Reusse: U's Sandy Stephens was ahead of his time

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2011 - 11:33 AM

The Gophers' Sandy Stephens, the first black All-America quarterback, gets a long-overdue honor.

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Sandy Stephens, the first black quarterback ever selected to an All-America team, led the Gophers to two Rose Bowls in the early 1960s.

Judge Dickson has been observing as Tim Tebow puts together a winning streak for the Denver Broncos. What he's watched reminds Dickson of another quarterback from a half-century earlier.

"Like Tebow, Sandy's numbers weren't always the greatest, but what he did was rally his team and win games," Dickson said. "And when I see the running attack the Denver coaches have put in for Tebow, I keep saying, 'That's a lot like our old offense.'

"We had the quarterback under center, but a lot of the blocking schemes and the option reads are what we ran. And if that's going to work, you need a Tim Tebow at quarterback.

"Or a Sandy Stephens."

There will be a banquet Tuesday night in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, where Stephens will get the recognition that Dickson and many other Gophers of a glorious time have felt was long overdue.

Stephens will be part of the 2011 class that will be introduced as members of the College Football Hall of Fame. This comes 50 years after Stephens led the Gophers to a second consecutive Rose Bowl, and 11 years after he died of a heart attack in his Bloomington apartment at age 59.

"With his significance as both a great player and a pioneer, Sandy should have been in this Hall of Fame 20 years ago ... 30 years ago," Dickson said. "Maybe people weren't quite ready then. Maybe they still had stereotypes when it came to black quarterbacks.

"I do know this: It was Sandy Stephens, more than anyone, who proved that black and white players could come together behind a black quarterback and win."

Dickson grew up in Clairton and Stephens in Uniontown, villages 30 miles apart in western Pennsylvania. They arrived at the University of Minnesota as freshmen in 1958.

"There were a couple of black players with the Gophers, but Sandy and I were what you might call the first 'national recruits,'" Dickson said. "Minnesota had decided to recruit more nationally, and quite a few of those players were black."

Freshmen were not eligible in 1958 and the Gophers went 1-8. A year later, Stephens split time at quarterback as a sophomore, the Gophers went 2-7. Coach Murray Warmath was hung in effigy on campus after a season-closing loss to Wisconsin.

"One thing that appealed to Sandy was that Minnesota wasn't at the top at the time," Dickson said. "He said, 'Judge, we're going to go there and take Minnesota from the bottom to the Rose Bowl, and it's going to be great.'"

By 1960, the Gophers had three-fourths of a western Pennsylvania backfield: Stephens, fullback Dickson and halfback Bill Munsey, Sandy's best buddy from Uniontown. The other halfback was Dave Mulholland from Fargo.

The Gophers used Stephens' talent to become pioneers of option offense: Sandy handing off, or pitching, or keeping, Tebow-like, and using his size and power to punish tacklers.

His passes were limited and frequently off-target, until they had to be accurate -- again, Tebow-like.

The Gophers and Iowa were both 6-0 on the first Saturday of November 1960. The starting quarterbacks were Stephens and Iowa's Wilburn Hollis, also an African-American.

The Gophers won 27-10. Stephens became the first black quarterback to be a first-team All-America, and Hollis was the second-teamer.

The Gophers wound up as Big Ten co-champions with Iowa. The final wire service polls were conducted at the end of the regular season. The Gophers were voted national champs, even though Washington sprung a 17-7 upset in the Rose Bowl.

A year later, Big Ten winner Ohio State declined the Rose Bowl invitation, allowing the runner-up Gophers a second trip to Pasadena and a 21-3 pasting of UCLA.

That was the year when the Gophers trailed Michigan 20-8 in the fourth quarter at old Memorial Stadium, and rallied for a 23-20 victory. Pete Waldmeier of the Detroit News offered this review:

"Minnesota quarterback Sandy Stephens, a newlywed of three days, showed who was boss on the football field this afternoon as he passed for one touchdown, ran for another and made a dramatic goal-line interception in the last 23 seconds to beat Michigan."

The winning points in that game came after Tom Teigen forced a fumble at the Michigan 5. Dickson plunged for a touchdown with 1:24 remaining.

Tuesday night, under the chandeliers in the Waldorf Astoria, Teigen from Aberdeen, S.D., and Dickson from Clairton, Pa., and Tommy King from Edina, and Bobby Lee Bell from Shelby, N.C., and numerous other Rose Bowl Gophers will display pride and probably tears when their quarterback gets his recognition.

"White or black, Sandy gave all his teammates the same promise: 'We're going to the Rose Bowl,'" Dickson said. "And then he took us there."

Can Dickson fathom that a half-century later, his alma mater has never been back to Pasadena at New Year's?

"I want to see the Gophers in the Rose Bowl again, yes, but that's not the important thing," he said. "What I really want to see is the unity between the coaching staff, the players, the administration and the community like it existed when we played for the university.

"There's nothing more enjoyable to me than to see students run out on the field like they did after the Iowa game this season ... everyone being so happy, so united.

"The students did that when we beat Iowa [in '60]. Those are the things I remember about playing football for Minnesota."

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon to 4 weekdays and 10 to noon Saturdays on 1500ESPN. • preusse@startribune.com

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