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Reusse: '77 Gophers didn't receive their deserved respect

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE
  • Star Tribune
  • December 28, 2012 - 6:44 AM

Thirty-five years later, Minnesotans owe an apology to a football team. Not all of you qualify -- only we old-timers in the media and the sporting public that either ignored or made light of the 1977 Gophers as they earned a place in the first Hall of Fame Classic in Birmingham, Ala.

This has been a week to celebrate the grand turnaround in coach Jerry Kill's second Gophers season: from a 2-6 Big Ten record and no bowl game in 2011 to a 2-6 Big Ten record and an appearance in Friday night's Muffler Bowl in Houston vs. Texas Tech.

And while seeing Country Jer's Gophers claim one of those coveted 70 places in an FBS/BCS postseason game has us justifiably bursting with pride, it did cause a veteran sportswriter to contemplate the tepid reaction locally to the 1977 bowl berth.

The Big Ten had been sending a representative to the Rose Bowl to face a Pac-10 team since 1947. And through 1974, that was the lone conference team allowed to play in a bowl.

In 1975, the Big Ten relaxed its rule and sent Ohio State to the Rose Bowl and Michigan to the Orange Bowl. In 1976, the opposite occurred, with Michigan in the Rose and Ohio State in the Orange.

There were 11 bowl games for the 1976 season. The Hall of Fame game in Birmingham arrived as the 12th -- to be played before Christmas in 1977.

As I recall, the reaction to this information on the sports desk at the St. Paul Pioneer Press went like this: "Twelve! How many of these insignificant, third-rate bowl games do they intend to have?''

And when the Gophers defeated Wisconsin 13-7 in the season finale and the invitation to play Maryland came from the Birmingham delegation, there was another harrumph: "How can a team that went 7-4 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten possibly get a bid to a bowl game?''

Now, decades later, the cynicism is long gone and we can look back at those Gophers and say that -- among the 15 U of M squads to get a postseason invitation -- only the teams who played in the 1961 and 1962 Rose Bowls were more deserving than Cal Stoll's bunch in 1977.

In case you want to argue, there's a good reason Glen Mason's 10-3 team of 2003 doesn't beat out 1977 in bowl worthiness: Mason's 4-0 record in nonconference play was achieved against Tulsa, Troy, Ohio and Louisiana-Lafayette.

The 1977 Gophers did have Western Michigan (a 10-7 victory) in its opener, but the other nonconference games were against UCLA (with Kenny Easley and Freeman McNeil) and Washington (with Warren Moon).

The Gophers beat UCLA 27-13 on Sept. 24 and Washington 19-17 on Oct. 1. They counted actual bodies back then and the official crowds at Memorial Stadium were 41,076 for UCLA and 31,895 for Washington. How do you beat UCLA and lose 9,000 customers for the next Saturday?

"The Vikings had been going to Super Bowls,'' Steve Midboe said. "I think they were more dominant with the fans then than they are today. We had a heck of a football team, especially on defense, but our crowds weren't that big.''

The most notable victory came on Oct. 22: a 16-0 shutout of No. 1-rated Michigan. Famously, Midboe, a defensive tackle, pursued a retreating Rick Leach for 30 yards behind the line before the Wolverines quarterback collapsed in a heap.

Stoll would later say with a cackle, "Old Midboe would'a chased him all the way to Stub and Herb's if Leach hadn't fallen down.''

Midboe lives back home in Chetek, Wis. He was a senior captain in 1977. He had a badly sprained ankle late in the season and played only sparingly in the 17-7 loss to Maryland in the Dec. 22 game at Legion Field.

"This was a first for Birmingham and even though it was Bear Bryant country, they treated us great,'' Midboe said. "We screwed up a few times that season, losing at Indiana and Iowa and at home against Michigan State, but we beat UCLA and we beat both Rose Bowl teams, Washington and Michigan.

"There were only 12 bowl games and just three teams from the Big Ten got to one that season. It was a nice reward for our team. We were pretty good.''

By today's standards, Capt. Midboe, the '77 Gophers were close to mighty.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. preusse@startribune.com

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