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Ruminations on Gopher football, racism, WWII and Sandy Stephens from a long-suffering fan

Dave Kenney’s splendid book, “Minnesota Goes to War: The Home Front During World War II” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008), begins with an introduction describing the Minnesota Gophers’ 41-6 victory over Wisconsin on Nov. 22, 1941.

Played only 15 days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the game marked an end of an era for Coach Bernie Bierman’s Golden Gophers. The game was also astride the changes transforming Minnesota, which began during the Great Depression and would accelerate during World War II and the postwar period — a largely agricultural and mining state which would evolve into an incubator of Fortune 500 companies and serve as a laboratory for the civil-rights movement.

This was the future, though, as Gopher stars such as Bruce Smith, Butch Levy, Bob Sweiger and Urban Odson played their last game as seniors in 1941 with snow banks shoveled to the sidelines of a 17-year-old Memorial Stadium, erected to honor Minnesota’s war dead from World War I.  Two months earlier and half a world away, as the Kenney book recounts, another team of Minnesotans — the Company A, 194th Tank Battalion Minnesota National Guard Unit from Brainerd — had arrived in the Philippines to strengthen American defenses for its overseas possession in the face of tension with the Japanese in the Pacific.

The Company A, 194th Tank Battalion found itself in the heart of the desperate American defense of the Bataan Peninsula in February-April, 1942. The ferocious struggle for Bataan delayed the Japanese timetable of conquest and inflicted a high rate of casualties among the Japanese forces. The Japanese exacted their revenge with the Bataan Death March, in which Company A among the American and Filipino prisoners suffered terribly from the atrocities committed. 

‘An insignificant casualty of that global upheaval’
The Minnesota in which the eight Saturday afternoons of fall football held the state’s attention was passing from the scene as Minnesotans were dying abroad and the world was changing. As Richard Rainbolt wrote in “Gold Glory” (Ralph Turtinen Publishing Co., 1972), “There was that war coming only weeks after the end of the 1941 season, and Gopher football was just an insignificant casualty of that global upheaval.”

Before the war, Minnesota’s mastery of the single wing offense and its crushing defense was the foundation of the Minnesota era of college football between 1933 and 1941. These statistics illuminate Minnesota’s dominance:

  • Five national championships (1934, 1935, 1936, 1940, 1941);
  • Six Big Ten championships;
  • 63-12-5 record for these years;
  • 21 All American selections (By comparison, Minnesota went from 1972 – 1998 without a single All American selection);
  • 32 Big Ten selections;
  • Minnesota yielded 20 points or more only twice in those ten years;
  • Minnesota outscored its opponents: 1,597 – 466; and
  • Minnesota went 16-0 in 1940 and 1941.

(For an exquisitely detailed account of the Bierman years of Minnesota football see: “Minnesota Football: The Golden Years 1932-1941” by James P. Quirk. Quirk was a professor of economics at Carleton College and author of eight books on economic theory. He was raised in St. Paul and received his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. Quirk’s book was published first in 1984 – he was writing the book during Minnesota’s disastrous 1-10 season in which it was the only team in Big Ten history to go 0-9. Quirk’s book chronicles each season from 1932 to 1941, which includes such famous Minnesota victories as Pittsburgh [1934], Iowa [1935, the first Floyd of Rosedale game] and Michigan [1940, Bruce Smith’s 80 yard touchdown run beat Michigan 7-6]. For this year’s struggles, now lightened by the victory over Iowa, the Quirk book is a refreshing story of Gopher triumph.)

A welcome distraction in the fall
Minnesota’s football decade of dominance coincided with the Great Depression and was a welcomed autumnal distraction. The economic troubles of the country did not spare Minnesota, which experienced a 25 percent unemployment rate in the 1930s in some low-income neighborhoods of Minneapolis. (Iric Nathanson, “The WPA in Minnesota: economic stimulus during the Great Depression,” MinnPost, Jan. 7, 2009.) Minnesota’s politics were often vicious, replete with red-baiting and a 1938 governor’s election notorious for its flagrant anti-Semitism.

There were egregious instances of anti-Semitism and racism in the 1930s in the Twin Cities. Silver Shirt membership – “a local-fascist, anti-Semitic movement – even with some room for exaggeration – reached into the thousands” (Michael Rapp, “An Historical Overview of Anti-Semitism in Minnesota, 1920-1960”, Ph.D. thesis, 1977). For African-Americans, there was a deeply troubling racial incident reflecting societal attitudes involving the purchase of a home in South Minneapolis in 1931. An African-American family moved into a South Minneapolis neighborhood. Large crowds gathered outside the family’s home each night in an effort to intimidate them into moving. Rocks and paint were thrown and the family dog was poisoned, although the family stayed and ultimately persevered. Toxicity was a characteristic of Twin Cities’ life for Minnesotans in the 1930s. (“For the Record: 150 Years of Law and Lawyers in Minnesota; Minnesota State Bar Association, 1999; p.110.)

Back on the gridiron, Bernie Bierman’s relationship with Jews and African-Americans was ambiguous. He coached a number of Jewish players including 1941 All Big Ten left tackle, Butch Levy. His longtime assistant coach was Sig Harris, who was a great Minnesota football player in the early years of the 20th century. Only a few African-Americans played for Bierman, though, including Dwight Reed and Horace Bell from the 1936 national championship team.

Reed held out of 1935 Tulane game
Consistent with this policy, Dwight Reed was held out of Minnesota’s 1935 homecoming game against Tulane (“The Way Spaces Were Allocated: African Americans on Campus, Part II,” University of Minnesota Alumni Magazine, Fall 2011.)

Reed and Bell were central figures of discussions in 1935 and 1936 by Bierman and the university to accede to southern racism. The Quirk book describes both Reed being held out of a 1935 game with Tulane and Reed and Bell being held out of a 1936 game with Texas. The reason given for their nonparticipation was “injury.” As African-Americans, Reed and Bell did not play against the Green Wave and the Longhorns because these southern universities refused to play in games in which African-Americans competed. The university suborned the racism, and Reed and Bell watched the game from the Memorial Stadium press box.

The Quirk book relates a conversation in which the Minnesota athletic director promised Reed that all Minnesota athletes would participate in games and meets with southern schools going forward. Nevertheless, Reed and Bell did not play in the 1936 game against Texas.

A Minnesota Public Radio story – “The Origin of Floyd of Rosedale” – (broadcast Nov. 12, 2005) – noted that many northern schools in addition to Minnesota honored an unwritten agreement not to play African-American players against segregated southern schools. There were about 50 African-American students enrolled in the mid-1930s ,according to the MPR story. The University of Minnesota Alumni Magazine also discussed Dwight Reed’s benching for the 1935 Tulane game – the article noted the game was Minnesota’s homecoming (“The Way Spaces Were Allocated: African Americans on Campus, Part II”). (Dwight Reed later became football coach and athletic director of Lincoln University. Lincoln’s football stadium is named for Reed.)

Ironically, in Bierman’s book “Winning Football” (McGraw-Hill Books, 1937), John Griffith wrote a forward for the book as the commissioner of athletics for the Western Conference, “Big Ten.”  Griffith noted that in football: “[t]here no bars as to race, religion or social status. A man who is willing to play like a man gets a man’s chance.”

Football dynasty briefly reinvigorated in early ’60s
The Minnesota football dynasty ended with World War II, but was briefly reinvigorated at a national championship level in the early 1960s. Minnesota’s return to national prominence, ironically, in light of the benching of Reed and Bell, was strongly assisted by the recruitment of African-American players from the south and eastern United States. Sandy Stephens (the first black honored as All-American at quarterback), Bobby Bell, Judge Dickson, Carl Eller, Bill Munsey, John Williams, Aaron Brown and McKinley Boston were among the star African-American football players successfully recruited to the university in the 1960s. Prominent individuals such as Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Minneapolis Tribune writer Carl Rowan supported Coach Murray Warmath’s recruiting efforts. 

The university honored Sandy Stephens during the Minnesota-Wisconsin game of Nov. 12 for his election to the National College Football Hall of Fame. This season marks the 50th anniversary of the last Minnesota team to play in the Rose Bowl. It is also the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. The United States, Minnesota and Gopher football were never the same.

Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

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