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Rose Bowls of Change

Sandy Stephens
Gene Herrick | AP Photo

If I were to ask for names of famous western Pennsylvania quarterbacks, it would be a Hall of Fame who's who list: Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino among others. However, if I were to mention the name Sanford Emory Stephens II most people would say, who? Sandy Stephens was a quarterback at the University of Minnesota from 1959-1961 whose feats on the field earned him high recognition from Gopher and college football fans in general. However, Stephens symbolized something more significant which is lost in today's day and age. Stephens was the first African-American quarterback to lead his team to the National Championship in 1960.

Sandy Stephens came to the University of Minnesota in 1958 as a highly recruited athlete, who also received several professional baseball offers. Stephens was part of a wave of recruits for Murray Warmath, who was looking to turn around the fortunes of Gophers football. In Warmath's first 5 seasons (including Stephens' freshman season, when he couldn't play per NCAA rules of the day) Minnesota was a very mediocre 21-22-2. Things didn't go much better in Stephens sophomore season when Minnesota finished with a 2-7 record; so thus expectations were low for the 1960 football season.

Stephens wasn’t alone as part of the talent infusion in Minneapolis. Given the segregation that existed in many parts of the United States in the late 50s and early 60s, African-American football players who would have in this day in age attended schools in the deep south were finding their way to the Big 10. These included Minnesota recruits and eventual College and NFL Hall of Famers (Shelby, NC native) Bobby Bell and (Winston-Salem, NC native) Carl Eller.

To start the 1960 season Minnesota traveled to Lincoln to take on (future Big 10 rival) #12 ranked Nebraska. The Gophers upset the Cornhuskers that day 26-14. Victories against Indiana, Northwestern, and Illinois followed as conference play began. The Gophers then traveled to Ann Arbor and won the Little Brown Jug from Bump Elliott's Wolverines via a 10-0 shutout. A nonconference win over Kansas State then set up what would be the game for the Big 10 title with #1 ranked Iowa traveling to The Brickhouse in Minneapolis.

L-to-R: Dave Mulholland (40), Bill Munsey (28), Murray Warath, Sandy Stephens (15) and Roger Hagberg (36)

On that early November afternoon in Minneapolis Iowa (in head coach Forest Evashevski’s final season before becoming full-time Athletic Director) was riding a 6-game winning streak against 6 consecutive ranked opponents. It turned out that Iowa (which had a 23 year graduate assistant on its staff named Lou Holtz) was also led by African-American Quarterback Wilburn Hollis. In a hard-fought game Minnesota got the win over the #1 Hawkeyes 27-10 in front of 65,610 fans at Minnesota’s Memorial Stadium.

While Minnesota’s path to the Rose Bowl became clear, the path to the National Championship (as voted by the various polls back then, before bowl games) might have been derailed by a 23-14 home loss to Purdue. However, the Gophers knocked off Wisconsin in Madison 26-7 earning them their first-ever Rose Bowl appearance (as the Big 10 did not allow teams to appear in the ‘modern’ Rose Bowl until 1946). In terms of the Associated Press final football poll the final tally came down to Minnesota earning 17.5 first-place votes, versus 16 for Mississippi, and 12.5 for Iowa. Thus, the Gophers had earned their most-recent consensus (AP and UPI) National Championship.

Iowa Quarterback Wilburn Hollis
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The 1961 Rose Bowl was somewhat anti-climatic with Washington knocking off the Gophers 17-7: earning Minnesota an 8-2 record for their 1960 National Championship season. However, something else was occurring which would impact the Gophers. The old Pacific Coast Conference had imploded amid scandal; ending the contractual agreement with the Tournament of Roses Committee. Thus, the Big 10’s no-repeat rule was not in effect (also, the PCC’s no-repeat rule was null and void; explaining how Washington could play in the 1960 and 1961 Rose Bowls).

For 1961 Minnesota’s main Big 10 competition was Woody Hayes’ Ohio State Buckeyes. Despite dropping their opener 6-0 to Missouri the Gophers were very much in the running for the Big 10 title. (Ohio State and Minnesota did not play each other in 1960 and 1961). With a 50-20 rout of Michigan in Ann Arbor 8-0-1 Ohio State had seemed to wrap up a Rose Bowl appearance in addition to a National Championship; given Minnesota’s season-ending 23-21 loss to Wisconsin. However, due to the aforementioned issues w/ the Pacific Coast Conference it was left to the Ohio State faculty council to decide if the Buckeyes would participate in the 1962 Rose Bowl. Long story short... the Ohio State faculty council declined the Rose Bowl invitation (much to Woody Hayes chagrin). The Tournament of Roses Committee then extended Minnesota an invitation which the Gophers accepted.

In the 1962 Rose Bowl UCLA and their antiquated single-wing offense was no match for Minnesota. The Gophers won the game 21-3 and Sandy Stephens was named Most Valuable Player. Not only was Sandy Stephens the first African-American quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl; he was the first to win the Rose Bowl, win Rose Bowl MVP, and lead his team to the National Championship. Also, Stevens in 1961 became the first consensus All-America African-American quarterback. Things in this day-and-age which seem almost trivial were much more than that in the early 60s. Thus, the 1960 and 1961 seasons were truly pioneering achievements for this Western Pennsylvania quarterback.

Sandy Stephens

Stevens bounced around the NFL and Canadian Football Leagues for several years before retiring in 1968. Among many honors bestowed were induction into the Rose Bowl, University of Minnesota, Western Pennsylvania Sports, and College Football Halls of Fame; and being named to the University of Minnesota's All-Century Team. In an unpublished memoir Stevens said, "As a pioneer in the field - First black Consensus All-American Quarterback. My experiences leave me feeling like the Moses of Black quarterbacks - able to see the Promised Land but unable to enter it."

Sandy Stephens passed away in 2000; however, his legacy lives on to this day. If there were any justice in the world, Minnesota's football stadium named after a sponsoring corporate entity would bear the name of this true pioneer.