Better take another look at Minnesota’s “dramatic gopher.” You may not see him at TCF Bank Stadium again, at least not in his current iteration.
Wait. What? How could this be, you ask?
The NCAA announced its rule changes for the 2021 season, which included an update to Rule 9-2-1-b-5. Or, better known as the Unsportsmanlike Conduct – Other Prohibited Acts rule.
“Persons subject to the rules, including bands, video/audio/lighting systems operators shall not create any noise or distraction that prohibits a team from hearing its signals or obstructs play,” the update guide says. “Rule 1-1-6 details all persons subject to the rules. The penalty statement will now include that the Referee may take any action he considers equitable, which includes directing that the down be repeated, including assessing a 15-yard penalty, awarding a score, or suspending or forfeiting a game.”
Long story short, video board and lighting system operators are now included as “personnel who may not create any distraction that obstructs play” and could be called for unsportsmanlike tactics.
Does that mean the dramatic gopher is now a potential violation?
“We want a level playing field,” Big Ten Coordinator of Football Officials Bill Carollo said on Thursday. “It’s not fair for the home team to turn the lights out while you’re trying to catch a ball. You can’t do that. We’ve had power go out in a stadium or the field in one of our championship games got ripped up, but we want to be sure it’s fair and safe for everyone and it’s a shame that you have to do that. Some teams will pump in a ton of noise when it’s third down and the other team can’t hear anything. Probably not fair.”
Before you ask about fans yelling, that’s different. The officials can’t control fans screaming or waving their arms.
“What I’m saying is piped-in, manufactured sound,” Carollo said.
The emphasis will remain on penalizing any taunting actions directed at the opponent to avoid unnecessary confrontations, as well as coaches receiving an automatic unsportsmanlike foul if they leave the team area and enter the field of play to debate a call made by the officials.
Minnesota coach PJ Fleck loves the dramatic gopher. His daughter loves it, too. So much so, when it’s even brought up, he’ll re-enact it on the spot.
“I can’t wait for that to happen,” Fleck joked about the big screen tactic.
But what if it’s a violation now?
“The days of not asking for permission but apologizing later are a little bit over,” Fleck said. “But we have a lot of creative people and they’re going to figure out ways to create advantages like everyone else in the country, I’m sure.”
And there’s something bigger than a dramatic gopher, regardless.
“Just having the fans back is going to be an unbelievable time,” Fleck said. “I think the taunting rules are in place for the right reasons. We have a series of steps in place to teach our players what that all means and what it looks like. Just the word taunting, there is so much that falls under the new rules.”
Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan understands too. “There is definitely a fine line,” he said when asked about taunting and unsportsmanlike conduct. Player safety is always going to be the priority, of course, but he knows the game-day experience matters to fans. The good news, in his opinion, is that the Big Ten is not lacking in incredible stadiums and environemmtns.
“Obviously what is so great about college football is the incredible environments that you get, playing in a big stadium like The Big House, or whatever,” Morgan said. “There are so many historic places to play in this conference but at the end of the day, player safety is the first priority and I know our commissioner and for everybody that is first and foremost, so I understand that.
“I know that’s going to be taken care of pretty well, but the environments are always going to be awesome. You’re always going to get a loud environment when you go play at Nebraska or wherever it may be. That’s what’s so cool about the Big Ten. Every game is fun. Every game is important and you could lose or win every Saturday, so you have to be at your best.”
Since the officials cannot control how loud fans yell—or wave their arms to distract—there still remains a place for stadiums to have a little fun with home field advantage.
And for Morgan, he sees it as a chance to just keep evolving the sport for stadium experience to fit within the new rules.
“It puts more on the fans to do things on their own,” Morgan said. “Obviously the digital production team—and they always do a good job–they’ll find more creative ways to get the fans more involved. I know our department does a great job of that. Fan engagement is a huge thing. We do things like the Gopher Shuffle, the Lion King and that’s a huge part of sports nowadays so that has to continue.
“Just have to find new and creative ways to make it happen.”
Maybe you’ll see the dramatic gopher again. Maybe not. If the new unsportsmanlike conduct rules have any say though, the dramatic gopher may need to find a new way to get involved.
It seems likely that it’s not just Fleck and his daughter that hope it finds its way back into the stadium this fall. Legally, of course.
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.