The Gophers’ decision to hire Joe Salem as the replacement for Cal Stoll wasn’t the news of the moment in Big Ten football. This came at the same time Ohio State was getting rid of Woody Hayes, after he came off the sideline swinging when a Clemson player intercepted a pass that guaranteed defeat for the Buckeyes in the 1978 Gator Bowl.
The Hayes news did not deter the nostalgic good feelings we had here when athletic director Paul Giel decided to bring home Salem. He was the popular backup quarterback known as “Smokey Joe” on the 1960 team that went to the Rose Bowl.
Salem had done good work turning around lower-level programs at South Dakota and Northern Arizona. Once he was hired, billboards started to appear with Smokey Joe holding a rose in his teeth.
Get it? There was a Rose Bowl return in our future.
Salem walked in for the start of a scheduling period (1979-84) when the Gophers would play nine Big Ten games in an 11-game schedule.
When Salem was hired, there were a total of 14 bowl games, and it took 8-3 to get an invitation, not 6-6. And for nonconference games, Salem’s Gophers had Ohio for four years, with Southern California in 1979 and 1980, Oregon State in 1981 and Washington State in 1982.
The Gophers were 4-6-1, 5-6 and 6-5 in Salem’s first three seasons. The six victories in 1981 included a 35-31 upset of Ohio State.
There was double-edged optimism entering 1982 for the return of Mike Hohensee, the junior college slinger from California, and for the move into the new Metrodome.
The Gophers had a media day there. Salem looked around the big blue room and said, “This is going to be the Taj Mahal of college football.”
On that August afternoon, Smokey Joe also could have not have imagined what would become of his football program.
The 1982 Gophers were 3-0, with decisive victories over Ohio, at Purdue and Washington State. They were rated 19th in the country entering the Metrodome’s first-ever Big Ten game vs. Illinois. The crowd was announced at 63,684.
The Gophers led at halftime before melting down against Illinois, with quarterback Tony Eason and a tight end named Tim Brewster. The final was 42-24, and the Gophers followed this by losing seven more for a 1-8 finish in the Big Ten.
One season later, the Gophers ended the eight-game losing streak with a 21-17 road victory against woeful Rice and came home to play Nebraska. No. 1-rated Nebraska. Mike Rozier’s, Turner Gill’s and Irving Fryar’s Nebraska.
Randy Rasmussen, a center/guard and the Gophers captain, was quoted thusly in that Saturday’s Star Tribune:
“Our offense thinks we can move and our defense thinks we can hold them. All we have heard is that No. 1 Nebraska is going to run all over us, but team-wise and coach-wise, we think we can give them a game.”
The final was 84-13. The Cornhuskers played everyone on the trip and couldn’t hold down the score. They had 12 scoring drives that took a combined time of less than 14 minutes.
Sept. 17, 1983. Thirty years ago. It was the night that changed Gophers football. The only Division I football team in a state of 5 million lost its standards for scheduling and for meaningful accomplishment in the landslide of 84-13.
Chuck Dickerson, the one-and-done defensive coordinator for the Gophers, said on the morning after: “Everyone in the country is laughing at us right now.”
More often than not, the Gophers have laughed at themselves … and continue to do so.
They pay $800,000 to avoid a couple of games with North Carolina. Hilarious. They choke away some forsaken bowl game to a mediocre Texas Tech team and advertise it as a program builder. Funnier still. They defeat battered Northwestern and celebrate it as a grand moment in Minnesota football history. More hilarity.
Saturday, Nebraska comes to the Big Ten’s second-smallest stadium. These Huskers aren’t much. They could get coach Bo Pelini fired. Thirty years later, Gophers players on offense have reason to think they can move, and on defense to hold them.
An upset is possible. It would be a nice win. It will take much more to end the laughter that has been the common reaction to Minnesota football since 84-13.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org