A couple of weeks ago Pro Football Talk posted the Minnesota Vikings' Mt Rushmore naming Alan Page, Fran Tarkenton, Adrian Peterson and Cris Carter (really? Randy Moss wasn't better than Carter during their respective times in Minnesota?) as the four greatest Vikings in the history of the team. The "Mt Rushmore" concept isn't new, but it seemed like a good idea to apply to the Minnesota Golden Gophers football squad. As you're probably aware, the Gophers did a LOT of winning prior to 1967 (like, all the national and conference titles they've ever won) and haven't done much since, so it's probably not surprising that most of the candidates for Gopher Football's Mt Rushmore haven't played or coached here since before 1967. Depending on how the voting for the fourth spot goes (yes, there's voting. Hold your horses, we're getting to it) we'll probably do a "Mt Rushmore post-1967" so some of the more recent players can get some love. And your love they deserve.
But today we the people of Minnesota Golden Gopher football fandom are here to decide the four greatest players and/or coaches in the history of the program. We here at TDG can do some really good stuff thanks to SB Nation and all the bells and whistles they give us to post with, but one thing we lack are polls where you can choose more than one option. So while I'd like to give you the opportunity to vote on your top four all-time Gophers, because of our polling restrictions I'm going to choose the first three, and you're going to get to choose the fourth. As always, feel free to give your top four in the comments section if for some reason you didn't agree with the players I chose (you'd obviously be wrong if you did such a thing but I mean, free country and all that stuff). Here then are your top three Gophers of all-time:
Bronko Nagurski, FB/DT, 1927-29
A college and pro football hall-of-famer, Nagurksi is a true legend and one of the most famous names in the history of the sport. An All-American at Minnesota as a fullback and defensive tackle, he starred with the Chicago Bears as a pro winning three titles and was named first team all-pro four times, and also dabbled in professional wrestling, winning the National Wrestling Association world title in 1939. He was a consensus All-American for the Gophers as a fullback in 1929 when he led the nation in rushing with 737 yards (yeah the game was a little different back then), and was also named All-American as a tackle by a few publications, and was part of the inaugural class elected to the college football hall of fame in 1951. In 1993 the Football Writers of America created an award in his name to honor the top defensive player in all of college football, Sports Illustrated named him the starting defensive tackle on their NCAA Football All-Century Team, and E!SPN ranked him 17th on their list of the 25 Greatest Players in College Football History. A true Minnesotan he was raised in International Falls, and after retiring from professional sports returned to northern Minnesota where he stayed until his passing in 1990 at the age of 81 (we won't mention the maple syrup and hoser-infested country he was born in). The Bronko Nagurski Award has been given to the Gophers' team MVP eveery season since 1930.
Bruce Smith, HB, 1939-41
The only Heisman winner in the program's history, Smith was also the first Gopher football player to have his number retired. That's right, ahead of Nagurski, and everybody else on this list. Smith was the best player on back-to-back undefeated and national championship teams in 1940 and 1941, and the team captain was awarded the Heisman in 1941. Because of the style of play back then you won't see his name amongst the top Gopher rushers of all-time, but there's no doubt he's one of the great Gopher players ever. The Bruce Smith award has been given annually to the top Gopher offensive player since 1979.
Bobby Bell, DT, 1960-62
At the University of Minnesota he was as a two-time first team All-American, Outland Trophy recipient in 1962 as the nation's best interior lineman, and finished third in the Heisman voting that year- AS A DEFENSIVE LINEMAN! In 1960 he helped the Gophers win their last national title and second-to-last Big Ten title, and was elected to the pro football Hall of Fame in 1983 after his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, and to the college football Hall of Fame in 1991. He's also one of only five Gophers (Nagurski, Smith, Giel, and Stephens) to have his number retired in the Gopher Ring of Fame at TCF Bank stadium. The Bobby Bell award has been given to the Gophers' outstanding special teams player since 1984.
So there are the first three faces of Minnesota Gopher Football's Mt Rushmore. Now it's your turn to pick the fourth. While the list of candidates below may not include someone you felt belonged (GN will probably fire me for excluding his beloved Adam Weber), the six below were the most deserving of consideration for the fourth and final spot (listed in alphabetical order):
Bernie Bierman, Head Coach 1932-41, 1945-50, Fullback 1913-1915
Not just the greatest coach in the program's history, but he has to be considered one of the greatest coaches in college football history too. Not only is he on Gopher Football's Mt Rushmore for his coaching, he was also a 1st team All-American as a fullback on a Big Ten title winner in 1915. He returned to Minnesota as head coach in 1932, and in two stints with the Gophers (he left in 1941 to join the war, returning in 1945 and coached until 1950) over 16 seasons he went 93-35-6 (.727 winning percentage) winning five national championships ('34-36, '40-41) and seven Big Ten titles ('33-35, 37, 38, 40, 41). Bierman was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1955.
Tyrone Carter, S, 1996-99
Carter belongs among the greats in Gopher football history, and while he didn't win a national championship or Big Ten title, he was still a great player as Minnesota's all-time leading tackler. He was 1st team All-Big Ten and 1st team All-American in 1998 and as a senior in 1999, he was 1st team Big Ten, a consensus 1st team All-American, and was given the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back.
Carl Eller, DL, 1959-62
Eller played on the last Gopher team to win the Rose Bowl as a sophomore 1961, helped them back to the Rose Bowl and was named 2nd team All-Big Ten and made a few All-America lists in 1962, and as dominated as a senior in 1963 as he was named first team All-Big Ten and a consensus first team All-American, and was the runner up for the Outland Trophy. He was voted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004 for his play with the Minnesota Vikings Purple People Eaters, and the Carl Eller Award has been given every season to the Gopher's outstanding defensive player since 1979.
Greg Eslinger, C, 2002-2005
Eslinger is the best Gopher linemen of the past 40 years, and arguably one of the best to ever play the O-line for the Maroon and Gold. A four year starter, he was a three-time 1st team all-Big Ten selection (2003-05), All-American as a junior in 2004, and then all-everything in 2005. In his senior year Eslinger was a consensus first team All-American, B1G Offensive Lineman of the Year, Outland Trophy winner as the nation's best interior lineman, and was awarded the Rimington Trophy as the nation's best center.
Paul Giel, HB/QB, 1951-53
Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975, Giel shifted between QB and HB in the Gopher offense, and piled up yards, scores, and awards. He was the first ever two-time winner of the Chicago Tribune Silver Football given to the B1G MVP in 1952 and '53, was 1st team All-American and Big Ten both years, and in 1953 was named the College Football Player of the Year and finished second in the Heisman balloting to Notre Dame's Johnny Lattner in the closest Heisman balloting in history.
Sandy Stephens, QB, 1959-61
Last but certainly not least, Stephens was a great Gopher and a pioneer. In case you didn't know or had somehow forgotten that Elliott Mann can write, read his excellent piece from a couple of years ago on Stephens and MarQueis Gray. Really, just read that and you'll read everything you need to know and more about Stephens' place on Minnesota Golden Gopher Football's Mt Rushmore, but here's the summary:
Stephens’s achievements are varied, impressive and notable: He was Minnesota’s first black quarterback and also the first black quarterback from a major college to be named an All-American. In 1960, he led the Gophers to a National Championship and a season later, was the first person of color to be named Rose Bowl MVP. (Somewhat fittingly, that Rose Bowl was the first college football game to be broadcast nationally in color.) Stephens received the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award, given to the Big Ten’s MVP, in 1961. He also finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy that year.
It's a great piece about a great man and a great Gopher. Now it's up to you to decide whether he, or the other five candidates is the most deserving of being the fourth person on the Minnesota Golden Gopher Football's Mt Rushmore.