That Championship Season
In 1960, the Gophers football team pulled off an epic, worst-to-first turnabout and made it to the Rose Bowl. But it was Head Coach Murray Warmath’s social consciousness that helped them break racial barriers, shatter stereotypes, and change the future of football.
For exasperated, not to say grieving, Minnesota
Gopher football fans, the 1959 season was the low
ebb, the breaking point, an ignominious bottoming-out less
than two decades removed from a golden eight-year span
in which the team had won five national championships.
Memories of those splendid years were still vivid for
legions of the faithful, even as an 11-7 loss to Wisconsin
in the ’59 finale left Minnesota in last place in the Big
Ten for the first time and stretched its run of failure to 15
losses in 18 games over two seasons. It was a defeat, one
sportswriter said, that “dumped them to rock bottom of
more than a half-century of football.”
Four weeks earlier, Head Coach Murray Warmath had
also been hung in effigy in front of Territorial Hall as a
trumpeter stood by playing taps. Life magazine, then the
national bellwether, carried a story about the abuse being
heaped on the Warmath family.
In the locker room following the Wisconsin game, the
coach was asked, after three straight losing seasons,
where do the Gophers go from here? The 47-year-old
Tennessean never flinched. “We start thinking about 1960
right now,” he told reporters. What ensued was an epic,
worst-to-first turnabout unlike anything to be found in
the 150-year history of college football. The Minnesota
contingent that finished dead last in the Big Ten in 1959,
burst forth as national champions in 1960.
It was a single-season reversal of fortune like no other,
but what gives the Minnesota miracle 60 years ago its
lasting significance and makes it more than just a highlight
in the U of M’s sports history was the depth of Warmath’s
resourcefulness and the extent of his social consciousness.
He fielded a racially and geographically diverse team that
broke barriers and shattered stereotypes. At the start of
a decade in which everything in the country seemed to
change, the Golden Gophers—glinting brightly again—
presaged the future of football, certainly, and maybe the
future of America.
Carl Eller, a freshman tackle from Winston-Salem, North
Carolina, and future Minnesota Vikings superstar, called
the University of Minnesota teams of that era “a major,
major factor in the [Black] freedom movement. I can’t
emphasize that enough,” he says.
In the process of those milestones, however, Warmath
had to withstand “a virtual civil war among alumni, fans,
and school officials,” as a reporter put it in 1960.
Warmath arrived in Minneapolis in 1954 with a coaching
pedigree of the first rank. At Tennessee in the 1930s, he
played and coached under General Bob Neyland, who
Knute Rockne called “football’s greatest coach.” Later, as
an assistant to legendary Army Head Coach Colonel Earl
“Red” Blaik, Warmath sat during film sessions next to another
up-and-coming Black Knights assistant, Vince Lombardi.
After two years as Mississippi State’s head coach,
Warmath landed the prestigious Minnesota job, replacing
Wes Fessler. Warmath managed a successful first season
in ’54 and another good one in ‘56, and then Minnesota
hit the skids.
For Warmath, the solution was to extend the school’s
recruiting perimeter beyond Minnesota. It was a radical
move in the state that produced Bronko Nagurski, the pride
of International Falls, and the rugged athletes who won
national titles in 1934, 1935, and 1936 (a three-peat that’s never
been equaled in the college ranks), as well as 1940 and ’41.
“Minnesota for Minnesota Boys”, as one newspaper
headline put it. But at an event in 2000 marking the 40th
anniversary of the 1960 team, Warmath said it became
clear he could recruit all the top in-state high school
players and still not win the Big Ten. Thus, freshmen
arrivals in 1958 and 1959 included athletes from places
such as Cut Bank, Montana; Uniontown, Pennsylvania;
and Shelby, North Carolina.
Shelby was home to Bobby Bell, a Black player who
became a Minnesota All-America tackle and was chosen
in 2019 as one of the top 100 college football players
of all time.
“I was a kid who played six-man football in North
Carolina,” says Bell today. “After we won the six-man state championship in 1958, there was an All-Star game
in Greensboro. A lot of white coaches came to see us,
including Jim Tatum from North Carolina. I played running
back that day and got most valuable player of the game.
“But back then I couldn’t go to North Carolina and I
couldn’t go to Duke. Big schools down South weren’t
taking Black players. [Tatum] called coach Warmath and
said, ‘I just watched an all-star game of all-Black schools
and the kid who lives up in Shelby, North Carolina, next to
a mountain, is a helluva player. If you have one scholarship
left, you need to give it to him.’
“They sent me a plane ticket,” Bell remembers. “When
I got to Minneapolis, I looked around and, man, I’d never seen so many people in my life.” Sandy Stephens, a
promising quarterback, and two other Black players
had arrived in Minnesota a year earlier from western
Pennsylvania. Halfbacks Judge Dickson (B.A. ’62, J.D. ’65)
and Bill Munsey showed Bell around campus.
“I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it,” Bell says. “I called
my Dad and said, ‘If they give me a scholarship, I want to
go here.’ That’s how I ended up at Minnesota.” (Bell would
return to the U of M in 2015 to finish up three remaining
courses to graduate, school having been interrupted by
his professional football career. He earned his bachelor’s
degree more than 50 years after he first enrolled.)
The freshmen from Pennsylvania vouched for the school
and for Warmath. The year before, Judge Dickson had
been wary as he weighed Minnesota versus Michigan,
which had recruited some Black players in the 1950s. The
17-year-old from Clairton, Pennsylvania, visited Minneapolis
in early 1958. He stood freezing on a street corner early
one morning waiting for Warmath to show up for their
“I was supposed to meet the coach at about 7 o’clock,”
Dickson said. “It seemed like I was out on that street corner
forever and it was cold.”
Finally, Warmath turned up. “I said, ‘Coach, I’ve been
out here for two hours, man, and you just got here and
meanwhile I didn’t see any Black people in this town, no
Black people walking down the street at all!’”
Telling the story today, the 81-year-old retired IBM
executive and attorney mimics Warmath’s west Tennessee
drawl. “He said to me, ‘Well, Judge, the first thing I’ll tell
you is that you forgot to set your clock back. You weren’t
out there at 7, you started out at 5 o’clock. And secondly,
what Black people do you know that walk around the
street at 5 o’clock in the morning?’
“That began a discourse where I could talk to him about anything I wanted to talk to him about,” Dickson says. “That was my relationship with mostly everybody in Minneapolis for the whole time I was there. I just fell in love with Minneapolis.”
Players speak of the warm springs of Warmath’s nature
and grace under pressure, but also remember an exacting
disciplinarian and an indefatigable worker and recruiter.
In 1957, Bob Frisbee (B.S. ’62, J.D. ’65), a 6-foot-3, 225- pound center on the Minnesota teams of early ‘60s, was spotted pitching an American Legion baseball game in northwest Montana by Gophers football patron Don Knutson. It was bit of a fluke. Knutson, a wealthy businessman and developer, had a long wait for a train in the remote town of Cut Bank and took in the ballgame being played near the station. Knutson knew a pure athlete when he saw one. Indeed, Frisbee was a star high school fullback and champion shot-putter and discus thrower. Once back in Minneapolis, Knutson alerted Warmath.
“It is amazing the way word spread in those days,”
says Frisbee, who would be pursued by about 50 colleges for football. The young man initially planned to go
to Colorado, where he was recruited by U.S. Supreme
Court Justice and former Buffaloes All-American Byron
“Whizzer” White. But while coordinating a coaching
clinic in Montana a few months later, Murray and Mary
Louise Warmath detoured to Cut Bank and spent two
nights in the Frisbee’s guest bedroom. Frisbee decided
to come to Minnesota.
Not only could Warmath pinpoint talent, he had novel
ideas for how to deploy it. “We were mostly backs when
we came in as freshmen,” says Dickson. “We had played
halfback or fullback or quarterback in high school, and
about 90 percent of all the players changed positions
at Minnesota. That’s how coach Warmath elevated the
speed of the team.”
Warmath was tinkering with the doctrine of power football espoused by coach Bernie Bierman, winner of those
five Minnesota national titles, by converting fleet-footed
backs into swift and nimble linemen and linebackers able
to slip blockers and chase down ballcarriers.
“We had a team of guys that not only had the talent
to be switched, but the personality to switch and give it
their all,” Dickson says. “Bob Frisbee was the No. 1 fullback
in Montana and became our center. And then there was
Bobby Bell,” who was moved from quarterback to tackle
and became an All-American.
Despite the promise of the young 1959 team, the season
was an exercise in adversity. The Gophers opened with
a 32-12 thumping at the hands of Nebraska in Memorial Stadium, a preview of things not to come that autumn.
The Gophers went 2-7 and fans went berserk.
In November, backers of a move to oust Warmath
claimed to have pledges for most of the $37,500 they
said was needed to buy up the remainder of his contract.
“Coach had a lot of pushback,” said
Barbara Stephens Foster, who would
follow her brother Sandy to Minnesota after attending Pennsylvania
State University. She would spend
three decades at the U of M as an
administrator and earned a degree
in child-care administration from
the University in 1990. “I think he
had to convince the Regents and
everybody else that this experiment was going to work.
[And] the fans treated the team very, very poorly.”
As pressure mounted, Barbara says her brother’s
admiration for Warmath grew. “In Sandy’s eyes, he was
just an extraordinary man of integrity, despite what was
going on around him and all the turmoil.”
Bell remembers vividly. “They tried to run him out of
town,” he says. “It was just crazy. They got on him because
he brought in these Black players—the first time they had
so many Black players on a team. There were those who
said, ‘Why would you give Bobby Bell a scholarship, you’ve
got players up here in Minnesota?’ They were getting on
him because he wasted a scholarship on me. But he said,
‘they’re not going to run me.’ Coach was a guy who said,
‘I’m going to do it my way.’”
Mary Louise Warmath, Murray’s wife, described the
abuse to Life in an article that appeared in the Nov. 14, 1959
issue. “I have never seen anything like the emotional way
people take football at Minnesota,” she said. “Every night,
night after night, the phone would ring at 2, 3, or 4 in the
morning. You wouldn’t hear a hello or anything, just a lot
of noise. It seemed like they just wanted us disturbed.”
Warmath was under pressure to win—and to win with
Minnesotans. If Warmath bore his torment inwardly, he
still bore it.
Judge Dickson remembers the dummy with Warmath’s
name pinned on it that swung outside the players’ residence hall after Minnesota lost to Michigan on October
24. It was hard to mistake the racial overtones.
“They hung coach Warmath in effigy outside of my
window in the dorm because of me, because of us,” he
says. “And with the racial stuff, you also had the territorial
stuff in terms of the Gophers expanding the reach of
Warmath, the Southerner, seemed an unlikely candidate to pull down racial barriers, but he made Stephens his field
general at a time when virtually no Black athletes played
quarterback at big schools. “The first time Sandy played
on television, Minnesota was playing against Wisconsin in
1959,” says Barbara Stephens Foster. “Over the years, I’ve
had so many people tell me about the feelings they had
watching him play on TV. This was a Black quarterback
on TV! Wow, the possibilities that opened up.”
Dickson says having Stephens as quarterback resonated
in a number of ways: “One stereotype was that Black
people could not lead white people, that Black people
did not have leadership ability,” he says. “But on the field,
Sandy called the plays. That was history.”
A Black playing quarterback in any college football
game “was monumental,” said Carl Eller.
It also set a tone for changing race relations in America.
Says Eller: “It is often overlooked how much of a contribution and the sacrifice athletes made to Civil Rights in this
country, athletes like Bobby or Sandy or myself.”
Despite its disappointing 1959 season, there were encouraging signs for the 1960 squad. The Gophers had lost five
games by seven points or fewer in ’59. The accumulation
of talent was unmistakable, including Stephens, Bell, Munsey, and two-way tackle Tom Brown (who played at
the U of M from ’58 to ’60, would win the Outland Trophy
in 1960 as the country’s best lineman, and finish second
in the Heisman voting).
At one point during the ’59 season, Sandy Stephens
had pasted a picture of the Rose Bowl on the wall of the
dorm room he shared with Dickson. Dickson remembers
it clearly: “He was the first who said, ‘I believe’ and we took
that attitude to practice. It caught on. The team started
to believe that it could achieve, irrespective of all the
negative things people were saying about us.”
Immediately after the ’59 season, Warmath made
clear he would stick to the terms of his contract, which
gave him two more seasons at Minnesota. That took the
wind out of the campaign by unhappy fans directed at
removing him. And he elaborated on his strategy. “We
plan to use three platoons next year where this season
we had to get along with one most of the time,” he told
the press. “I think we’ve got enough good talent coming up, combined with the experience we gained this year,
to permit us to do that.”
Stephens, a stocky 215-pounder who specialized in the
option roll, spent much of his sophomore season absorbing the hard lessons of major college quarterbacking.
One writer at the time described his play as “eccentric.”
Stephens went into the 1960 opener against Nebraska
in Lincoln determined to undo his reputation for fumbling
and scattergun passing. The Gophers would beat the
Cornhuskers 26-14, turning the tables on a team that had
walloped the Goldens in 1959. A week later, in the home
opener at Memorial Stadium, Minnesota crushed Indiana,
its most decisive victory in 11 years.
The Associated Press’s Jim Klobuchar’s story led with:
“Resurgent Minnesota smacked Indiana 42-0 Saturday
behind the second-half exploits of quarterback Sandy
Stephens and the might of its massive line.” That line,
consisting of Bell, Brown, Frank Brixius (B.S., ’61), Greg
Larson, John Mulvena (B.S. ’62), and Frisbee, bulldozed
the Big Ten that fall.
Dickson remembers: “Nobody was allowed to talk in
the huddle except the quarterback. I mean nobody. In
fact, it was one of the easiest and quickest ways to get
yanked out of the game.” Minnesota racked up six wins
and ascended to No. 4 in the nation the week before a
November 5 showdown with Iowa, which happened to
be ranked No. 1. It was the season’s blue-ribbon game,
a clash of two unbeatens and two Black quarterbacks,
Stephens and Iowa’s Wilburn Hollis, at Memorial Stadium.
And it was no contest. The Gophers, who among themselves were chanting “Who’s No. 1?” all week, won 27-10.
“This was the most satisfying win since I’ve been here,”
said Warmath in the euphoric locker room. Talk about a
change of attitude. A Minnesota fraternity sold nearly
1,000 “Warmath for President” buttons in the week before
the Iowa game, though three days after the victory, it was
John F. Kennedy who was elected president, the same
day the Gophers leap-frogged to No. 1 in the nation.
Next was a matchup with Purdue in Memorial Stadium.
The Boilermakers, who had lost four times that fall, caught
the Gophers flat-footed and built a 13-0 halftime lead. Minnesota raged for two second-half touchdowns by Munsey
and halfback Roger Hagberg. But Purdue quarterback
Bernie Allen kicked a 35-yard field goal in the second
half, and the Boilermakers added a freak touchdown on
the game’s final play for window dressing. The final score:
Purdue 23, Minnesota 14. The Gophers fell to No. 4 in the
AP poll and into a deadlock with Iowa in the Big Ten race.
The loss stung, but the Gophers bounced back in the
final regular season game, blowing out Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium 26-7 to recapture their No. 1 ranking. Next
came the Rose Bowl invitation. Eller remembers: “When
it was announced they were going to the Rose Bowl, the
whole campus turned out. They were in the streets and I
thought, ‘Oh man, this is fantastic.’”
Of course, every true story has an anticlimax. For the
1960 Gophers, it would be the 1961 Rose Bowl on January
2. Minnesota lost to Washington, 17-7. Still, the legacy of
1960 extended to 1961. Eller would join the varsity in the
new season, as did Bloomington native Milt Sunde (B.S.
’65), another interior lineman who would eventually play
on Sundays with the Vikings.
The Gophers’ 8-2 record in 1961, sullied by a Big Ten loss
to Wisconsin, left them co-champs with Ohio State. Big
Ten rules prohibited consecutive Rose Bowl appearances,
thus the Buckeyes appeared headed to Pasadena. For
some Minnesota players who’d been to “The Granddaddy
of Them All,” not returning was just fine. In 1960, after a
“nasty Big Ten season,” Frisbee says, preparing for the ‘61
Rose Bowl was a slog with intense, two-a-day workouts
in the L.A. sun.
Fast forward to November 1961: the Ohio State Senate
declined the bid to play in the 1962 Rose Bowl, so the
invitation reverted to Minnesota. When Warmath heard
the news, he ordered his players to report to practice in
full pads. But first they’d have to vote on whether they
wanted to play. “A bunch of us weren’t interested in going
back because it had been such a shitty experience the
year before,” Frisbee says.
By the narrowest of margins, the team elected to make
the trip, with Sandy Stephens the difference-maker. The
quarterback made the case that the fate of Eller, the team’s new superstar, ought to be considered. “Sandy said if we
don’t vote to go back, Carl Eller would never be able to
play in a Rose Bowl,” Frisbee remembers.
The Gophers would go on to overpower UCLA 21-3.
Barbara Foster Stephens recalls, “Losing that first
Rose Bowl was crushing for Sandy. When they had an
opportunity to go a second time, I knew that whatever
it was going to take, Sandy wasn’t going to come out of
there a loser again. It was just destiny.”
Stephens died in June 2000 at age 59 of an apparent
heart attack, a few months before the celebration of the
40th anniversary of the 1960 champs. “Over the years,
coach and I really developed a kinship,” says Stephens’s
sister. “He was always, ‘Hi Barb, how are you doing?’ After
Sandy had passed, he’d always say how much he loved
him and I said, ‘He loved you, too, Coach,’ and we’d cry.”
Warmath passed away in 2011 at 98.
“Man, I thought the world of coach Warmath,” says
Bobby Bell. “He was like a dad to me, man. He’d bring me
into his office and talk to me because he knew I was a kid.
He’d call me in and say, ‘Are you doing OK?’ He figured
I was homesick. He said, ‘If you’ve got a question, you
come in my office. Talk to me before you do anything.’
That’s what I did.”
It was an act of generosity Bell does not wish to go
unrecorded. “Up until he passed away, I would talk to him
every month. And every time I’d go [to Minneapolis], I had
to see him. When he was sick or on his birthday, it didn’t
matter. I was there with him.
“When Judge [Dickson] and I got cellphones, Coach asked, ‘What are you guys doing with that?’ We ended up giving him a portable phone and we programmed the speed dial for him. I remember, I was No. 2 and Judge was No. 3. He could call us any time."
Rick Johnson is the retired editor of the global auto industry
magazine Automotive News. He is also the author of “American
Fads,” “Six Men Who Built The Modern Auto Industry” and “The
Sports and Racism
It may seem surprising that an integrated
sports team or an All-American Black
quarterback was once a controversial
idea. After all, Black athletes have played
in college football—although sporadically,
and mainly at smaller schools—since at
least the 1890s. According to U of M Athletics,
between 1904 and 1906,
Bobby Marshall became
the first person of color to
play football in what would
become the Big Ten while
playing for the Gophers.
However, racial disparities related to sports have
a long history that mirrors
that of our wider society,
and that history isn’t
In 1923, the lone Black
football player for Iowa
State, Jack Trice, was
refused lodging with his
team at a hotel in Minneapolis because of his race,
before a game with the U
of M. The next day, he was
severely injured during
that game against an all-white Gopher
team after being trampled by three Minnesota players. He died two days later.
(Some speculate Trice was singled out for
rough treatment by players solely because
of his race. Jack Trice Stadium in Ames,
Iowa, was named in his honor in 1997.)
And in 1934, another lone Black football
player named Ozzie Simmons, who played
for the University of Iowa, was reportedly
targeted for similarly harsh treatment by
the Gopher team. He was injured repeatedly and knocked out of the game three
times. Some, including future president
and then-Des Moines based sportscaster
Ronald Reagan, also said Black players
became special targets during games
solely because of their race.
(The controversy and resentment over
Simmons’s treatment actually led to the
tradition of the Floyd of Rosedale trophy.
After Iowa residents voiced their outrage
over the treatment of Simmons, Governors
Clyde Herring of Iowa and Floyd Olson of
Minnesota tried to deflect controversy
over his treatment by making a bet on who
would win the next rivalry game.)
Fast-forward a few years at the U of
M, and the 1960s would see a number of
firsts in sports. Bobby Bell, the standout
Gophers football player, was considered such a remarkable athlete that he
was recruited to walk on to the Gopher
basketball team, where he became the
program’s first Black player. Also, in 1962,
Lou Hudson was one of the first three
Black basketball players to receive an
athletic scholarship at the U of M, along
with Archie Clark and Don Yates.
Today athletics has become one of the
most integrated of college activities. For
instance, roughly half the players on the
Gopher’s 115-man football roster today
After the death of George
Floyd, Head Coach P.J. Fleck
met with his football players to talk about what had
occurred. Fleck spoke to
ESPN’s First Take program
in late May, noting that “The
world right now could learn
a lot from college football
teams … about how these
young people are standing
up, saying what they feel and
making sure their voices are
heard. [T]his is a time [for all
of us] to listen, and to have empathy and
to be very real about what’s going on with
the social injustice around us.”
By mid-June, the Big Ten had also announced the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition, which includes student-athletes, coaches, athletic directors, chancellors, presidents, and other members representing all 14 member institutions, who will work to address racism in our society. —KOD