughly the same as the two early round NCAA matches at the Pav the previous weekend.
What’s that mean? Maybe McCutcheon is right. Until the Gophers sell out every match and amass a lengthy season ticket waiting list, it’s not worth moving. Plus, a bigger venue may not guarantee a bigger crowd. Minnesota’s season-opening matches at the Target Center in late August, the test event for the Final Four, drew 1,804 and 2,153, the only home crowds below 4,000.
There’s one more benchmark to consider. The Huskers volleyball radio network boasts 29 affiliates, exactly 29 more than the Gophers have. Until Gopher volleyball pulls that kind of statewide interest, the Pav fits the Gophers just fine.