New Deal In Gopherland

With a new coach and new hope, an alum recalls when Minnesota's football players seemed godlike
November 05, 1984

One of the greatest, if not the greatest, football teams I ever saw.

There is something wrong in the land of giants.


The word uffda is probably the most popular expletive among Scandinavians, no matter where they live. It's pronounced with the accent on the uff, a sound that's produced by an outrushing of air, as if one had just received a thumb-poke in the stomach. The da is made with a soft touching of tongue to palate, followed by a short sigh—"Ah!"—of resignation. Uffda doesn't mean anything literally, but the sound is uttered to express an enormous variety of negative attitudes, ranging from momentary exasperation to ongoing melancholy. Thus, one can employ it to evince intense feeling about everything from a stubbed toe to the prospect of nuclear winter.

In Minnesota the word is widely used because the citizenry is largely Scandinavian, and the environment is, to say the least, unforgiving much of the time. Over the years, uffda-producing subjects or situations have included taconite tailings in Lake Superior, rodent droppings in grain elevators and the umpteen feckless presidential campaigns of Harold E. Stassen, who was Minnesota's "Boy Governor" back in 1938. Many other things have inspired great choruses of uffdas (see Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rölvaag and Main Street by Sinclair Lewis), but nothing in a long time has put the expletive on so many lips as the plight of the University of Minnesota football team in recent years.

To an outsider, this may not sound like a subject worthy of Rölvaagian despair or even Stassenesque embarrassment. But it is. Though a lot of Americans aren't aware of it, Minnesota, my alma mater, used to be one of the mightiest powerhouses in college football. Between 1934 and '41 the Golden Gophers won five national championships and six Big Ten titles. They had four undefeated seasons and an overall record of 54-9-1. They outscored their opponents 1,442 to 396.

As a kid I worshiped those guys. Their leather helmets sprouted halos. Their big black, cleated clodhoppers grew wings. During the Gophers' glory seasons, I lived in a farming hamlet in southern Minnesota called Medford. Most people in Medford were poor, uneducated, unsophisticated. They called my father "Professor" because he was superintendent of the school and had a college degree. A highway ran through the village, and we kids fed our longing for faraway places by sitting along the road and counting out-of-state license plates. No Martian could have aroused our curiosity more than the people who rode by in cars from California or New York. Alas, we couldn't examine these exotic specimens because none of them so much as slowed down.

So we felt bypassed, ignored, as insignificant as a speck of dust in the prairie sky—except when it came to our God-blessed Golden Gophers, who were known everywhere, even in New York and California. I never saw those Gophers play a game. I had to rely on the newspaper, the radio and my imagination—except once, when I actually confronted one of my heroes in the flesh. He happened to be the most golden of them all, Bruce Smith, captain of the 1941 team. That season the Gophers won the national championship, and he won the Heisman Trophy. Smith was from Faribault, a town 10 miles from Medford.

One spring Saturday in 1942, while my father and I were in Faribault, we went into the Olympia Café, a fountain that was a popular hangout for kids. There at the counter, sitting on a stool, was Smith. My father asked me if I wanted to meet him. I said no! The idea that my father would even think of approaching this deity left me dizzy with apprehension. My father introduced himself, calling Smith "Bruce"—not "Your Majesty," not even "Mr. Smith"—and then he introduced me.

I tried to meet Smith's gaze, but it was like looking at the sun. I had to turn away. My father asked Smith if he would give me his autograph. "Sure, where shall I sign?" he said. I was wearing my favorite outfit, my Cub Scout uniform. My father removed my neckerchief, spread it on the counter and handed Smith a pencil. With a little difficulty, he wrote his name on the yellow cloth. He smiled at me and turned on his stool to talk to his friends. Much as I loved my Scout uniform, I never wore the neckerchief again, lest it be soiled and require washing.

I believed then, as did many other Minnesotans, that perfect and near-perfect Gopher football seasons were one of the state's natural resources, just as rich prairie loam, iron ore, 10,000 lakes and big blond Scandinavians were. We now know that this assumption was very wrong. This is the golden anniversary of the 1934 superseason, which produced Minnesota's first national title, and the surviving players from that squad were feted on Oct. 6. Of course, they no longer remotely resemble the sodbusters they were 50 years ago. But the change in the looks of these old heroes is nothing compared with the change in the fortunes of Minnesota football.

Here's the bleak chronology: After that last grand season of 1941, everyone went to war, including coach Bernie Bierman, the stoic Silver Fox. The Gophers have never again had an undefeated season. They've won one national championship since then, in '60 with an 8-2 record, and shared two Big Ten titles, in '60 and '67. In the '70s the Gophers were a model of low-grade mediocrity, stumbling to a 50-57-2 record for the decade. Then came what we'll now refer to as the Uffda Years. Specifically, I'm talking about '82 and '83.

In 1982, Minnesota won its first three games before losing its next eight, including one to Northwestern, for decades the most reliable loser in the Big Ten. Two games earlier the Wildcats had broken a 34-game losing streak, then the longest such string in college football history. In '83 the Gophers lost to everyone, except lowly Rice, which Minnesota nipped 21-17 in the season opener. In its 11 games last fall, Minnesota was outscored 518-181. Uffda!

So there we have it—despair, defeat, misery, mistakes, a future fraught with futility, the classic ending to a classic Scandinavian story. But wait! This is America, not Norway. This is the land of Horatio Alger, not Henrik Ibsen, and we don't like to leave our endings unhappy. Amazingly, last December the snowdrifts parted in Minnesota and out stepped a living symbol of hope. He didn't have the fierce face of a Viking—not even the grim visage of a prairie sodbuster. No, he was a slight, bespectacled, high-strung, wisecracking, evangelistic football coach named Lou Holtz. He had been lured to Minnesota out of Arkansas through a weird and remarkable series of coincidences. Holtz, 47, is a winning coach, and overnight the mood in Minnesota changed from a full uffda to unbuttoned elation. My father referred to the new attitude as hoppe p√• bordet, which is Norwegian for "hopping on the table."

How could such a wild transformation occur in a state populated with four million naturally skeptical stoics? For one thing, Holtz is a live-wire public speaker who mixes Henny Youngman-like one-liners ("Take my wife, she doesn't know if the football is blown up or stuffed") with hard-edged inspirational aphorisms ("General George Patton said, 'When I die, I want to die falling forward.' This is a great goal for any football player"). Since arriving in Minnesota 10 months ago, Holtz has made more than 200 speeches. He has been quick to adapt his message to the Minnesota mind-set. While at Arkansas from 1977 to '83, he got into hot water for taping a couple of TV commercials for a friend of his, the king of the right wing, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. The spots were never aired, but they were made. These days Holtz is effusive in his praise of Hubert H. Humphrey, one of the most impassioned liberals of recent times.

Holtz is also a natural-born promoter with an imagination that can turn all sorts of odd incidents into gimmicks. A perfect example, as told by Holtz: "I went to open a checking account in a Minneapolis bank, and they asked what kind of symbol I wanted on my checks. A bird? A flower? A tree? I said, I want a gopher.' Do you believe it? They didn't have a gopher available! They do now. They've printed thousands of checks with a gopher and a big university 'M' on them. Every bank in the state will have them."

All this neon-lighted salesmanship is in stunning, and delightful, contrast with the coffin-nail pessimism that gripped the state last season. The coach then was Joe Salem, a former third-string Minnesota quarterback who specialized in coming off the bench to ignite late-game rallies. Salem ignited nothing as a coach: In five years he had a 19-35-1 record, including 17 consecutive losses to Big Ten schools. When Salem announced his resignation in midseason, no candidates for the job came running. Word was out that Minnesota wasn't interested in committing itself to big-time football.

A search committee comprised of faculty members and businessmen was formed. Some big names were on the committee's original "A" list, including Dan Devine, Dick Vermeil, LaVelle Edwards of BYU and Holtz. Coaches seemed to flee from Minnesota emissaries like mice from cats. Phone calls weren't returned, letters went unanswered. By early December the dragnet had come up dry, except for one not very big fish, Les Steckel, an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings. He seemed about to accept the university's eager offer, but then suddenly said no thanks. Steckel later said that he had no inkling Viking coach Bud Grant was going to retire in January. Perhaps, but Steckel got Grant's job.

So with only a week or so until Christmas, the university was pretty desperate. Says C. Peter Magrath, 51, Minnesota's president since 1974 (he'll become president of Missouri on Jan. 1), "We'd been completely disheartened by the search. We had no idea our reputation had eroded so much. There has never been a conscious decision to de-emphasize football at Minnesota, but it's true that the glory days were past and people were settling for so-so seasons. I really believe that if we had had another 5-6 season, we wouldn't have made a change. We had to suffer this debacle before everybody's attention got focused on how badly the program had deteriorated."

On Dec. 18, Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles summoned Holtz to his office. When Holtz emerged, he no longer had a job. Neither Broyles nor Holtz will discuss precisely what happened. All Holtz will say is, "One hour I was the coach of Arkansas and planning to keep on being the coach. An hour later my life had changed completely."

He had racked up a terrific record at Arkansas, going 60-21-2 in seven years. True, he was only 6-5 in 1983, but as Holtz says, "I have great friends in Arkansas. I also have great enemies." His detractors had labeled him a weak recruiter whom black players didn't trust. Certainly his pitch for Helms didn't help him on that score. His wisecracking personality and his penchant for filling his time—and his bankbook—with dozens of speaking engagements rubbed some people the wrong way. Nonetheless, no sooner had Holtz's bad news crackled over the wires than the Minnesota search committee was on the phone to him.

It was 29 below zero in Minneapolis when Holtz, his wife, Beth, and two of their children visited the campus. "They never let us outside," he recalls. "They turned up the heat all over the hotel. They have 22 blocks of heated walkways in downtown Minneapolis, and they never let us out of them."

The Minnesota athletic director is Paul Giel, 52, the former golden-boy halfback who finished second to Johnny Lattner of Notre Dame in the 1953 Heisman balloting. Giel has presided over the Gophers' failing football fortunes since '72. He seemingly is blessed with the same kind of Teflon coating that protects Ronald Reagan. When Holtz visited Minneapolis, Giel lay in a hospital, recovering from a quadruple heart bypass. Holtz was ushered into the room, and from his bed Giel flashed his famous grin, which is still boyish. "It sure would do my heart good if you'd take the job, Lou," said Giel.

Holtz gulped and left the hospital to begin the requisite interviews. After a day, he still couldn't decide whether to accept the job. "We went back to the hotel to be alone as a family," he says. "We had come to no conclusions, so we each went to a separate place to pray. Half an hour later we met again and decided I should take the job. This is obviously where God wanted me."

Well, what God wants God gets—and so, apparently, does His pal, Lou Holtz. Minnesota coaches never had it so good. Whereas Salem was paid $55,000 a year, Holtz is getting $225,000—$100,000 from the school, $70,000 for doing radio and television programs, $55,000 from the local business community. Until now, football facilities at Minnesota have bordered on the scandalous. Cal Stoll, 60, a former Bierman player (1947-49) who coached the Golden Gophers from '72 to '78, recalls, "We had the worst facilities in the Big Ten. The team didn't have a weight room. I remember my kids sitting on the floor in the hallway of the athletic department, while we showed game films on the wall because there was no room anywhere else."

Holtz says bluntly, "The thing that shocked me most in Minnesota wasn't the weather; it was the fact that nowhere in all the athletic facilities was there a room big enough for the whole football team to meet." A $4.5 million football building that will solve all those problems is currently under construction.

The public is giving the Gophers surprisingly solid support. In May, 27,000 fans attended the intrasquad spring game, previously a non-event at which players and coaches pretty much outnumbered the spectators. By September the university had sold 33,166 season tickets, the most since 1966. In five home dates, the Gophers have played before an average crowd of 49,453. When Holtz accepted the job, the Gophers' list of 1984 recruits contained just 13 names, and all were from Minnesota. Further, not one of those prospects was planning to attend the university. By the time Holtz and his staff had given them a taste of their hybrid brand of persuasion and enthusiasm, 12 had made abrupt about-faces and signed with the Gophers.

"It's nice to keep local stars from straying out of the home galaxy," says Holtz, "but there's one cruel truth about Minnesota football: It will never be great again if it must rely primarily on Minnesota players. The body and soul of this team will come from Minnesota, but for arms and legs we will have to go elsewhere." For the Gophers to return to glory, they'll have to land players from the nation's high school hotbeds in Florida, Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Texas. Needless to say, this causes a certain grief and queasiness in old Gopher worshipers. It seems all wrong, like bringing in Pecos Bill to substitute for Paul Bunyan. Uffda!

However, there's no point in avoiding the truth: On the best day of his life, Paul Bunyan couldn't streak 40 yards downfield in 4.4 seconds, run a Z pattern and then catch a pass in full stride as the ball falls over his left shoulder. No one knows this better than Murray Warmath, 70, who coached the Gophers from 1954 to '71. He may have been the first to tell Minnesotans the truth about their football players. In 1958, after he'd suffered through a 1-8 season, Warmath said that he would have to start recruiting heavily outside of Minnesota. This caused a predictable storm of wrath among old 'M' Club men, who ranted and roared that Bernie had never recruited outsiders. That was true, but Bierman's brand of football was designed to make brilliant use of players who tended to be big and thick and slow and stoic.

Recently, Warmath summarized what has happened to the Golden Gophers since Bierman's years of glory. "In the old days, the game meshed perfectly with Minnesota talent," he said. "Fifteen, 18 people played both ways. Teams threw maybe five passes. Then there was a radical change in the late '40s, right after the war—unlimited substitution, specialists. The game moved away from strength and endurance to speed, an open game on a wide field of play. It demanded quickness and athletic skill, the kind of attributes you don't find in Minnesota-born players as a rule. Also, you don't have that kind of player in any of the states surrounding Minnesota, either—Iowa, Wisconsin, the Dakotas. At every point of the compass, there's a comparative wasteland."

When big slow rural kids were pitted against swift lithe urban kids, even Bierman couldn't win. In 1950, his 16th and last year at Minnesota, his record was 1-7-1. He quit and never coached again. The best seasons since Bierman's tenure occurred in '60 and '61 under Warmath, and they were sort of strange. Those winning engines were driven mostly by black power, none of it from Minnesota. With the help of Carl Rowan, a highly respected reporter on the Minneapolis Tribune who's now a nationally syndicated columnist, several superb black athletes came to Minnesota, including Sandy Stephens and Bill Munsey of Pennsylvania, Aaron Brown (Texas) and Carl Eller and Bobby Bell (North Carolina). For once, the Gophers were ahead of the crowd: The major Southern schools still hadn't welcomed blacks, and most other Big Ten teams hadn't recruited as well among blacks as Minnesota had. But once the others got in the act, the Gophers returned to mediocrity.

Says Sid Hartman, a Minneapolis Star and Tribune columnist for 30 years and the most knowledgeable authority on Gopher football, "The sports picture in Minnesota turned around because of black athletes. In all his years, Bernie Bierman had maybe two blacks. Now in the Big Ten, 50, 60 percent of the starting teams are black. We have a two-percent black population in Minnesota. We are farther from Chicago than any other Big Ten school, and that's the closest city with lots of good black high school players. Michigan and Ohio State have big black populations in nearby cities."

Somehow, the more people talk about it, the more it seems that Minnesota's football problems are endemic to Minnesota. Speed? You want speed? Minnesota runners are slower than others. The state high school record for the 100-yard dash is 9.6, compared with 9.5 in Michigan, 9.4 in California and 9.0 in Florida. You want rifle-armed quarterbacks and sure-fingered ends? Says Stoll, "You cannot find a player born and bred in Minnesota who ever played regularly in the NFL as a passer or catcher. Lineman, yes, and linebackers, but not guys at the skill positions."

Even players merely good enough to play any position on a major college team are scarce in Minnesota. In 1981 the NCAA made a study to determine which states were turning out the most Division I players. California had 1,348, Texas 1,326, Ohio 945, Pennsylvania 711. Minnesota had produced a grand total of 85—and more than half of them were playing for the Gophers. The whole five-state region of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas had only 364 players. The Philadelphia area alone had 300.

All right, Holtz has already prescribed the cure for those problems: "For the arms and legs we will have to go elsewhere." Despite their late start, Holtz and his staff recruited far and wide and very well. They found an arm in quarterback Rickey Foggie of South Carolina and the legs of a blue-ribbon sprinter from Florida. Five freshmen have started on occasion. Nevertheless, the season has been resolutely so-so. A 20-13 loss to Michigan State last week dropped the Gophers' record to 3-5, and their final three games are against Big Ten powers Illinois, Michigan and Iowa.

But hope springs eternal in cold lands like Minnesota. A lot of people in the state believe Holtz can make their Gophers winners again. Stranger things have happened. This is, after all, only the fourth presidential campaign since 1948 in which Harold Stassen has not run. One less uffda around Minnesota can only be a good omen.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERHoltz has succeeded in rallying not only his athletes but a large part of the state as well. TWO PHOTOSBierman guided the Gophers to five national crowns, the last of which, in 1941, featured Heisman winner Smith (below). PHOTOWENDELL VANDERSLUISWarmath realized local talent like fullback Jim Carter (1967-69) needed outside help. PHOTOA stellar playing career has helped Giel survive as AD. PHOTOWENDELL VANDERSLUISWith Salem (wool cap) came 17 consecutive Big Ten defeats. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERSeveral coaches, including Steckel (left), shunned Minnesota before Magrath saw how much "our reputation had eroded." PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER[See caption above.] PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERHoltz is going afar for arms and legs like Foggie's.

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