Legendary football coach Murray Warmath dies at 98

Warmath lead the Gophers to two Rose Bowls and a national championship in the 1960s.

by Josh Katzenstein

He had a sense of humor that matched his infectious smile.

He loved quail hunting and fishing.

But Murray Warmath, who died at the age of 98 at his Bloomington, Minn., residence Wednesday night, will forever be remembered as a football man.

Warmath coached the Gophers for 18 seasons (1954-71) and is the last coach in program history to win a Big Ten championship, Rose Bowl or national title. He won all three.

But before the 1960 season, many fans wanted Warmath fired. Minnesota had suffered three straight losing seasons, including a 10th-place finish in the Big Ten in 1959.

âÄúHe didnâÄôt knock the fans âÄîwhich they did him âÄî even when he was let go,âÄù said Bob McNamara, a senior All-American in WarmathâÄôs first season.

Instead, Warmath stayed the course. His response to the criticism was also his claim to fame âÄî a 1960 season in which the Gophers went 8-2 and won the national championship, the last of six in program history.

His style mirrored those of other famous coaches in the era, like Ohio StateâÄôs Woody Hayes and AlabamaâÄôs Bear Bryant. Warmath was a no-nonsense, disciplinarian that wanted to win by outworking people.

âÄúHe was pretty direct. You knew where you stood with him right away,âÄù McNamara said. âÄúWe knew that he wasnâÄôt screwing around with us.âÄù

He also didnâÄôt mess around when it came to recruiting. Warmath wanted the best football players he could find âÄî whether black or white, and brought black athletes such as Bobby Bell, Sandy Stephens, Judge Dickson and Ezell Jones to the program.

âÄúMurray Warmath will go down in history as recruiting African-American athletes from the south that were not given the opportunity to play in the south,âÄù M Club Director George Adzick said.

Dick Larson, who played for the Gophers from 1955-57 and later coached under Warmath, said he wouldâÄôve expected a coach born and raised in Tennessee to act differently toward different races.

âÄúHe treated us all the same,âÄù Larson said, âÄúlike dogs.âÄù

WarmathâÄôs impact on the program lasted long after he was let go in 1971. He served as an associate athletics director from 1972-78 and remained loyal to the program. Larson said Warmath missed only three home football games over the last nine years.

âÄúHe kept us going for 60 years because people believed in him,âÄù said McNamara, a chief fundraiser for Minnesota athletics.

WarmathâÄôs legacy extended past his tenure as coach. Adzick joined the football team in 1974, with Cal Stoll as his head coach. During AdzickâÄôs time with the Gophers, Warmath did some broadcast work, and just from that he could tell what kind of guy Warmath was.

âÄúHe had a command of football athletes,âÄù Adzick said. âÄúIt was lasting, all the way till his last breath.

âÄúWhat IâÄôm going to miss most is that those guys donâÄôt have their head coach.âÄù

On Thursday, McNamara, Larson and about 20 other former players and coaches had lunch at Legends Bar and Grill in Minneapolis, spending part of the time reminiscing about Warmath. The coach attended the weekly lunches until falling ill in December.

âÄúEverybody had a little grinâÄù when Warmath walked in, McNamara said. âÄúHere comes the coach so get ready.âÄù

Even in his latter years Warmath would ruffle some feathers, jokingly asking Pinky McNamara, BobâÄôs brother and a former player at Minnesota, how much he weighed.

âÄúHe doesnâÄôt let you off the hook,âÄù Bob McNamara said of a personality that extended to the football field.

Larson worked for both the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, but said he âÄúdidnâÄôt meet many people across the board that knew more football than Warmath.

âÄúHe could coach offense, defense, the kicking game, and he constantly wanted to be as up-to-date and as knowledgeable as he could.âÄù

That knowledge earned Warmath the admiration of his players and eventually the fans. His commitment to doing what was right until his dying day earned Warmath their respect.

âÄúIf anybody needed help heâÄôd shoulder you out of the way to be first,âÄù Larson said. âÄúThere are a lot of people that he was at least a second dad to.âÄù

WarmathâÄôs memorial service will be held today at St. StephenâÄôs Episcopal Church in Edina, Minn., at 1 p.m. He is survived by his son Murray Jr. and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.