Granite Falls man played for Gophers in Rose Bowl in ‘61
A late-season loss to Wisconsin knocked the Minnesota Gophers football team out of a chance to play in this year’s Rose Bowl, which would have ended a 58-year drought.
The last time the Gophers played in the Rose Bowl was Jan. 1, 1962, when Paul Benson of Granite Falls, was a junior reserve fullback and linebacker for that 1961 season.
Benson knows all about the golden opportunity the young Gopher players missed out on this year, even though they enjoyed one of their best seasons in many years and earned a trip to the Outback Bowl where they upset No. 9 Auburn 31-24, in Tampa, Fla.
And he also know about what it’s like losing to Wisconsin with a Rose Bowl berth on the line, as he and his teammates did in the 1962 season, Benson’s senior year at the University of Minnesota.
“We always wanted to beat Wisconsin,” said Benson, who lives in Granite Falls with his wife, Barb. “And we lost to them on a huge controversial call on the last game of the season that cost us a chance to go to the Rose Bowl for the third straight time.”
Benson was an All-State fullback and linebacker for Granite Falls in the late 50s, and was recruited by Gopher’s legendary coach, Murray Warmath.
“Warmath liked fullbacks because he felt you could stick them anywhere,” Benson said with a laugh. “So, he recruited a bunch of them every year. He felt you could use them at running back, tight end, on the line, linebacker, or just about anywhere.”
Until 1968, NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from playing collegiate football, so Benson was a sophomore before he was able to wear the maroon and gold colors.
“You had to play 40 minutes to earn a letter,” said Benson. “I played a few minutes here and there at linebacker as a sophomore. But I got to play the whole game against Kansas State (on Oct. 29, 1960) because they weren’t a very good team. So I had enough minutes then to earn a letter.”
The Gophers qualified for the Rose Bowl following the 1960 season, in which they went 8-2. The game was switched from the traditional New Year’s Day game to Jan. 2, 1961, so the game would not be played on a Sunday.
The Gophers lost that game to Washington, 17-7.
The next year, the Gophers lost to Wisconsin in the final regular-season game, 23-21, but earned a trip to the Rose Bowl when Big Ten champion Ohio State elected not to go, for financial reasons.
Benson, who was 5-11 and 200 pounds, played most of the game at linebacker, and the Gophers trounced UCLA, 21-3, in that Rose Bowl. Quarterback Sandy Stephens was named the Most Valuable Player.
“Back then you could only substitute one man at a time; not a whole group at a time like they do now,” Benson said. “So we would have the starters play 10 minutes, and then when we would go back out on defense or offense the next time, all the reserves would go in for five minutes. We would keep doing it that way so the starters would get a little rest.”
Benson’s Gopher teammates included Bobby Bell, who went to enjoy a Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Chiefs; and Carl Eller and Milt Sunde, who had stellar careers with the Minnesota Vikings.
“We got to go to Disney World and the Bob Hope Show during the Rose Bowl festivities,” said Benson. “But we didn’t get to stay at those things very long, and we didn’t get to watch the parade or anything. Warmath had us focused on the game.”
In the final game of the 1962 season, the Gophers against faced the Badgers in Madison, Wisc. And again, they tasted defeat. Only this time, it came down to a controversial call.
Benson became the team’s starting center and linebacker, playing two ways in games that season.
“We were ahead (9-7) in that game with only two or three minutes left,” said Benson. “And Bobby Bell sacked (Wisconsin quarterback) Ron Vander Kelen and the ball popped up in the air and (linebacker) Jack Perkovich intercepted it.
“But the official called a penalty on Bell for roughing the passer. I was right there on that play and there was no way he should have had a penalty.”
Bell was then flagged for a 15-yard penalty for arguing the call. And Warmath was so enraged over the call that he was flagged for consecutive unsportsmanlike penalties.
“That gave them 45 yards in penalties and they went in to score right after that,” recalled Benson.
That gave Wisconsin the 14-9 lead. With the clock winding down, Gophers quarterback Duane Blaska completed seven straight passes, and they reached the 10-yard line. But his next pass was intercepted in the end zone as time expired, giving the rival Badgers the win.
The Gophers finished the season 6-2-1 and ranked No. 10 in the country.
Warmath became even more upset when he found out the official that made the call was a dentist from Wisconsin.
“Warmath said he couldn’t talk about that game for 30 years,” Benson remarked.
When Bell was named All-American following that season, he and the others named were invited to visit the White House and meet President Kennedy.
“Bell was told by President Kennedy, who was a big football fan, that we should never have lost that game because he didn’t think Bobby should have had a penalty,” Benson said.
After college, Benson was drafted by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who were coached then by former Minnesota Vikings coach, Bud Grant. But after a week or two of practicing with the team, Benson and a friend who was also trying out with the team, soon found out “it wasn’t for us.”
Benson was a graduate assistant with Hamline briefly before being named the head football coach at Olivia, where he spent nine seasons. His 1966 Olivia team went 9-0 and outscored their opponents 239-34, but there were no state playoffs back then.
“I tried to copy Warmath as much as I could when I became a coach,” Benson said. “I tried to take as much as I could from all of his plays. He was a good coach and a strict disciplinarian. But he was well liked by most people.”
Benson then coached four years at Granite Falls, winning the Class B state title in 1977. He was also named Coach of the Year that season. After coaching at Sacred Heart for one season, Benson hung up his whistle and became a carpenter.
The Bensons have two children; Emily and Tom, and six grandchildren.
“Barb and I started dating in seventh grade,” Benson said proudly. “We both went to the University of Minnesota, and we were married right after our senior year of college.”