University of Minnesota Alumni Association


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.

New Year’s Day 1962 at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, from The Gopher yearbook.

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.

Head Coach Warmath was lifted aloft by his team after a win. The coach withstood tremendous pressure from many directions as he recruited his championship roster.
Photo Credit: U Archives

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 first meeting.

“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 their recruiting.”

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.”

Sandy Stephens
Photo Credit: U Archives

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.”

Judge Dickson
Photo Credit: U Archives

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.

Photo Credit: U Archives

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 Knuckleball Club.

Sports and Racism

Jack Trice
Photo Credit: Iowa State University Special Collections

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 always pretty.

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.

Ozzie Simmons
Photo Credit: University of Iowa Libraries

(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 are Black.

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

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