Warmath was no man of mystery

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 18, 2011 - 11:38 AM

The no-nonsense Gophers great, who died Wednesday at 98, was remembered for his drive and directness but also his fairness.

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Murray Warmath

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Sharon Larson was starting labor on a March day in 1960. The phone rang at 5:30 a.m. and was answered by her husband, Dick, a backfield coach for the Minnesota Gophers.

"Where are you, Richard?'' Murray Warmath said. "We got some film to go through.''

Dick passed along the news to his boss: "Sharon's in labor, Coach. I have to drive her to the hospital.''

There was a pause.

"I knew exactly what Murray was doing, because he did it whenever he was puzzled,'' Larson said. "He would lean back, furrow his brow and scratch himself.''

After those few silent seconds, Warmath came up with an option: "He said, 'Can't she take a taxi?'" Larson said.

Warmath, the Gophers football coach from 1954 through 1971, died late Wednesday night at age 98. By chance, Larson and other former Gophers had planned to gather at Legends sports bar in northeast Minneapolis to celebrate Pinky McNamara's birthday on Thursday.

This gave the group a chance to tell Warmath stories. Larson has more than most, since he came to the U as a freshman in 1954, Warmath's first season, and stayed for another decade as a player and then an assistant.

"We were still having the varsity-alumni game at the end of spring football,'' Larson said. "I was playing in my first one [in 1955] and players like Leo Nomellini, Clayton Tonnemaker, Verne Gagne, Ron Raveling were lined up on defense in front of me.

"These were the guys I had grown up worshipping, so I was nervous as you get. I dropped the first snap from center and fell on the ball. In four years at the U, I think it was the only snap that I ever bobbled.

"But more than once -- I'm taking years later -- Murray introduced me to someone and said, 'Larson was a pretty good quarterback, but he sure had trouble handling the snap from center.'"

Larson laughed lightly and said: "That was Murray. He wanted you to be perfect. Thursday always was dress rehearsal, and that was always his speech: We can't make any mistakes today -- can't fumble, can't drop punts, can't miss checks -- because we have to be perfect on Saturday to win this game.

"On one of those Thursdays, it was snowing outside, so we were on that dirt in the fieldhouse. I blew a check [of the defense].

"Murray came over and started yelling, 'You can't miss that, Richard.' I said something and then had to spit, so I turned away and it landed on his shoe. He grabbed me by that single-bar facemask and said, 'Son, don't you ever talk to me without looking me in the eye.'

"He wasn't mad that I happened to spit on his shoe. He was mad that I didn't look him in the eye.''

Warmath came from such a no-nonsense background --played for Gen. Robert Neyland at Tennessee, coached for Col. Red Blaik at Army -- and coached his players in that manner.

What made such a hard-nosed guy a hero to so many of his players decades later?

"It was that directness, that 'look-me-in-the-eye' approach, and also the fairness,'' Larson said. "He never picked on anybody and never played favorites.''

From a distance, fans looked at Warmath as more a motivator and a disciplinarian than a coach who relied on relentless preparation. Larson offers assurance that we were wrong about that.

"Denver Crawford and I would be in the office at 5:30 on Sunday breaking down the film from Saturday's game,'' Larson said. "We would splice the offensive plays on one film, the defensive plays on a second and the kicking game on a third.

"Murray would take over the projector, and we would go through film for hours with the coaches and then the players.''

Larson was giddy in his sleep deprivation one Sunday morning and got his hands on an adult film.

"I spliced in a few scenes with the star, Candy Cane, and a couple of gentlemen,'' Larson said. "Murray was running the film and one of those scenes came on the screen. Coach didn't miss a beat.

"As always, he had a pointer. He placed it on the screen and said, 'You can see this tricky maneuver,' then backed up the film and showed it again.''

Larson laughed again and said: "It seems to me that we appreciate people that have a great smile, and out of everything, that might be what I'll remember most about Murray Warmath.''

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

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