Long before the Vikings and the NFL arrived in Minneapolis in 1961, I’m told this town belonged to the Gophers. They were in fact national champions in 1961, finishing 8-2, which included a trip to the Rose Bowl vs. Washington.
That year, Sandy Stevens was the quarterback. He was a special player, the first Black All-American athlete to play quarterback in the United States. The head coach was Murray Warmath, who led the Gophers to 8-2 records three times.
Fast forward to 2019: The Gophers of P.J. Fleck are 8-0, ranked 13th in the nation, and have won 10 games in a row dating back to 2018. Not since 1941 has a Gopher football team started 8-0.
And not since 1961 has the team started 5-0 in the Big Ten. In 1941 the Gophers finished 8-0 and were undefeated, capturing the Associated Press National Championship.
Saturday at 11 am at TCF Bank Stadium the Gophers will host undefeated number-five-ranked Penn State on ABC-TV. It’s the second time in 40 years that two 8-0 teams will face each other.
The Gophers are leaders of the Big Ten West, while Penn State is tied at 5-0 with Ohio State for first in the Big Ten East. This showdown will be between two of the nine undefeated teams remaining in the FBS.
Also Saturday, November 9, number-one LSU will play number-two Alabama. It’s the first time in the AP top 25 poll era that two games will feature four 8-0 teams on the same day.
This is a great opportunity for the Gophers. The program has risen slowly to a point where they are now in the mix for the college football playoff. This is the first time in my 40-plus years of covering sports in this town that the football program is in this position.
Years ago, in 1992, while hosting a sports talk show on KFAN radio, I said that I would never cover a Gopher football team in the Rose Bowl in my lifetime. But Fleck has done a good job. His program is on the move.
Florida State fired their head football coach, Willie Taggert, Monday. Florida State has won national titles before. The success that Fleck is now having puts him in the spotlight and could lead to him being considered for opportunities elsewhere.
Four years ago Fleck finished 13-1 at Western Michigan, and the Gophers pursued him to replace Tracy Claeys. That’s how the business works.
Pre-press update: According to a Nov. 5 U of M press release, Gophers Head Football Coach P.J. Fleck has agreed to a seven-year contract extension pending Board of Regents approval.