Historically, Minnesota has been one of the most successful Division I football programs in history with seven national championships. Only eight programs have more national championships than Minnesota while the Gophers also hold an NCAA record with three-consecutive national championships from 1934-1936. Minnesota national championships (record): 1904 (13-0) 1934 (8-0) 1935 (8-0) 1936 (7-1) 1940 (8-0) 1941 (8-0) 1960 (8-2)
|1904||Henry L. Williams||Billingsley||13-0|
|1934||Bernie Bierman||Billingsley, Boand, Dickinson, Football Research, Helms, Litkenhous, National Championship Foundation||8-0|
|1935||Bernie Bierman||Billingsley, Boand, Football Research, Helms, Litkenhous, National Championship Foundation, Poling||8-0|
|1936||Bernie Bierman||AP, Billingsley, Dickinson, Dunkel, Helms, Litkenhous, National Championship Foundation, Poling||7-1|
|1940||Bernie Bierman||AP, Berryman, Billingsley, Boand, DeVold, Dickinson, Football Research, Houlgate, Litkenhous, National Championship Foundation||8-0|
|1941||Bernie Bierman||AP, Billingsley, Boand, DeVold, Dunkel, Football Research, Helms, Litkenhous, National Championship Foundation, Poling||8-0|
|1960||Murray Warmath||AP, FB News, NFF, UPI||8-2|
Note: The NCAA itself does not award a championship for Division I-A football. A number of different organizations and publications designate a national champion.
The Golden Gopher football program is one built strongly on tradition. After winning the first-ever Big Nine team title in 1900 and outscoring opponents by an incredible 618-12 margin in 1903, the University of Minnesota football team finally won its first national championship in 1934.
Under the leadership of third-year coach Bernie Bierman, the Golden Gophers averaged 33.7 points during the 1934 campaign, relying heavily on a potent running attack. The running game accounted for nearly 295 of the 325 yards the Maroon and Gold averaged each game. The Golden Gophers were equally productive on the defensive side of the ball, shutting-out four of their eight opponents, while holding them to a meager 4.7 points and 103 yards per game.
Three players led Minnesota while earning All-America honors — Francis “Pug” Lund, Bill Bevan and Butch Larson, who earned the honor for a second straight year. Larson became only the third Golden Gopher to earn All-America status for two straight years, and is among eight players in Minnesota history to earn such a distinction. In addition to Lund, Bevan and Larson, the Golden Gophers featured three more All-Big Ten players. Perhaps the biggest key to Minnesota’s success, however, was a running attack which saw eight different players score touchdowns during the season, led by Stan Kostka with nine touchdowns, including a four-touchdown game.
The talented Golden Gopher team cruised through the first two games of the season with a 56-12 pounding of North Dakota State and a 20-0 victory over Nebraska.
After two weeks of rest, Minnesota looked flat against the Pittsburgh Panthers. They trailed 7-0 after three quarters and were destroyed in nearly every statistical category. The Golden Gophers’ hopes for a perfect season were fading. Minnesota was down, but they were not beaten. In the fourth quarter, Larson took the game over by recovering a fumble which led to a touchdown. On the very next series, he threw the winning pass into the end zone. Minnesota’s dream for a title refused to die.
The following weekend, the Golden Gophers rebounded in style by crushing the rival Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City, Iowa, 48-12. Head Coach Bernie Bierman couldn’t have been happier with his team’s reaction to their sub-par performance against Pittsburgh. The Golden Gophers held the Hawkeyes to 129 total yards. Minnesota, on the other hand, had little problem moving the ball as they racked up an astounding 514 yards on offense, all of them coming from the running game. Minnesota was led by the exceptional performance of Kostka, who had another outstanding game, scoring three touchdowns, as well as Julius Alfonse, who rushed for two scores.
After dismantling Iowa, Minnesota was still eager to get back on the field. The next opponent was Michigan, and the Golden Gophers sought revenge. They had not brought the Little Brown Jug back to Memorial Stadium since 1927. Michigan came into Minneapolis sporting a 1-3 record and as the game progressed, proved that a vast talent gap existed between the two teams. Minnesota breezed by the Wolverines 34-0 and the Golden Gopher defense continued to impress crowds as they held Michigan scoreless on a mere 56 total yards for the game. In the meantime, the Maroon and Gold running attack never lost a step as five different players scored touchdowns.
The Golden Gophers continued to roll over opponents in the ensuing weeks, beating Indiana 30-0 and Chicago 35-7. Indiana gained a grand total of zero yards against the smothering Minnesota defense, while Chicago was able to manage 82 yards. With four solid games since the Pittsburgh scare, Bierman and the Golden Gophers had every right to be confident about their chances of winning a conference and national championship heading into Wisconsin.
The Badgers were not a high-scoring team, nor did they allow teams many touchdowns. On this day, however, the Golden Gophers flexed their muscle and scored 34 points against a defense that had only allowed 50 previously. With the victory over Wisconsin, Minnesota wrapped up its perfect season and first national championship.
Bernie Bierman started his fourth season as the head football coach at Minnesota in 1935. After leading the Golden Gophers to their first national championship in 1934, expectations ran high for both Bierman and the team.
While the Golden Gophers were hurt by the graduation of three All-Americans from the 1934 season, three other players stepped up their play to earn the same honor in 1935. Tackles Ed Widseth and Dick Smith, along with guard Bud Wilkinson earned All-America honors, while quarterback Babe LeVoir and fullback Sheldon Beise joined the All-America threesome on the All-Big Ten team.
Minnesota opened the 1935 season with a schedule mirroring the previous season with games against North Dakota State and Nebraska to start the year. While the outcome was ultimately the same with the Golden Gophers netting two victories, the offensive production was not quite as stunning.
After defeating NDSU 26-6, Minnesota traveled to Lincoln, Neb., to take on the Cornhuskers. Nebraska showed improvement from the previous season when the Golden Gophers rolled over them 20-0. Minnesota headed into the second quarter trailing 7-6, but was able to put another touchdown on the board before the half to lead 12-7. Nebraska’s defense was outstanding the remainder of the game and did not allow the Golden Gophers another touchdown. The Minnesota defense was just as stellar, however, and the Golden Gophers walked away from Lincoln with a 12-7 victory.
While Minnesota’s offense was not putting up the same numbers as 1934, the Golden Gopher defense remained just as stifling. Against Nebraska the defense allowed only five first downs and 110 yards, so it was no surprise when Tulane ran into the same brick wall the next weekend in Minneapolis. The visitors from Louisiana could do nothing right against Minnesota’s superior defense, which held them to a mere 60 yards for the game. Minnesota’s offense was still sputtering, however, as it managed only 183 total yards, all of them on the ground. The Golden Gophers beat Tulane soundly by a score of 20-0, but there was a bit of concern surrounding offensive production heading into the Northwestern game.
The last time the Golden Gophers played Northwestern was in 1933 when the two teams battled to a 0-0 tie. The result in 1935 was much the same and after three quarters Minnesota held a meager 14-13 lead. Northwestern threatened to move into scoring position late in the fourth quarter, but Wilkinson intercepted a Wildcat pass and returned it to the Northwestern 15-yard line. The Golden Gophers went on to score a touchdown and earn a hard-fought 21-13 win.
If there was any concern over the status of Golden Gopher football after the Northwestern game, Bierman’s squad was quick to put it to rest. The Northwestern game was the turning point for Minnesota.
After Northwestern, the Golden Gophers went on to pound opponents by a total score of 115-20 and Beise scored five of his seven touchdowns for the season in those four games. The Minnesota offense seemed to be back on track, but it was tested one last time against the University of Iowa. The Iowa game held a bit more importance for Minnesota than it had in years past. After the 1934 game in which Minnesota had knocked Iowa’s star running back Ozzie Simmons out of the game, Iowa fans were livid and talks of post game mobs buzzed throughout Iowa City. Governor Clyde Herring expressed the same emotion and said, “If the officials stand for any rough tactics like Minnesota used last year, I’m sure the crowd won’t.”
This caused some concern for Minnesotans and Governor Floyd Olson. In attempt to cool tempers on both sides, Olson bet a prize Minnesota hog against a prize Iowa hog as a friendly gesture. So began the tradition of “Floyd of Rosedale,” with the Golden Gophers winning a clean, hard-fought game 13-6 and Olson earning himself a prize Iowa hog.
Minnesota cruised through the remainder of its schedule, beating Michigan, 40-0, and Wisconsin, 33-7. Once again the Golden Gophers had wrapped up an undefeated season and also a national championship by beating the Badgers.
Prior to the 1936 football season, the Minnesota football team had gone 24 games without a loss and won back-to-back national titles in both 1934 and 1935. Needless to say, a national championship trend had caught on at the U of M, so the goals for 1936 proved to be no different.
What was going to be different about the 1936 season was the level of competition that the Maroon and Gold would face. Instead of beating up on smaller schools in non-conference games, Head Coach Bernie Bierman added two tough games to the schedule. Rather than playing North Dakota State and Tulane, the Golden Gophers would travel to the University of Washington to take on the fifth-ranked Huskies, and then the University of Texas at home. The tough schedule combined with previous struggles the Golden Gophers had experienced against Northwestern and Nebraska, appeared to present a challenge for the two-time national champions.
Minnesota was set to open the 1936 season against Washington in Seattle, but it was a game that almost did not happen.
The Golden Gophers boarded the train in Minneapolis on Tuesday of that week for a four-day trip to the Pacific Northwest. Coach Bierman scheduled two practices along the way, one in Miles City, Mont., and one in Spokane, Wash., but it was a one-night stay in Missoula, Mont., that almost cost Minnesota its chance with the Huskies.
Asleep in the Florence Hotel in Missoula, the Golden Gophers were forced to wake up around 3 a.m. after it was discovered the building was on fire. The fire destroyed most of the hotel, forcing the team to return to the train for the remainder of the evening. Luckily, nobody was hurt in the disaster. Once in Seattle, as expected, the game proved a tough one for Minnesota. The stadium was packed with 40,000 Washington fans cheering for the local team. The Huskies tied the Golden Gophers, 7-7, in the third quarter, but to no avail.
The play of Minnesota’s Bud Wilkinson and Julian Alfonse proved too much for Washington. Wilkinson knocked down several Washington passes and kicked two extra points before catching a 60-yard pass to put the Golden Gophers in scoring position in the fourth quarter. Alfonse almost single-handedly shut down the Husky offense as he intercepted three passes at the goal line and led Minnesota’s ground attack. As a result, Minnesota’s win-streak remained in tact as they defeated Washington 14-7.
After narrowly escaping from Seattle with a victory, the Golden Gophers returned home to take on Nebraska the following week. With a grueling trip behind them and an improved Cornhusker team on the field, Minnesota had a difficult time with the second game of the year as well. Nebraska put up a valiant fight, but the Golden Gopher defense foiled the Cornhuskers who could not find the end zone in a 7-0 Minnesota win.
The first two games of the season had threatened Minnesota’s win streak, but the next two games left no doubt why the Golden Gophers were the reigning two-time defending national champions. Minnesota romped over Purdue 33-0, and handed Michigan a 26-0 loss to bring home the Little Brown Jug for the third year in a row.
The two solid victories against Michigan and Purdue led into another huge game for the Golden Gophers at Northwestern. Northwestern was highly-ranked in the national polls and it appeared as if this game would determine the Big Ten and possibly the national champion.
Game day conditions were less than ideal as wind and rain persisted throughout the game, hindering ball movement by both teams. Neither team made a serious threat to score in the first half and all statistics were virtually even. The scoreless battle continued until the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats scored at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but failed to convert the extra point attempt. Minnesota put together three furious drives, all edging inside Northwestern’s 20-yard line. The Golden Gophers were on the brink of defeat for the first time in 28 games. The Maroon and Gold saw their last chance slip away as a fourth down pass into the end zone was batted away with less than six minutes left. Minnesota’s win streak was over. Northwestern dealt the Golden Gophers their first defeat in three years.
Minnesota came out of the Northwestern game with something to prove. They did just that. The Golden Gophers ripped through Iowa, 52-0, to bring home Floyd of Rosedale for the second consecutive time. They also crushed Texas, 47-19, and finished off the season against Wisconsin with a 24-0 victory.
Amazingly enough, even with a loss and no Big Ten Conference title, Minnesota was still voted the 1936 national champion. The Golden Gophers may have lost to Northwestern, but allowed only two other opponents to score. The thorough dominance Minnesota had demonstrated earned them an unprecedented third straight national championship.
After three straight national championships from 1934-36, the University of Minnesota suffered its first losing season under legendary coach Bernie Bierman in 1939 when it finished 3-4-1. The experience proved a humbling one for the Golden Gophers who were not accustomed to losing and the result was unpredictable. Minnesota rallied from a mediocre season to win its fourth national championship in 1940.
The Golden Gopher offense was highlighted by the dynamic running tandem of George Franck and Bruce Smith who, together, combined to score over 60 percent of the touchdowns for the Maroon and Gold. Smith starred by scoring winning touchdowns on three separate occasions, while Franck was named an All-American at the conclusion of the season — highlighted by his four touchdowns against the University of Iowa.
Before Minnesota could face a Big Ten opponent, they had to battle with such highly-touted non-conference teams as Washington and Nebraska.
Fortunately for the Golden Gophers, both games were at Memorial Stadium.
Heading into the 1940 season, Minnesota had never lost to Washington. The Huskies were ready to change that. Though Minnesota was outplayed in nearly every offensive category, a combination of outstanding kick returns and tough defense allowed the Golden Gophers to squeak by 19-14.
The Golden Gophers were never supposed to get by the Huskies and defeating Nebraska the following weekend seemed even more unlikely. Nebraska knew about the outstanding two-touchdown performance Franck displayed against Washington. Minnesota would have little chance if the Cornhuskers could shut down the running game.
Nebraska’s game plan worked wonders on Franck and Smith. What they had not counted on was the superb play of William Daley and William Johnson, who gained nearly 300 yards on the ground for the Golden Gophers. Minnesota’s defense once again showed it was golden as it held Nebraska to only 25 yards on the ground. This took the Cornhuskers out of their game and vaulted Minnesota to a 13-7 victory.
Minnesota kept up its streak of close games when it defeated Ohio State 13-7. The Golden Gophers were soundly beaten on paper, and most likely would have been beaten on the scoreboard had it not been for the stellar play of Smith and his two touchdowns.
The next week, Franck finally broke open the Minnesota offense with his four touchdown performance in the Golden Gophers’ 34-6 drubbing of Iowa.
The celebration would not last long, however, as Minnesota next faced Northwestern — a team that had beaten the Golden Gophers for two straight seasons.
The way Minnesota was playing, Northwestern did not figure to be an overly difficult opponent. They were much improved, however, and the Golden Gopher — Wildcat game had a tradition of being battles to the end. From 1932 to 1949, no Minnesota — Northwestern game was ever decided by more than a single touchdown. The same held true in 1940 as the Golden Gophers edged out Northwestern 13-12. Were it not for two missed point-after attempts by the Wildcats, Minnesota’s dream season may have been over.
If college football fans missed the Northwestern game, the game against Michigan proved to be a near carbon copy. Minnesota won, 7-6, once again as a result of a missed point-after attempt. Smith proved to be a major factor in the game as he gained 116 of Minnesota’s 205 total yards and scored the lone Golden Gopher touchdown.
After winning two very close games against two quality Big Ten opponents, Minnesota headed into the final two games of the season excited about its chances of bringing a national championship back to Minnesota after a three-year absence. To do so, they would have to get by Purdue and Wisconsin. Neither team proved to be a match for the Golden Gophers as they beat Purdue 33-6, before defeating Wisconsin in the final game of the season, 22-13, to win their fourth national championship in seven years.
After returning to the national spotlight in 1940, expectations for the 1941 Golden Gophers were high once again. On top of an already difficult Big Ten schedule, Minnesota had to go to battle once again with national powers Nebraska and Washington. But talk of another title flowed freely throughout Memorial Stadium.
The real superstar, and the key to Minnesota’s national title hopes, proved to be Bruce Smith. While Smith was only the third leading rusher on the team, his outstanding play and attitude on the field earned him widespread recognition. He not only earned All-Big Ten and All-America status, but also became Minnesota’s first and only player to ever win the Heisman Trophy. While Smith’s individual accomplishments were among the greatest in Minnesota history, the fight that the Golden Gophers put up during the 1941 season was every bit as exciting.
Minnesota opened the 1941 campaign against Washington in Seattle. The Huskies had established themselves as a dominant force, and games between the two teams traditionally proved to be very close.
This season’s match-up was to be more of the same. The Golden Gophers managed only 213 yards on the ground, 189 of them between Smith and Bill Daley. In the end it was the Minnesota defense who prevailed, smothering its opponent time after time as the Maroon and Gold escaped from Seattle with a 14-6 victory.
Minnesota opened its Big Ten schedule with the conference doormat, Illinois. As expected, the Golden Gophers rolled over the Orange and Blue 34-6. It proved to be a good preparatory game before another non-conference tilt against Pittsburgh.
Minnesota had not played Pittsburgh since the Golden Gophers won their first national championship in 1934. The Panthers gave Minnesota everything they wanted and more in 1934, but 1941 proved to be a different story. Minnesota dominated the Panthers in every aspect of the game. Despite fumbling the ball away four times, the offense racked up 39 points, while the defense stood strong by intercepting two passes and not allowing the Panthers a taste of the end zone.
After the Pittsburgh game, the Maroon and Gold headed into the meat of its schedule against Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska, and Iowa. It was clear that if the Golden Gophers wanted to repeat as national champions that this stretch of the schedule would determine just how good the team truly was.
Michigan and Northwestern appeared to be the two greatest threats to Minnesota’s title hopes. Both teams had established themselves among the best in the conference and historically had given Minnesota fits. History was on Minnesota’s side, however, as they had emerged with victories in almost every close game in the past 10 seasons.
Michigan was looking to rain on Minnesota’s national championship parade after the Golden Gophers had defeated them on Bruce Smith’s last minute touchdown the previous season. Michigan was able to contain Smith and Daley reasonably well, but in the end the Wolverine offense could not beat Minnesota’s defense and the Golden Gophers squeaked out a 7-0 victory.
Northwestern wanted revenge much the same as Michigan since Minnesota had come away with a one point victory the previous season.
Northwestern had luck on its side as Smith was injured and unable to carry the ball for the Golden Gophers. It appeared as if the elements were in line for the Wildcats to dethrone the reigning national champions. It was not to be however. Without Smith, Bud Higgins stepped up his game to gain 96 yards for the Golden Gophers and lead them to another exciting one point win over Northwestern, 8-7.
Minnesotans were somewhat concerned with their chances to win without Smith on the field. Against Iowa Head Coach Bernie Bierman chose to sit Smith out and not risk further injuring his knee. After one quarter, the Golden Gophers had not gained a single yard on the ground. Smith realized that if Minnesota was to win another championship he had to contribute. After convincing coach Bierman to put him in the game, Smith put the Golden Gophers in position to score three touchdowns. While Smith did not gain a large number of yards, he had helped to keep the Minnesota championship hopes alive.
The Golden Gophers closed out their season playing the University of Wisconsin. For the fifth time in eight years, Minnesota beat the Badgers to end the season and wrap up a national championship, making Bernie Bierman the winningest coach in school history.
The 1960-61 athletic season proved to be one of the most productive ever for the University of Minnesota Athletics Department. Swimmer Steve Jackman won the NCAA 100-yard freestyle while setting the American record, and the hockey team placed third at the NCAA Tournament. The crowning achievements, however, were the two national championships the school won. Baseball won its second national title in four years, while the Minnesota football team returned to national prominence by winning its sixth national title.
Murray Warmath entered his seventh season as the Minnesota head football coach on the heels of three consecutive losing seasons. Expectations to start the season were not very high as the Golden Gophers were not ranked by a single news service. To add insult to pre-season injury, Minnesota lost to the alumni squad 19-7. The outlook for the 1960 season did not appear to be a bright one.
The Golden Gophers opened the season against Nebraska, a game which virtually no one gave Minnesota a chance to win. Minnesota surprised everyone, thanks to strong performances by All-America lineman Tom Brown and quarterback Sandy Stephens. Stephens completed 5-of-6 pass attempts and kept Nebraska pinned deep by averaging 40.1 yards per punt on seven boots.
Minnesota’s 26-14 win over Nebraska did not quiet doubters in the least and was considered a fluke. The Golden Gophers headed into the Big Ten schedule with something to prove.
Minnesota opened the Big Ten season with an impressive 42-0 rout of Indiana. Minnesota’s offense sputtered in the first three quarters, but exploded for four touchdowns in the final quarter — two within 60 seconds of each other.
The Golden Gophers next looked to a Northwestern team which had beaten them in each of the previous two years. It looked to be a good challenge for Warmath’s undefeated team, especially since they had to contend with Northwestern’s outstanding quarterback, Dick Thornton. Minnesota’s offense stole the show the week before, and now it was the defense’s turn to star against Northwestern. Tom Brown repeatedly leveled Thornton on rushing attacks and held him to minus-14 net yards rushing. When Brown was not stopping Thornton on the ground, he was forcing him into poor passing decisions as the U of M came away with a 7-0 victory over the Wildcats.
The Golden Gophers established their defense as among the toughest in the conference, but against Illinois the Golden Gophers flip-flopped positions and they took an outstanding offensive performance to wrap up the game. Stephens starred by scoring all three Minnesota touchdowns en route to a 21-10 win. Minnesota realized that they must play consistently on the offensive side of the ball in order to keep winning.
Warmath managed to get more consistency out of his offense the next three games, while the defense continued to stifle opponents. The Golden Gophers beat Michigan, 10-0, then went on to defeat Kansas State and Iowa, 48-7 and 27-10, respectively. Minnesota appeared to be rolling with only two games remaining in the regular season.
The Purdue Boilermakers were among the worst teams in the conference in 1960 and looked to pose little problem for the seemingly unstoppable Golden Gophers. Minnesota showed flashes of the alumni game, however, and was shocked 23-14 at Memorial Stadium. The loss was huge. It vaulted Iowa into first place in the major polls, and put Minnesota in a tie for first in the Big Ten. The Golden Gophers had a must-win game against Wisconsin to end the season.
The Badgers were also a fairly weak team, but there would be no repeat upset over the Golden Gophers in the final game of the season as Minnesota cruised to a 26-7 victory. Minnesota’s win, coupled with an 8-1 record, earned them enough votes to take over first place from Iowa in both the final AP and UPI polls. The Golden Gophers had earned their sixth national championship and first-ever trip to the Rose Bowl in the process.