Jon's Jottings: Murray Warmath RIPYet another important figure in the football annals of the Upper Midwest has left the field. Former University of Minnesota head coach Murray Warmath died March 16 in Minneapolis.
By: Jon Echternacht, Hudson Star-Observer
Yet another important figure in the football annals of the Upper Midwest has left the field. Former University of Minnesota head coach Murray Warmath died March 16 in Minneapolis. He was 98.
Warmath harkened back to the days when big-time college football held the spotlight over the professional teams and the Saturday afternoon games across the country were the highlights of the Sunday morning sports pages.
Those of us of a certain age can remember turning to the “Peach Section” of the Minneapolis Tribune sports pages Sunday in the early 1960s to get the complete account of Gopher games as well as extensive coverage of the other Big Ten contests and major college action across the country.
There was plenty photography in the section and sometimes the reader was treated to a sequence of photos of key plays in the game.
Warmath led the Gophers to their last National Title in 1960, their last trips to the Rose Bowl and their last Big Ten championship during his 18 seasons at the helm from 1954 to 1971.
The U of M teams of the 1960s captured my full attention in junior high, high school and college. During my senior year in high school, my dad bought season tickets and we had a view from the bowl end of the old Memorial Stadium.
We drove down from Brainerd on Saturday morning, parked in the front yard of a fraternity house or residence then walked through the streaming crowds to the brick stadium. Sometimes we walked down fraternity row on University Avenue and got the full flavor of a Big Ten college football weekend.
That atmosphere was lost when football moved off campus to the Metrodome in the 1980s, I think. And major college football started taking a back seat to the professional ranks in the mid to late 60s, thanks in part to the Green Bay Packers’ success and the beginning of extensive TV coverage on the NFL.
But those early years when the Gophers were winning were a lot of fun for the fans with the Saturday afternoon spectacle of the student section and the colorful marching bands.
It was a different kind of football then. The platoon system was primarily the realm of professional football and most of the regulars played both sides of the line of scrimmage, offense and defense.
In fact, Minnesota’s All-American quarterback Sandy Stephens and several other starting backs played in the defensive backfield on the exchange of the ball. Can you imagine that happening in today’s game? The players were not as big then. There was only one 300-pounder in the NFL. As I remember it, Minnesota averaged something like 222 pounds in the line but 202 pounds in the backfield, which was considered big in those days.
Warmath’s teams played tough defense. Sometimes Warmath, a Tennessee native, elected to punt the ball away on third down. Another thing you can’t imagine in today’s game.
The late Dave “Hog” Hanner, Packer defensive tackle, coach, scout and Arkansas native, told me that tough defense was a characteristic of coaches with a Tennessee background. “Their teams will never be embarrassed, because they always play defense,” he said.
That was true with Warmath’s Gopher teams.
Probably the highlight those days was a big matchup in Minneapolis between Iowa and Minnesota during the 1960 season, the last time the Gophers won the national title. It was one of those rare contests of the time when the No. 1 ranked team in the nation (Iowa) met No. 2 (Minnesota) during the regular season on Nov. 5. Both teams were undefeated.
The situation was whipped up by an interest the national media took in the contest. I didn’t have tickets to the game but a few days before kickoff it was announced the game would be televised. I could watch it after all.
Minnesota thumped Iowa 27-10 before one of the largest crowds in Memorial Stadium announced at 65,610.
“I remember the pep rally we had on the mall Friday noon,” Warmath said. “I would guess there were 10,000 people on the mall for that pep fest which was far and away the biggest one ever.”
“There was so much tension on the field that both teams played a little bit sloppy and lost the ball on fumbles several times, but Minnesota’s extremely aggressive defensive play was a key factor,” the coach said.
Two key plays I remember. One in the first quarter when All-American tackle Tom Brown hit the Iowa center so hard on a fourth down punting situation that he hiked the ball over the punter’s head. Minnesota got the ball back on the Iowa 14 and scored three plays later for a 7-0 lead.
The other was when Halfback Roger Hagberg broke loose on a 42-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to give the Gophers a 20-10 lead. Hagberg, who carried the ball 15 times for 103 yards, was featured on the front cover of Sports Illustrated the next week.
I worked in the University of Minnesota athletic department in 1974 and the first half of 1975. Warmath was a special assistant to Athletic Director Paul Giel at the time. During the slow times I would wander down to talk with the old coach about football. He liked to talk football and I sure liked to listen to his down-home Tennessee drawl.
I got a chance to do a couple of stories with him for the Gopher game programs, one on the national championship season, and it was a thrill for me. I did another piece on Brown, Bobby Bell and Carl Eller, outstanding linemen. Brown, an All-American, won Minnesota’s first Outland Trophy in 1960 for the nation’s best lineman. Bell, an All-American twice, won the Outland Trophy in 1962 and was third in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Warmath felt Eller was the best tackle in the nation and should have won the Outland Trophy in 1963.
“Eller would have been the logical choice for the Outland Trophy in 1963 but I suspect the committee didn’t think the trophy should go to the same school two years in a row,” Warmath said.
Reports from the Twin Cities said Warmath loved to talk football right up to the end and many of his former players stayed close to him.
I know with his death, one of the last connections to a bygone era in college football is gone. We will not see his like again soon, if ever.