Maybe 50 years have added a rose (bowl)-colored tint to their sepia-toned memories.
But they believed -- when there appeared little reason to believe.
A half-century ago, University of Minnesota football -- still the most important game in a town that had yet to witness the arrival of the Twins and Vikings -- was preparing for its seventh season under head coach Murray Warmath. His first six had produced two winning seasons. In 1959 the Gophers won two games and finished at the bottom of the Big Ten. They were nearly two decades removed from their fifth national title, no longer on the big-time college football map.
But the players believed.
"We, as a team, knew we could win," said Judge Dickson, a junior halfback in 1960. "We knew we had a team."
Fifty years later the memories have grown only sweeter. In 1960 a team that was uncommonly tight to start the season ended it as national champions; the vote at the time for national champion was conducted after the final regular-season game, rendering the Gophers' Rose Bowl loss to Washington irrelevant in that regard. Playing both to prove themselves and to protect their beleaguered coach, the Gophers went from off the map to atop the world, winning the program's sixth and most recent national title.
In only a few months, fans went from hanging Warmath in effigy to wearing buttons promoting him for president. The team went from worst to first, from nowhere to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl, leading the way toward integration of college football along the way. Dickson said Sandy Stephens, who would become the first black quarterback to win All-America honors, put a picture of the Rose Bowl on the wall at the team's dorm on the first day of practice.
"All of us bought into that vision," Dickson said. "And then we just went out and played."
Late in the 1959 season, after a loss to Michigan, fans hung Warmath in effigy at Territorial Hall, where the players lived. Tom King, a running back on that team whose father, Ray, had been a part of two Gophers championship teams, saw it on the walk to practice. It angered the players, he said, "and it only made us tighter."
Warmath was feeling the heat. Some wanted the last two seasons of his contract bought out. Some still were angry the school hadn't hired former Gophers great Bud Wilkinson to replace Wes Fesler in 1953.
"You have to remember, the Vikings weren't in town then yet," backup quarterback Joe Salem said. "Minnesota football was the show. When it didn't go well there was hell to pay."
And it wasn't only the losing. Some fans didn't like the idea of recruiting black players from around the country, or starting Stephens at quarterback.
Warmath was one of the first coaches in major college football to sign multiple black players in a single recruiting class, doing it at a time when most major southern schools were segregated. The 1959 Gophers had three black players -- Stephens, Dickson and lineman Bob McNeil. In 1960 two sophomores, defensive tackle Bobby Bell and halfback Bill Munsey, joined the varsity, leading the way for a number of high-profile black players to come to Minnesota in the next 10 years, including Carl Eller, Aaron Brown, John Williams, Ezell Jones, Charlie Sanders and McKinley Boston.
The team's black players were very aware that they were groundbreakers.
"We weren't playing just for ourselves," said Bell, from rural Shelby, N.C. "When I left Shelby, you have to understand, everybody was watching."
Said Dickson: "You don't know what it was like to pick up a paper and get dumped on every day. The papers dumped on us, the public dumped on us, and they were dumping on our coach. We said, 'To hell with those guys.' We knew we had a team."
Warmath might have felt the pressure, but he didn't show it. End Tom Hall, who went on to play for the Vikings, was amazed how Warmath handled it. "They were throwing garbage on his lawn, they wanted him out, gone. But he never showed that frustration with us. He showed us confidence, and we picked up on that."
"We told Warmath, 'Don't give up on us,'" Dickson said. "And he said, 'I'm never going to quit.'"
Despite the program's downward turn, a solid group of veterans arrived at training camp for the 1960 season. Tom Brown, older than most because of Navy service, would go on to win the Outland Trophy as the nation's best lineman. He was so athletic that he could do standing somersaults, in full uniform, both backward and forward, and strong enough that he used to go up to a ladder bolted against the wall, grab hold, and lift his body horizontally just to impress.
Center Greg Larson would go on to play 13 years with the Giants in the NFL. Frank Brixius was the tackle beside Bell on a defense that continually stuffed opponents' rushing game.
Stephens was coming into his own as a player and a leader, and Bell's speed would redefine line play. In the Gophers' season-opening, 26-14 victory over Nebraska, tackle Steve Kereakos remembers Bell running down speedy quarterback Pat Fischer from the back side for a 5-yard loss and thinking, "How could somebody do that?"
The Gophers had depth on both sides of the ball. Eleven players ran the ball 25 times or more, led by fullback Roger Hagberg. The defense was marked by speed, which translated into Munsey getting five interceptions and Stephens four.
And there were intangibles. Larson recalls the uncanny chemistry the team had from the start, before a game was played. "Usually that happens after you've won some games, but this started early," he said.
The players had learned from '59, when all but two losses were by eight points or fewer. "We would run all over the county, but we couldn't find the county seat," Kereakos recalled.
That was about to change.
Warmath, famous for his discipline and hard work, had his team ready. The Gophers clearly were the better-conditioned team on opening day at 12th-ranked Nebraska, winning going away; the Cornhuskers were supposed to be too fast for the Gophers.
That was followed by a 42-0 walloping of Indiana, a 7-0 victory over Northwestern and a come-from-behind, 21-10 victory over Illinois, which had started the season ranked No. 5.
"That put us on the map," Salem said.
A week later the Gophers went to Michigan, won 10-0 and came back with the Little Brown Jug. After whipping Kansas State 48-7in a nonconference game, they were 6-0 and ranked No. 3, ready to host a showdown against undefeated, top-ranked Iowa, which beat the Gophers 33-0 in Iowa City the year before.
Historic? Imagine the hype if that game were today. Two unbeatens, rivalry game, Floyd of Rosedale, and perhaps a national title at stake. It was 1960 and both teams started black quarterbacks in Stephens and Wilburn Hollis.
Bell and Munsey tried all week to convince each other that it was just another game. Right. King recalls walking onto the Memorial Stadium turf feeling as if he was going to throw up as the record crowd of 65,610 roared in anticipation. What happened over the next four quarters encapsulated the season -- domination from the defensive line, a big contribution from the reserves, the stars shining. Iowa was supposed to have too much outside speed. But, as Bell said, "Somebody forgot to tell us that."
Most remember Brown making Iowa center Bill Van Buren's day miserable. "Brown ate his lunch," Salem said. Watch the film of that game, Dickson said, and you'll know why he used to call him Mr. Brown.
Minnesota went up 7-0 shortly after Brown induced Van Buren to hike the ball over the punter's head. Later in the half, Iowa drove inside the 10 but settled for a field goal after Brown picked up a pulling guard and threw him at Wilburn, knocking him down for a 5-yard loss.
Still, after opening the second half with its only sustained drive of the day, Iowa took a 10-7 lead.
On the ensuing drive, Salem made the biggest play of his college career.
"Warmath was pacing the sidelines," Salem said. "Finally he came up to me and said, 'You're going in.'"
On third-and-6 from their 36 Salem took the snap, dropped back and was immediately under pressure. Just before getting hit he jumped and sent an end-over-end duck of a pass to Hagberg, who took it for 28 yards. On his back, Salem never saw the completion.
"That's my whole career right there," Salem joked.
Stephens re-entered the game and completed the TD drive that put the Gophers up for good late in the third. Hagberg, who ran for 103 yards, added a 42-yard touchdown run and Salem a 1-yard sneak for a 27-10 victory that put the Gophers atop the college football polls.
A week later the Gophers tripped, losing 23-14 to a Purdue team led by quarterback Bernie Allen, who later would play second base for the Twins.
But in the final regular-season game at Wisconsin, Stephens ran for two scores in a 26-7 victory that gave the Gophers a tie for the Big Ten title with Iowa. Kansas' upset of top-ranked Missouri put the Gophers back at No. 1, and the final Associated Press poll released Nov. 29 confirmed Minnesota as national champion.
The Rose Bowl loss to Washington did not alter the Gophers' status as national champs, but it did light a fire under the 1961 team to atone for that loss. The Gophers repeated their 8-2 overall record in '61, which included a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA.
"We won [the national title], under the rules that we played under, and we deserved it," Dickson said.
Said Bell: "We were national champs. I'm sitting here, right now, in my family room looking at a picture of that team. It says, 'National champs, Big Ten champs.'"
That's a memory nobody can take away. In an era when most players played both ways, eight Gophers starters went on to play pro football, either in the United States (NFL and AFL) or in the Canadian Football League.
"Personally, this is so important to me," King said. "To win when everybody thought we were losers. To win a national championship, that's something I will remember all my life."
Who wouldn't? "It was awesome," said Bell, who went on to win a Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs. "It was just a joy to be there."