Legendary U Of Minnesota Football Coach Warmath Dies At 98
The more than 150 former players who showed up for Murray Warmath’s 95th birthday party at Interlachen Country Club in Edina three years ago didn’t expect him to say much.
But even in his frail state, Warmath rode his wheelchair up to the microphone and spoke, giving a glimpse of the wit, charm and football savvy the old coach displayed during his 18 years directing the University of Minnesota program, which included a 1960 national championship and back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1961 and 1962.
Warmath, 98, died Wednesday night at his residence in Bloomington, with his son Murray Jr. and Murray Jr.’s wife, Patty, at his side.
Many of Warmath’s friends and ex-players agreed that football probably had kept him going this long.
“He was sharp as a tack mentally,” said former University of Minnesota quarterback Joe Salem, who followed in Warmath’s footsteps becoming the Gophers coach 14 years after spending five seasons on his staff from 1961-65. “He always stayed busy and kept his mind working, and of course I think football was his true love. He did a lot of things with football, and that satisfied him.”
He closely followed the Gophers for nearly four decades after he retired in 1971. He also worked with former Vikings coach Bud Grant for nearly a decade in the 1970s.
Former Gophers All-American Bob McNamara and his brother Pinky, also a former U standout, ate lunch with their old coach almost every Tuesday at Legends restaurant in Minneapolis. They were
surprised when he didn’t make it recently, even though they knew his health was deteriorating.
Bob McNamara had been a bit concerned before when he saw Warmath looking “a little pale” coming to lunch. But he said Warmath lit up as soon as they started talking football or if a game popped up on the big flatscreen above their table.
“The blood would start coming back into his face, and all of a sudden he seemed like a different guy,” McNamara said. “It’s amazing that he still has the energy that he wanted to come down and have lunch. The fact that he wanted to come down and see us, and that he wanted to go to a Gophers or Vikings practice or game, I’m not sure how many people have that energy and desire at his age.”
Decades earlier when he went through a tumultuous period to begin his coaching career at Minnesota, Warmath showed how strong his desire was to persevere after efforts were made to fire him.
In 1958 and 1959, Warmath finished 1-8 and 2-7, and he certainly felt the heat. He was hung in effigy on campus, local businessmen campaigned to buy out the last two years of his contract, and even his home was vandalized.
But he went from last to first in the Big Ten in 1960, winning a national title after finishing with an 8-1 record before losing to Washington 17-7 in the 1961 Rose Bowl.
The Pioneer Press wrote in a 1960 article that Warmath, who was named coach of the year by the Football Writers Association of America, acknowledged the sudden praise he was then receiving by saying, “The members of the team and I appreciate this more than you can know.’ “
The Gophers finished 8-2 for the second straight season in 1961 after returning to the Rose Bowl to earn a 21-3 victory against UCLA. In Warmath’s 14th season, they were named Big Ten co-champions with Purdue in 1967.
That was Minnesota’s last conference title in football. Warmath’s 87 victories are third on the school’s all-time list, but his legacy was slightly tainted when he was forced out after a third straight losing season in 1971.
“He was a great coach, great guy,” said former linebacker Bill Light, who played for Warmath from 1969-71. “He really never quite got the credit he deserved as far as I was concerned. He put in 18 years. He was just a wonderful human being.”
University President Bob Bruininks, who has worked at Minnesota since 1968, said Warmath should be remembered for his humanity as much as anything else. Bruininks recalled a statement by former Gophers great Sandy Stephens, who became college football’s first black All-America quarterback while leading Minnesota to the 1960 national title.
“One of things people don’t always recall about coach Warmath was that he was the first to really, actively recruit African-American athletes to our football program,” Bruininks said. “(Stephens) said when he arrived here in 1958 that he came to the University of Minnesota from Pennsylvania because he felt the university was interested in him as a man and not just as a football player. I think that was something that coach Warmath did, and the academic community embraced those players at that time.”
Warmath brought in former standouts such as Judge Dickson and Stephens from Pennsylvania and then lured future hall of famers Bobby Bell and Carl Eller from North Carolina.
“In those days, (African-American) players couldn’t play down South, so Murray was able to pull some of them up here,” said Salem, a teammate of Stephens and Dickson. “He was able to be a pioneer with that aspect of it, and had success with it.”
Warmath’s achievements were appreciated over the years, but he was given even more reverence under Tim Brewster, who was hired to replace Glen Mason in 2007.
In 2009, the Gophers welcomed football back on campus for the first time since 1981. Warmath was the honorary coach for the first game at TCF Bank Stadium against Air Force.
A month before that first game, Warmath had flashbacks of his glory years at Memorial Stadium. While having lunch at Legends, Bob McNamara said he would love for his coach to join him and other former captains on a victory walk through campus into the new stadium — just like old times.
Warmath knew he was too worn down physically to do it, but he could still imagine.
“I would love it, too,” Warmath said before making everyone at the table laugh with his next remark. “I believe I can strut. I’ll be dancing and prancing.”