Warmath overcame some tough times

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 18, 2011 - 11:38 AM

After initial success, the former Gophers coach struggled and fans were calling for him to be fired.

Murray Warmath

Photo: Paul Siegel, Star Tribune Files

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Murray Warmath, 98, who died Wednesday night, was the coach nobody wanted at Minnesota.

But no coach, since he was fired in 1971, has come close to the record he compiled, winning a national title, two Big Ten titles and going to two Rose Bowls.

The popular choice in 1954 to succeed Wes Fesler was former Gopher Bud Wilkinson, who had posted a fantastic record at Oklahoma.

I recall sitting in the apartment of the late Charles Johnson, the sports editor of the Star and Tribune, along with University of Minnesota President Lew Morrill, Bill Wilkinson, Bud's father, who lived in the same building as Johnson, and Bud talking about him taking the Minnesota job.

However, I'm not sure there was any chance that Wilkinson was going to take the job under any circumstances, and for sure the athletic director at the time, Ike Armstrong, didn't want to have a coach who would completely overshadow him.

Warmath had been on the staff of West Point under Red Blaik before he was named the head coach at Mississippi State in 1952. And it was Blaik who sold Armstrong on hiring Warmath.

Vince Lombardi was on that Red Blaik staff. In fact Warmath and Lombardi, according to author David Maraniss, were on a wartime morale-building trip during the Korean War and a shell hit their barracks during chow.

Football was his life

Any type of winter football practice was illegal at the time Warmath was hired. But the first week on the scene there were the football players in the old football building -- now Pavilion Hall -- getting acclimated to the split-T formation with Gino Cappeletti at quarterback.

Yes, Warmath was an old-time coach, very tough on the players, had long practices and had the football team for pretty close to 365 days a year.

And the first year Warmath wound up 7-2 with a 22-20 victory over an Iowa team that was ranked No. 1 in the country.

Almost left

The Gophers fell to 3-6 in his second year but rebounded to 6-1-2 his third season. Then they hit some hard times, going 4-5 in 1957, 1-8 in 1958 and 2-7 in 1959. Warmath's critics dumped garbage on his lawn, and a group was trying to raise money to buy out his contract. But Morrill stood behind the coach 100 percent, and so did Armstrong.

However, the great coach was fed up with the situation, and when his former roommate and teammate, John Barnhill, who was the athletic director at Arkansas, offered Warmath the football job he accepted it.

But at that point Donald Knutson, a big booster of the coach, stepped in and convinced Warmath that he would help him recruit some of the best black players in the country who at the time couldn't play in the South and, with an assist from Warmath's wife, Mary Louise, the coach decided to stay.

Because Warmath withdrew from the Arkansas job, Frank Broyles left a long-term contract at Missouri to become the Arkansas coach and Dan Devine left Arizona State to succeed Broyles.

The rest is history

With Knutson and several other boosters leading the way by hook or crook, it wasn't an accident that Warmath was able to recruit some great players from all over the country such as quarterback Sandy Stephens, Judge Dickson and Bill Munsey from Pennsylvania, Bobby Bell and Carl Eller from North Carolina, and they got the team on the right trail. They went to two Rose Bowls, winning one and losing the other. They posted records of 8-2 in 1960 when they were ranked No. 1 by the AP, 8-2 in 1961 and 6-2-1 in 1962. They went from last to first from 1959 to 1960, and Warmath was named coach of the year.

They slumped to 3-6 in 1963. He did have winning records in 1964 and 1965 and in 1967 tied Indiana and Purdue for the Big Ten title, the last championship won by a Gophers team. He was 6-4 in 1968, 4-5-1 in 1969, 3-6-1 in 1970 and 4-7 in 1971 before being replaced by Cal Stoll in 1972. He finished with an 87-78-7 Gophers mark and was 97-84-10 overall.

Pals with Hayes

For most of Warmath's coaching career the Gophers didn't play Ohio State and the Gophers coach became close friends with Buckeye coach Woody Hayes.

Warmath would send one of his coaches to scout the next opponent, and if the team was playing Ohio State he would check with Hayes to learn if the assistant's scouting report was correct.

I was standing outside of his office more than once hearing him ream the scout out for not having the same information that Hayes had reported on the telephone.

One of Warmath's great moments after his coaching career was last year when he got a chance to meet Penn State coach Joe Paterno. Warmath went to the visiting team news conference after Penn State beat the Gophers. Both had been friends of Lombardi, and that's one of the things they talked about. And Joe knew about Warmath and his great record.

Grant to the rescue

From 1972 to 1978 Warmath had the title of an associate athletic director. I'd stop and talk to him in his small office almost every day I was checking the Gophers athletic department and the man was really bored.

For the first two or three years of Warmath's coaching career, I didn't have a very good relationship with him. He didn't trust any of the press, and the coverage here was a lot more intense than it was at West Point and Mississippi State.

But eventually our relationship turned out to be the best.

So one day when we were visiting he said to me: "I know Bud Grant is a good friend of yours. Why don't you see if there is any opening on his staff? I'd love to coach again."

I approached Grant and a few days later, and my very, very close personal friend told me, "Get your man over here." Jerry Burns, then offensive coordinator of the Vikings, also played a part in getting Warmath on the staff in 1978 when he became a defensive line coach for the Vikings.

Lost son

On Nov. 9, 1991, Warmath lost his 30-year-old son, Billy, to AIDS. Billy had been born with a blood problem and unfortunately had been given infected blood.

For weeks Warmath had spent every night in the hospital with his son, and it was a bitter blow when he died.

Peter Franzen was Billy's best friend. On his death bed, Billy asked Franzen to take care of his father. And for those who have seen a man pushing Warmath in his wheelchair at Gophers games and other places, that was Franzen.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com

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