Football lost a legend this week when Murray Warmath passed on Wednesday at age 98. An institution to the game and an iconic figure on the pages of Minnesota football history, Warmath will be remembered as a winner, an innovator and a personality without equal.
On the field, Warmath brought national championships and Rose Bowl winners to the University of Minnesota, was a pioneer of integration of college athletics and knew the men who played the game as well as he knew the strategies it took to be successful. Following his 18-season tenure at the University from 1954-71 and a stint on campus in athletic administration, Warmath coached for 2 final seasons on the Vikings staff in 1978-79, tutoring the defensive line under Bud Grant. Beginning in 1980, Warmath stayed involved with the game by working as a Vikings scout for over a decade.
Warmath’s arrival on the UofM campus in early 1954 ushered in an era of team success on the field and individual honors that stands as one of the brightest in Gophers history. The 1960 team brought the last national championship to Dinkytown and was highlighted by knocking off the #1 ranked Iowa club 27-10 en route to the unanimous national title. The 1961 team notched a 7-2 mark and accepted their 2nd straight Rose Bowl invite for January 1962. That team followed the leadership of QB Sandy Stephens and routed UCLA 21-3, a crowning day as Stephens was named MVP of the game and ended the season as the first African-American QB to earn All-America honors. Warmath’s 1967 club shared the Big Ten title with an 8-2 record.
An All-America TE in 1971 who went on to play for the Vikings, Doug Kingsriter has been touched by the volume of former Gophers players who have reached out to one another following Warmath’s passing.
“When you hear from this many people who all are expressing their love and respect for a man who had to be tough on you at times it speaks to what kind of impact he had on people,” Kingsriter said. “Murray was able to do a job that is very tough because you have to be able to motivate players to play at a high level and also you have to have understand the personal side of those young people. It’s a fine line to be tough and caring at the same time, but he did it better than anyone. He was able to cover a remarkable spectrum. What sticks out about him was he had a great laugh and had that Southern charm, but when he got serious and told you he was making you a promise, he would follow through on that for the rest of his life. He would help former players in any way possible for long after and he kept his promises.”
Warmath’s Gopher teams featured future NFL stars Carl Eller, Bobby Bell and Charlie Sanders, who went on to standout careers with the Vikings, Chiefs and Lions, respectively, and all 3 have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Murray was a great man who took extraordinary risks,” Eller said. “He helped a lot of people by doing so. He was great outside of the boundaries of coaching and had an impact on many lives, including mine. He was honest, stuck to his beliefs and was a very fair man. He will be missed.”
During his Vikings coaching tenure, Warmath groomed young linemen such as Mark Mullaney and James White as the team transitioned from the Purple People Eaters era into the 1980s. The 1978 Vikings won the NFC Central title and advanced to the playoffs. Later, as a scout, Warmath helped the Vikings discover talent in the college ranks that would help build a deep roster.
“Murray was a great football man, a guy who knew the game inside and out,” said Vikings Director of College Scouting Scott Studwell, who was a player on the Vikings squads while Warmath coached and worked with him in scouting following his retirement. “He had a passion for the game and the work that few guys half his age have today. He knew what it took to make a player and he had a keen eye for picking that out.”