The Gophers defeated UCLA 21-3 to win the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1962. We were impressed. And when Murray Warmath assembled his squad for the 1962 season, there were positive reminders of the glory that had taken place nine months earlier in Pasadena, Calif.
Quarterback Sandy Stephens was among several important seniors who had been lost, but linemen Bobby Lee Bell and Carl Eller were returning, as was Stephens' buddy Bill Munsey at running back. And, we were being assured by objective reporters such as Sid Hartman that senior Duane Blaska would slide in as a capable replacement for Stephens.
The Gophers started 1-1-1, tying Missouri (0-0), beating the Naval Academy (and sophomore QB Roger Staubach) 21-0, and losing the Big Ten opener to Northwestern (and coach Ara Parseghian) 34-22. From there, the Gophers ran off five straight Big Ten wins and went to Madison for a Nov. 24 game that would decide the trip to the Rose Bowl.
The Gophers lost 14-9 to the Badgers and a gang of thieves hired by the Big Ten to officiate the game.
It is 52 seasons since Minnesotans have been able to watch the Gophers enter a season basking in the glow of a truly great bowl game performance. Yes, Glen Mason did have three straight bowl wins over Oregon, Arkansas and Alabama from 2002 through 2004, but let's face it:
Those were nothing compared to what occurred with Jerry Kill's Gophers last Dec. 28, when they took on Texas Tech in the tradition-rich Meineke Muffler Repair Bowl in Houston.
Everything was stacked against Country Jer's plucky Gophers when they went to Texas. Consider:
*Coach Tommy Tuberville saw such promise in this Texas Tech team and where the program was headed that he left for Cincinnati on Dec. 9.
*The Raiders were coming off a dramatic stretch drive in which they suffered heart-breaking losses in four of their last five games. They allowed an average of a mere 49.3 points per game and lost by an average of a mere 21.3 points in those four games.
*It was impossible to downplay the Raiders' noble victory in the midst of all that heartbreak on Nov. 10 in Lubbock: 41-34 in overtime over Kansas ... and this was a KU team that coach Charlie Weis just this week jauntily looked back on as "a piece of crap.''
Even with Texas Tech playing under the inspiring leadership of interim coach Chris Thomsen, a one-season assistant who wasn't going to be part of the new staff, the Gophers took it to the Raiders. They were rambling on the ground, hitting on defense, and took a 31-24 lead early in the fourth period on Philip Nelson's one-yard missile to Drew Goodger.
OK, there was a little blip at the end, when Tech's Seth Doege threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Eric Ward with 1:10 remaining, and then Ryan Bustin kicked a 28-yard field goal on the last play, and Texas Tech won 34-31, but what the heck, when you can take a team to the last play that beat "a piece in crap'' in overtime only seven weeks earlier, that's saying something for what is being built here, right?
Country Jer and his players mentioned frequently the glory of the Meineke Bowl during spring practice. Kill repeated that as gospel during the Gophers' caravan around the state earlier this summer. And this week at the Big Ten's preseason media session in Chicago, Kill said:
"... I think the kids took the momentum out of the bowl game, took it into the offseason, did an outstanding job in the offseason getting bigger, stronger and faster. And went into spring ball, [and I] felt like we had our best spring ball.''
It should be clear to all of us: The Gophers are coming off their greatest bowl achievement in 51 seasons.
Actually, I'm feeling a little better about our rodents as practice starts Thursday than was the case as a young fan in 1962. Our boys now have Ra'Shede Hageman; back in '62, all we had was Bell and Eller.