At 74 years of age, two-time All-America football player Bobby Bell became the oldest person to take advantage of a University of Minnesota program in which Gophers scholarship athletes that left school early could return to get their degree at the school’s expense. Bell’s graduation from the University of Minnesota took place Thursday night at Mariucci Arena.
But in addition to being the best all-around football player I have covered in my 71 years in the business, Bell was a key player in a three-year era that brought the best recruiting classes from all over the country that ever enrolled at Minnesota. Those teams went to successive Rose Bowls in 1960 and 1961, and they would have gone to a third if not for a costly roughing-the-passer penalty against Bell in the final game of the 1962 season, against Wisconsin.
That year, the Gophers and Badgers met at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium for the final game of the regular season tied atop the Big Ten with 5-1 conference records. The Gophers held a 9-7 lead late when Bell, a defensive lineman, was called for a critical penalty for his hit on quarterback Ron Vander Kelen, negating a Gophers interception by Jack Perkovich that most likely would have sent them to the Rose Bowl. Gophers coach Murray Warmath argued so angrily that he was given a 15-yard penalty. Wisconsin scored three plays later for the final 14-9 margin.
Had the interception stood, the Gophers would have had the ball around midfield, but instead Wisconsin got 30 penalty yards and moved to the Gophers 13-yard line before scoring the winning touchdown.
Speaking at a post-graduation party Thursday night, Bell talked about how he and former Wisconsin All-America tight end Pat Richter spent time together in New York at a party for college football greats. Vander Kelen’s pass was intended for Richter, who earlier in the drive caught a 18-yard pass on third-and-15.
At the time, Richter told Bell that after studying film of the controversial penalty — which was called by a Michigan dentist who officiated as a pastime — that he agreed the Badgers got a big break when the call was made and that it was very questionable.
It was a call that should not have been made because it decided the result of the game and the trip to the Rose Bowl.
Recruiting kept Warmath here
The Gophers teams in the 1930s and ’40s that won five national championships were primarily made up of players from Minnesota, and before World War II, coach Bernie Bierman had a minimum of two black players on the squad.
However, there was heat on Warmath after some losing seasons in the 1950s, and he was planning to leave the Gophers after the 1957 season to become the coach at Arkansas, where John Barnhill was athletic director. Both went to Tennessee and were assistants with the Volunteers together in the 1930s.
But a group of local boosters headed by a big-time builder named Don Knutson persuaded Warmath to stay with a promise of providing big-paying summer jobs, especially for black athletes who weren’t allowed to play in the South.
Because I had a great relationship with Arizona State coach Dan Devine, whom I had known as a young man when he lived in Duluth, I was privileged to the information on a phone call from Devine and another source that Warmath was withdrawing from the Arkansas position. That also meant Devine was going to replace Frank Broyles at Missouri, and Boyles became the new Arkansas coach.
Speaking of the unusual recruiting by the boosters, especially Knutson, the Gophers already had All-America high school quarterback Sandy Stephens of Uniontown, Pa., on the team in 1959, plus a highly recruited pair from Delaware in offensive guard John Mulvena and wide receiver Tom Hall, and some outstanding local players, among them Mike Wright, Tom Moe and Tom Brown.
But the additions of fullback Judge Dickson of Clairton, Pa., and receiver Robert Deegan of Lyons, Ill., in 1959; running back Bill Munsey of Uniontown, Pa., linebacker John Campbell of Wadena, Minn., and Bell in 1960; and Carl Eller of Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1961, brought many outstanding players to the roster that were big reasons the Gophers went 8-2 in both 1960 and 1961 and went to the Rose Bowl both years.
Most of those players went on to have better-than-average pro careers, an indication of why the Gophers had three great football teams in a row, including the 1962 team that went 6-2-1 and missed out on the Rose Bowl.
Yes, if Warmath were alive today, he would tell you what he talked about many times, that Bell was the best football player he ever coached, and that without Bell and the great contributions he made, the Gophers never would have compiled a record of 22-6-1 the three years that No. 78 was wearing the Maroon and Gold.
• Among the solutions being considered to find a home for a new Gophers track stadium is to make the Les Bolstad Golf Course a nine-hole course and use the other nine for a track.
• Carson Walch, who worked as an offensive quality control coach with the Chicago Bears under Marc Trestman, is working with the Gophers football team in an unpaid position, as the former Winona State standout is still receiving a salary from the Bears.
• Gophers football coach Jerry Kill’s daughter Tasha is getting married to Jason Hynes in Herrin, Ill., on Saturday.
• Chaska offensive lineman Matt Kegel has to be one of the most sought-after recruits the Gophers football team has landed recently. Kegel already had offers from Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Pittsburgh and had taken visits with Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. The Gophers also now have more in-state commitments for the 2016 class than the 2013, ’14 and ’15 classes combined.
• The Gophers men’s basketball team got a big break in its conference schedule. The Gophers will play Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin at home but not on the road this season. The Terrapins figure to be Big Ten favorites and the Badgers and Spartans made this year’s Final Four. The Gophers face Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State on the road but not at home. And they will face Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern and Rutgers at home and on the road.
• The Minnesota/St. Paul Business Journal reported this past week that in December, the University of Minnesota added a scholarship fee to season-ticket holders for Gophers football. Athletic director Norwood Teague said he agonized over the decision but that fans have been understanding and renewal rates are close to where they were last year.