MINNEAPOLIS — Murray Warmath, the football coach who led the Minnesota Gophers to a national championship and back-to-back Rose Bowls, has died at age 98.
Warmath died Wednesday night in Bloomington of natural causes, the university said. The Gophers have not won a Big Ten title since Warmath led them to a share of the crown in 1967.
“Murray Warmath is one of the great coaches and leaders in the history of Gopher sports, and indeed, intercollegiate athletics,” Minnesota President Robert Bruininks said Thursday in a statement.
Warmath was hired in 1954 and went 87-78-7 in 18 seasons at the helm in Minnesota. After the Gophers finished in last place in the Big Ten in 1959, angry fans tossed garbage on his front lawn and hung the coach in effigy.
But it was just a year later that Warmath led Minnesota to the national championship.
“He persevered through losing seasons and harsh criticism to coach his team to a national championship and a Rose Bowl victory, but he should perhaps be best remembered for his efforts to recruit outstanding African-American student-athletes in the 1950s and ’60s, which helped to break down the color barrier at universities across the country,” Bruininks said.
Warmath was born Dec. 26, 1912, in Humboldt, Tenn. He played for the Volunteers under legendary coach Bob Neyland from 1930-34. He served in the Navy during World War II and later held assistant coaching positions at Tennessee and Army, under coach Red Blaik and alongside Vince Lombardi, and was the head coach at Mississippi State from 1952-53.
His coaching style has been described has hard-nosed and disciplinarian, but he was also remembered as a man committed to social change. At a time when segregation was still the norm in the South and many Northern schools still refused to recruit black players, Warmath started one of his black recruits, sophomore Sandy Stephens, at quarterback.
Stephens helped the Gophers to Rose Bowl appearances in 1961 and ’62, when they beat UCLA 21-3, and was the first black quarterback to be named an All-American.
“As a high school athlete in northern Minnesota, I remember watching him coach and seeing his national championship team play,” Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi said. “Upon my return to Minnesota, I learned even more about what a great man he was.”
Warmath became a Vikings assistant coach in 1978 and worked as a scout in the organization into the 1990s before retiring for good.
He made regular appearances at Gophers and Vikings games and practices as late as last season. He would visit with coaches, encourage players and offer his support, speaking with former Vikings coach Brad Childress for long stretches after Friday practices.
“There are very few coaches who leave the profession and remain as sincerely revered by their former players as coach Warmath was,” Maturi said. “It’s a sad day for all of us.”
Warmath was preceded in death by his wife Mary Louise, son Bill and daughter Carol Dillow. He is survived by his son Murray Warmath Jr. as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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