Ex-U football coach Warmath dies at 98

The longtime U coach led the Gophers to their most recent national title while bringing black athletes to the football forefront.

Murray Warmath's 18-season tenure as Gophers football coach was defined by the dramatic turn of events that started in late fall of 1959.

Warmath, who died Wednesday night at the age of 98, directed the Gophers to a last-place Big Ten finish in 1959, and angry fans hung the coach in effigy and tossed garbage into his front lawn. A year later, Warmath led the Gophers to the national championship -- the last of six by the Minnesota program.

Warmath is the last Gophers coach to win a national championship, a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl. His teams won two Big Ten titles and appeared in two Rose Bowls.

He remained in Minnesota after he left the university and was living in Bloomington at the time of his death.

Warmath, a crusty, hard-nosed disciplinarian who was raised in Tennessee, was a catalyst for social change, both locally and nationally, because of his recruitment of black athletes at Minnesota beginning in the late 1950s. He was one of the first major college coaches to take multiple black athletes in a single recruiting class. Major Southern colleges at the time were still segregated, and many Northern colleges refused to recruit black players.

Almost no one dared to start a black quarterback, but Warmath installed one of his black recruits, sophomore Sandy Stephens, as the starting quarterback on the 1959 team.

"If Minnesota let Sandy Stephens play quarterback, then we knew we could trust Murray," tackle Ezell Jones said. "We knew that was a man who had a great deal of courage and character."

It was a message that rang, loudly, across the country as the Gophers, with Stephens as the starting QB, played on national TV in the 1961 and '62 Rose Bowls.

"There was no Super Bowl then," said Judge Dickson, a halfback from 1959 to 1961. "And there weren't a lot of [college] bowls like there are today. The most visible bowl game was the Rose Bowl. [Black players] were heavily influenced by watching us play in the Rose Bowl."

Stephens became the nation's first black All-America quarterback, helping to open doors for all the greats who would follow him. Minnesota, thanks in large part to Warmath, became known as a school that would treat black athletes with dignity and fairness, helping Warmath recruit such stars as Bobby Bell, Carl Eller and Aaron Brown.

"He pulled out every ounce of everything I had," said Bell, who was a quarterback playing six-man football in tiny Shelby, N.C., when Warmath recruited him. Bell was soon switched to the defensive line, where he became one of the best players in the program's history. "I respected the man, and he respected me as a person. He didn't see color, he saw a man who had talent to play football and he utilized that. Any time you wanted to talk to him, his door was open."

Humble start

Warmath was named the Gophers coach in 1954, succeeding Wes Fesler, after being coach at Mississippi State for two years. In 1959, Warmath was under fire because his teams had compiled a 7-20-1 record the previous three seasons. The Gophers finished last in the Big Ten in 1959, winning only two games. Local businessmen made an effort to buy out the final two years of his contract.

Warmath and Stephens survived the 1959 season, and the next year the Gophers won the Big Ten title with an 8-1 record and were declared national champions at the end of the regular season. They lost to Washington 17-7 in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1961.

Eller joined the team in 1961, when the Gophers went 7-2 and finished second in the Big Ten. But the Gophers were selected to go to the Rose Bowl again when Ohio State declined an invitation. Minnesota beat UCLA 21-3 in the 1962 Rose Bowl.

The Gophers had an 8-2 record in 1967 and shared the Big Ten title with Purdue and Indiana, the last time Minnesota has had at least a share of the conference championship. Indiana, because it had not played in the Rose Bowl previously, was selected to represent the Big Ten.

Warmath was reassigned as an assistant to the athletic director at the end of the 1971 season. He stayed in that role until he was named a Vikings assistant coach in 1978. He held that position for two seasons, then served as a regional scout. Warmath's overall record with the Gophers was 87-78-7.

Tight with his players

Dick Larson, who played for Warmath from 1955 to 1957 and was later an assistant Gophers coach, became a guardian for Warmath after the coach's health forced him to an assisted living facility. Larson said he was struck by the relationships that Warmath kept with his former players.

"We talked a lot," Larson said during the summer of 2009. "We went through about 10 lettermen's guides one time -- and it took us about three hours -- but Murray remembered 98 percent of the players,'' Larson said.

"That's one of the things that sticks out, just how close so many of the players became to him."

When Stephens died of a heart attack in 2000, his sister talked of his lifelong relationship with his former coach. When Stephens nearly died in an auto accident in 1964 after he had left the university, Warmath stayed by his side, and was in his room when Stephens regained consciousness at 4 a.m.

"Sandy was just so proud to call that man his friend,'' Barbara Stephens Foster said.

Warmath, a native of Humboldt, Tenn., was not a popular choice to become the Gophers coach in 1954. He was unknown in Minnesota, and many Gophers fans wanted a former "M" man. Most wanted Bud Wilkinson, a star with Minnesota in the mid-1930s and a highly successful coach at Oklahoma.

But either Wilkinson was never offered the job or he and athletic director Ike Armstrong could not reach an agreement. Whichever, Armstrong surprised everyone by naming Warmath, who had applied three years earlier.

Warmath converted many fans when the Gophers had a 7-2 record in his first season in 1954. The Gophers had a 6-1-2 record in 1956, but a 1957 team expected to contend for the Big Ten title went 4-5 when plagued by injuries and a lack of speed. Records of 1-8 and 2-7 the next two years had fans upset and ready to throw Warmath out.

Former Gophers coach Joe Salem was a backup quarterback for Warmath and remembered the late-season talk. "He told us that there were people trying to twist his arm," Salem said. "But he said, 'I've got a strong arm, and a big hand.' He wasn't going to be forced out."

Warmath even confronted the "M" club, some of whose members were trying to collect the $37,000 needed to buy out the last two years of Warmath's contract.

"I intend to fulfill the last two years of my contract," he told the group. His comments were mostly met with applause, but there were some who didn't applaud.

"I appreciate the honesty of some of you who didn't applaud," Warmath said. "But I think you're in the minority."

During a 2009 interview, Warmath was asked what he was most proud of during his tenure at Minnesota.

"I was always proud of the whole damn works," he said. "I was never ashamed of what we accomplished, and I never felt our team underachieved."

Former staff writer Jon Roe contributed to this report.

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