Hamline had one MIAC football victory in the seven seasons from 1955 to 1961, and that was a forfeit declared against St. Thomas in 1958. Dick Mulkern, a high school coach for a successful decade at White Bear Lake, took the Hamline job for 1962 after receiving this counsel from his coaching friends:
“What are you doing, Dick? You have no chance at Hamline.”
To further complicate matters, Mulkern had to also coach wrestling and track and field, before settling in as the football/track and field man that he had been at White Bear Lake.
Mulkern was able to bring along some Bears, including Jerry Smith, a guard and linebacker. He would become the MIAC’s most valuable player in 1965.
“Toughest kid I ever coached, in both high school and college,” the 94-year-old Mulkern said. “Smart, too; had about 180 IQ and didn’t want anyone to know it. Jerry died in Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive.”
Smith was teamed on defense with another great player in 1963: Duane Benson from Grand Meadow. He became a fierce linebacker, an offensive tackle, was the MIAC’s MVP in 1966, and played for a decade in the NFL.
Before that pro career, the Pipers accomplished things that Mulkern had been cautioned could not happen at Hamline:
In 1964, they ended a 20-game winning streak for defending NAIA champion St. John’s with an 8-6 upset for the ages. In 1965, they defeated defending NAIA co-champion Concordia (Moorhead) 28-15. In 1966, they again defeated St. John’s as defending NAIA champions 6-3 and then the next week whipped Gustavus 28-15 to finish 6-1 and give Hamline its first MIAC football title since 1921.
“Benny,” as Mulkern calls Duane Benson, died on Tuesday at 73 from cancer. Dick’s emotions have been raw over this, and those came out in a phone conversation:
“My dad, Ray, died the night before we played St. John’s in 1966. The team knew about it before I got to the locker room. Benny took over and made the pregame speech. He said, ‘Your dad is going to be proud of this team today.’
“They fought all day and we finally scored with 48 seconds to win.
“Excuse me, I’m crying again right now … remembering Benny, remembering those words.”
Read Reusse’s blog at startribune.com/patrick.
More from Hamline:
• Dick Tressel won an MIAC football title in 1984 and shared another in 1988 as Hamline coach. Three decades later, the next one is nowhere in sight in an extremely unbalanced MIAC.
• Mulkern coached football through 1973, and remained as Pipers track coach and AD through 1990.
• Benson had eight letters at Hamline: four in football, and four as a high jumper (cleared 6-foot-2 as linebacker) and discus thrower.