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Minnesota Gophers Football: Hiring Bernie Bierman #TBT

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Let’s look back at how strange it was hiring one of Minnesota’s best all time coaches.

Coach Bierman with his squad in 1932.

Bernie Bierman coached Minnesota 1932–1941 and again from 1945–1950. During that time he won 7 Big Ten Championships and 5 National Championships. And the path that brought Bierman to coach in Dinkytown is a truly interesting one.

Bernie Bierman in 1931

Bernie played on the great Gopher team of 1916 for the programs all time winningest coach Doctor Henry L. Williams. When the good Doctor left coaching in 1921 the U of M ran through coaches trying to get back to the top of the conference. Things came to low point during the coaching search that ended up with Frtiz Crisler in 1930.

The U of M, as it is now, was a bureaucratic mess in the 1930s. How coaching searches worked back then was usually decided by the University Senate. In 1930 two men on the University Senate headed up the search committee. Russell B. (Bunny) Rathbun, former Gopher track star, and Arnold C. (Arnie) Oss, outstanding athlete who won letters in football, basketball and track. The two man committee was looking to appoint a East Coast big name head coach. Enter University President Lotus D. Coffman, aka Mr. Shine Stealer. Without consulting Rathbun or Oss, Coffman hired Chicago’s coach in waiting, Fritz Crisler. Crisler was to be the head coach and Coffman also hired former Wolverine footballer, Tad Wieman.

Fritz Crisler as Gopher Football Coach, 1931

Rathbun was so pissed he went to the media to air his grievances. What happened next is best described by from longtime Minnesota sports journalist George Baton:

Up until that time (1930), no sports story in the history of newspapers in the Twin Cities created such a stir in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the entire state of Minnesota as did the commotion aroused on my story of the hiring of Crisler and Wieman which was banner-headlined on page one of the Minneapolis Evening Tribune. The article incited noisy demonstrations on the University campus and brought angry protests against the University administration from letter men, other alumni and the general public.

Due to the hostile attitude of the public, Crisler telephoned Dr. Coffman and declined the appointment. He told the University prexy he had no desire to coach at an institution where he was not welcome. When Crisler's rejection was published in the newspapers, the University of Minnesota was placed in an embarrassing position. This predicament promoted a group of prominent professional and businessmen in Minneapolis to take steps to save face for President Coffman and the University.

This group, headed by Orrin Safford, an outstanding Minneapolis attorney who was a former Gopher football player, went to Chicago to confer with Crisler. After an all-day conference, Crisler consented to give the matter further thought before making a final decision.

A few days later, Crisler issued what amounted to an ultimatum to President Coffman He would agree to come to Minnesota only with the provision that he must be appointed athletic director as well as head football coach. Dr. Coffman, in no position to barter, agreed to Crisler's demands and Fritz replaced Fred W. Luehring as head of the University's Athletic Department.

Newspaper man George A. Barton

So Crisler was put in an impossible situation. He was unpopular, he disliked living in Minnesota, and his teams were trash. This was not a tenable situation. Rumblings were out barely a year after Crisler came to town that the top brass at the U of M and the alumni were finally on the same page in wanting to bring Bernie Bierman in. Again the story is best told by our man George Barton:

During the summer of 1931 I heard rumblings of a powerful group of alumni putting pressure on Dr. Coffman to hire Bernie Bierman as head football coach. They urged the use of persuasive methods to lure Bernie away from Tulane University where he was enjoying great success.

In September of 1931 Bierman agreed to come to Minnesota after finishing out the season at Tulane. I accidentally got confirmation of Bernie's return to Minnesota while taking a shower with Bert Baston and Perry Dean after a game of handball at the Minneapolis Athletic Club.

"Good news about Bernie Bierman, isn't it George? said Baston casually.

Taking a stab in the dark, I replied just casually, "Yeah Bert, he'll make Minnesota a real power in football. Is it settled yet when he is slated to take over?"

"Not until December," said Bert. "He's obligated to finish the 1931 season at Tulane and besides, Bernie tells me he has a fine squad this year. He expects to win the Southeastern Conference championship and get a Rose Bowl bid. In that case he will not report to Minnesota until January."

So Barton broke the story a full year before Bierman took over. Bierman coached Tulane in 1931 and Crisler coached the Gophers with everyone knowing full well what would happen the next year. Bernie did have a good thing going at Tulane, in his last 34 games there, he won 32, and went to the Rose Bowl in 1931. Fans of both the Golden Gophers and Green wave wanted answers all year. Bierman confirmed the story publicly during the season, which went about as poorly as expected from a PR standpoint. What’s remarkable is that Bierman was able to keep winning while at Tulane, even after his players knew he was leaving, he beat Auburn, Georgia, and LSU, before losing to USC in the Rose Bowl.

Luckily for Minnesota, Bierman came to town and went 5-3 his first year. But by his second, 1933 he won the Big Ten, then in 1934 he started his back-to back-to back National Championship run. A pretty amazing turnaround after such a bizarre coaching search.