1940 National Champions
After three straight national championships from 1934-36, the University of Minnesota suffered its first losing season under legendary coach Bernie Bierman in 1939 when it finished 3-4-1. The experience proved a humbling one for the Golden Gophers who were not accustomed to losing and the result was unpredictable. Minnesota rallied from a mediocre season to win its fourth national championship in 1940.
The Golden Gopher offense was highlighted by the dynamic running tandem of George Franck and Bruce Smith who, together, combined to score over 60 percent of the touchdowns for the Maroon and Gold. Smith starred by scoring winning touchdowns on three separate occasions, while Franck was named an All-American at the conclusion of the season highlighted by his four touchdowns against the University of Iowa.
Before Minnesota could face a Big Ten opponent, they had to battle with such highly-touted non-conference teams as Washington and Nebraska.
Fortunately for the Golden Gophers, both games were at Memorial Stadium.
Heading into the 1940 season, Minnesota had never lost to Washington. The Huskies were ready to change that. Though Minnesota was outplayed in nearly every offensive category, a combination of outstanding kick returns and tough defense allowed the Golden Gophers to squeak by 19-14.
The Golden Gophers were never supposed to get by the Huskies and defeating Nebraska the following weekend seemed even more unlikely. Nebraska knew about the outstanding two-touchdown performance Franck displayed against Washington. Minnesota would have little chance if the Cornhuskers could shut down the running game.
Nebraska’s game plan worked wonders on Franck and Smith. What they had not counted on was the superb play of William Daley and William Johnson, who gained nearly 300 yards on the ground for the Golden Gophers. Minnesota’s defense once again showed it was golden as it held Nebraska to only 25 yards on the ground. This took the Cornhuskers out of their game and vaulted Minnesota to a 13-7 victory.
Minnesota kept up its streak of close games when it defeated Ohio State 13-7. The Golden Gophers were soundly beaten on paper, and most likely would have been beaten on the scoreboard had it not been for the stellar play of Smith and his two touchdowns.
The next week, Franck finally broke open the Minnesota offense with his four touchdown performance in the Golden Gophers’ 34-6 drubbing of Iowa.
The celebration would not last long, however, as Minnesota next faced Northwestern a team that had beaten the Golden Gophers for two straight seasons.
The way Minnesota was playing, Northwestern did not figure to be an overly difficult opponent. They were much improved, however, and the Golden Gopher Wildcat game had a tradition of being battles to the end. From 1932 to 1949, no Minnesota Northwestern game was ever decided by more than a single touchdown. The same held true in 1940 as the Golden Gophers edged out Northwestern 13-12. Were it not for two missed point-after attempts by the Wildcats, Minnesota’s dream season may have been over.
If college football fans missed the Northwestern game, the game against Michigan proved to be a near carbon copy. Minnesota won, 7-6, once again as a result of a missed point-after attempt. Smith proved to be a major factor in the game as he gained 116 of Minnesota’s 205 total yards and scored the lone Golden Gopher touchdown.
After winning two very close games against two quality Big Ten opponents, Minnesota headed into the final two games of the season excited about its chances of bringing a national championship back to Minnesota after a three-year absence. To do so, they would have to get by Purdue and Wisconsin. Neither team proved to be a match for the Golden Gophers as they beat Purdue 33-6, before defeating Wisconsin in the final game of the season, 22-13, to win their fourth national championship in seven years.