1936 National Champions
Prior to the 1936 football season, the Minnesota football team had gone 24 games without a loss and won back-to-back national titles in both 1934 and 1935. Needless to say, a national championship trend had caught on at the U of M, so the goals for 1936 proved to be no different.
What was going to be different about the 1936 season was the level of competition that the Maroon and Gold would face. Instead of beating up on smaller schools in non-conference games, Head Coach Bernie Bierman added two tough games to the schedule. Rather than playing North Dakota State and Tulane, the Golden Gophers would travel to the University of Washington to take on the fifth-ranked Huskies, and then the University of Texas at home. The tough schedule combined with previous struggles the Golden Gophers had experienced against Northwestern and Nebraska, appeared to present a challenge for the two-time national champions.
Minnesota was set to open the 1936 season against Washington in Seattle, but it was a game that almost did not happen.
The Golden Gophers boarded the train in Minneapolis on Tuesday of that week for a four-day trip to the Pacific Northwest. Coach Bierman scheduled two practices along the way, one in Miles City, Mont., and one in Spokane, Wash., but it was a one-night stay in Missoula, Mont., that almost cost Minnesota its chance with the Huskies.
Asleep in the Florence Hotel in Missoula, the Golden Gophers were forced to wake up around 3 a.m. after it was discovered the building was on fire. The fire destroyed most of the hotel, forcing the team to return to the train for the remainder of the evening. Luckily, nobody was hurt in the disaster. Once in Seattle, as expected, the game proved a tough one for Minnesota. The stadium was packed with 40,000 Washington fans cheering for the local team. The Huskies tied the Golden Gophers, 7-7, in the third quarter, but to no avail.
The play of Minnesota’s Bud Wilkinson (pictured right) and Julian Alfonse proved too much for Washington. Wilkinson knocked down several Washington passes and kicked two extra points before catching a 60-yard pass to put the Golden Gophers in scoring position in the fourth quarter. Alfonse almost single-handedly shut down the Husky offense as he intercepted three passes at the goal line and led Minnesota’s ground attack. As a result, Minnesota’s win-streak remained in tact as they defeated Washington 14-7.
After narrowly escaping from Seattle with a victory, the Golden Gophers returned home to take on Nebraska the following week. With a grueling trip behind them and an improved Cornhusker team on the field, Minnesota had a difficult time with the second game of the year as well. Nebraska put up a valiant fight, but the Golden Gopher defense foiled the Cornhuskers who could not find the end zone in a 7-0 Minnesota win.
The first two games of the season had threatened Minnesota’s win streak, but the next two games left no doubt why the Golden Gophers were the reigning two-time defending national champions. Minnesota romped over Purdue 33-0, and handed Michigan a 26-0 loss to bring home the Little Brown Jug for the third year in a row.
The two solid victories against Michigan and Purdue led into another huge game for the Golden Gophers at Northwestern. Northwestern was highly-ranked in the national polls and it appeared as if this game would determine the Big Ten and possibly the national champion.
Game day conditions were less than ideal as wind and rain persisted throughout the game, hindering ball movement by both teams. Neither team made a serious threat to score in the first half and all statistics were virtually even. The scoreless battle continued until the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats scored at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but failed to convert the extra point attempt. Minnesota put together three furious drives, all edging inside Northwestern’s 20-yard line. The Golden Gophers were on the brink of defeat for the first time in 28 games. The Maroon and Gold saw their last chance slip away as a fourth down pass into the end zone was batted away with less than six minutes left. Minnesota’s win streak was over. Northwestern dealt the Golden Gophers their first defeat in three years.
Minnesota came out of the Northwestern game with something to prove. They did just that. The Golden Gophers ripped through Iowa, 52-0, to bring home Floyd of Rosedale for the second consecutive time. They also crushed Texas, 47-19, and finished off the season against Wisconsin with a 24-0 victory.
Amazingly enough, even with a loss and no Big Ten Conference title, Minnesota was still voted the 1936 national champion. The Golden Gophers may have lost to Northwestern, but allowed only two other opponents to score. The thorough dominance Minnesota had demonstrated earned them an unprecedented third straight national championship.