1967 Gophers experienced pride, joy and heartache on way to U’s last Big Ten title

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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.”

Minnesota fullback Jim Carter fights for extra yards in the Gophers' 33-7 win over previously undefeated Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Minneapolis on Nov. 18, 1967. The win helped Minnesota capture a share of the 1967 Big Ten championship. (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)
Minnesota fullback Jim Carter fights for extra yards in the Gophers’ 33-7 win over previously undefeated Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Minneapolis on Nov. 18, 1967. The win helped Minnesota capture a share of the 1967 Big Ten championship. (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

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.

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