After Mike Ditka and before Darrelle Revis helped solidify Pennsylvania steel town Aliquippa as a football factory, Tom Sakal was a local kid looking for someplace to play linebacker in college.
On Sakal’s visit to Minnesota, Gophers coach Murray Warmath sat him in the film room on a Saturday morning to watch the 1960 Iowa game. Sakal’s jaw dropped while watching Tom Brown destroy the Hawkeyes, part of a season that netted him the Outland Trophy and ended in the Rose Bowl.
“I had never seen a football game like that in my life,” Sakal said. “The hitting was unbelievable. I remember sitting there and saying to myself, ‘This is where I want to play.’ ”
Sakal kept the tradition alive as the captain of the 1967 Gophers team that won a share of the Big Ten championship. He and about 40 members of that team will be honored before and during Minnesota’s 2017 Big Ten opener against Maryland at 11 a.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We want to make sure, when the 1967 team watches our game, they’re inspired,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “It brings them back to their day.”
The ’67 players, a majority from Minnesota, beam with pride over their accomplishment, but the reunion will be tinged with disappointment. While Minnesota’s 8-2 campaign ended in three-way title share with Indiana and Purdue, conference rules sent the Hoosiers to the Rose Bowl, even though Minnesota held the head-to-head tiebreaker.
It’s hard to believe now, but because there were no other bowl options, the Gophers stayed home.
“We had a good time, a lot of fun, a few heartaches,” Sakal said.
Given the test of time, the ’67 team’s achievement stands up as one of the program’s 18 Big Ten titles — third to only Michigan and Ohio State — but since then, the program and its fans have endured a 50-year drought.
“There is pride in it because we were the last ones, so at least we did it,” said Jim Carter, a fullback from South St. Paul. “But there is some real disappointment in it to think that this university has gone 50 years without winning a Big Ten football championship. We’ve had so many athletic directors and football coaches that were just mediocre. It’s a shame.”
HIGHS AND LOWS
After a 4-5-1 season in 1966, the Gophers started the ’67 season with modest expectations. In the opener against the Utah Redskins — now known as the Utes — Minnesota won in the final seconds, 13-12, and followed it with a 7-0 loss against a ranked Nebraska team in Lincoln.
The Gophers topped Southern Methodist and then rattled off four straight wins in Big Ten play, including a 21-0 victory over Michigan State, the defending co-national champions. The Gophers captured the Little Brown Jug with a 20-15 victory over Michigan, and won the Floyd of Rosedale trophy with a 10-0 victory over Iowa.
The Gophers’ next opponent was Purdue and Big Ten-leading quarterback Mike Phipps. The Boilermakers were on a run that included a 9-2 record in 1966 and a berth in the Rose Bowl.
Warmath had built this Gophers iteration like the ones that went to the Rose Bowls in 1960-61. They had tough and tight defense, with an offense that ran the ball and rarely fumbled. But against Purdue, the U defense got exposed in a 41-12 defeat.
When Indiana (8-0, 6-0) came to Minnesota (6-2, 4-1) the following week, the Gophers followed custom and allowed the Hoosiers to get in a workout in at Memorial Stadium on Friday night. The Hoosiers had taped “9-0” on the backs of their sweatshirts, while the Gophers watched nearby.
“They chalked us up,” Sakal said. “It was like someone stuck a cattle prod into us.”
The Gophers dominated the Hoosiers 33-7 the next day to improve their title chances and a shot at a trip to Pasadena. To make it happen, Purdue would need to beat Indiana and the Gophers had to top Wisconsin in their finales.
Big Ten rules at the time didn’t allow the same team to go to the Rose Bowl in consecutive years, so Purdue was out regardless. They went after Michigan State fell to the same fate in 1966. If Indiana beat Purdue, there would be a three-way tie for the title and the Hoosiers would go to the Rose Bowl because they had never been there before. The Gophers had gone in ’61.
The Gophers took care of Wisconsin, 21-14, and retained Paul Bunyan’s Axe, but Purdue running back Perry Williams fumbled on Indiana’s goal line, giving the Hoosiers a 19-14 win and berth in the Rose Bowl. It’s considered the greatest game in Indiana football history.
Carter, the Gophers’ fullback, later played with Williams on the Green Bay Packers.
“I never forgave him,” he said.
Gophers end Bob Stein was an All-American on the 1967 team. He grew up in St. Louis Park and had pictures of star players from the early ’60s Gophers teams on his bedroom walls in junior high school.
“We hoped to emulate them,” he said. The Rose Bowl snub “was even more of a letdown because of that.”
RELATIONSHIPS OVER WINS
As the players on that title team push into their 70s, the lasting memories are more about the relationships than the wins, a conference title or the heartbreak of missing out on the Rose Bowl.
Warmath, the third-winningest coach in Gophers history with a 87-78-7 record from 1954-71, set a serious tone. When players went into his office, they would listen as he furiously doodled circles or arrows.
“It was crazy,” said Carter, who later became one of the few players to develop a personal relationship with their coach.
“He scared the (expletive) out of everybody,” Stein said. “He was a tough customer.”
Warmath was a civilian assistant at Army under Earl (Red) Blaik and alongside future Packers coach Vince Lombardi. He brought that discipline to Minnesota.
“A lot of guys didn’t like Coach Warmath,” said Carter, the captain of the 1969 team. “It was about half and half. But I think if you talk to 98 percent of the guys, they respected him.”
Warmath demanded it. When reviewing film, he sat in the back of the room near the projector with a yardstick in his hand.
“Every time he saw something he didn’t like, he would slap the yardstick down on the table where the projector was, and he’d yell, ‘Back!’ ” Stein said. “It would snap you to attention and we’d watch it again with him, expecting you would do it right the second time. He would do it a third time. You wanted to melt into the floor.”
The bond between players has been strong throughout. More than 30 teammates attended tight end Charlie Sanders’ induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 2007. He was one of an estimated 15 players from the 1967 team who played in the NFL.
“The memory has been the relationships with the teammates built up over the years,” Stein said. “There are so many guys that I consider to be valuable friends, and a number of them we’ve lost in recent years. That has been more meaningful than any of the on-the-field stuff.”
When Ron Kamzelski, a defensive tackle on the ’67 team, passed away in Pennsylvania in August, his obituary included this line: “His Golden Gophers have always been his pride and joy.”