Early history of Minnesota Golden Gophers football

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The University of Minnesota's college football program has a long history including national championships, conference titles, and many legendary All-American and Hall of Fame players and coaches. However, its beginnings were humble. Students began gathering to play the game recreationally and its popularity grew.

Once the sport had taken off, it was only a matter of time before a team was formed to play against other schools. Early teams were very loosely organized, not requiring all of the players to be students and not having designated coaches. The players on the team started to recruit faculty members who had played football at schools in the East to help organize the team. Some years, they played without a coach. Other years, they played with multiple coaches. In total, from 1882 through 1899, the team played 16 seasons of football and had 15 different coaches. As the years went by, the leadership structure started to become more formal. In 1900, the hiring of Dr. Henry L. Williams, the school’s first full-time salaried coach, signaled the end of the early, chaotic days.[1]:15

No coach[edit]

The first football team fielded by the University of Minnesota did not have a coach.

1882 season[edit]

1882 Minnesota Golden Gophers football
Conference Independent
1882 record 1–1
Head coach None
1883 »

The inaugural 1882 Minnesota football season was played without a head coach. The first known mention of football at the University of Minnesota was on October 30, 1878 in the Ariel, the student newspaper at the time. It said that "Football has been the all-absorbing amusement for the past few weeks".[2]:11 However, in those days, the only games played were against other Minnesota students.

Minnesota's first intercollegiate game which has its results recorded took place at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on September 29, 1882.[1]:11 It was scheduled to be a three team track meet with the University of Minnesota, Carleton College and Hamline University competing. The team from Carleton College was unable to attend, so the other two teams went on with the meet without them. Following the meet, the athletes from Hamline wanted to go home, but were talked into playing a game of football first.[3]:14 A.J. Baldwin, the team captain, was the first Minnesota player to score in an intercollegiate game, leading his team to a 4-0 victory.[1]:11

According to the Ariel, "It is only fair to say that the Hamlines did not have their full strength and the University won by two goals in fifty-five minutes. This ended the day and the crowd dispersed well satisfied with the beginning which had been made in intercollegiate sports."[2]:12 The teams had a rematch a couple of weeks later which was won by Hamline.

Date Opponent Site Result
09/29/1882 vs. Hamline Fair Grounds • Saint Paul, Minnesota W 4–0  
10/16/1882 vs. Hamline Saint Paul, Minnesota L 0–2  

Thomas Peebles[edit]

Thomas Peebles was the first college football head coach for the University of Minnesota in 1883, leading the team to a 1-2 record in his only season at the helm. He came to the University to teach philosophy and since he had played football with distinction at Princeton University, he was recruited to coach the football team. He was described as "having a twinkling eye, a moustache, winged collars and the bearing of a scholar so that even on the field of play he looked as though he were en route to the court of St. James."[4]:311

1883 season[edit]

1883 Minnesota Golden Gophers football
Conference Independent
1883 record 1–2
Head coach Thomas Peebles
« 1882 1886 »

The 1883 Minnesota football season was the only season under head coach Thomas Peebles. Upon arrival in Northfield, Minnesota for the first game of the year, there was a dispute between the arriving players from Minnesota and the team representing Carleton College. Carleton insisted that a member of the faculty be allowed to play, and they also insisted on playing rugby style football. Coach Peebles preferred the soccer style of play,[5]:4 but agreed to the conditions as long as he could act as the referee.[2]:13 Carleton won the game 4-2.

Team of 1883: J.W. Adams (captain), Don Davidson, Mitchell, Blanding, Niles, Winchell, Graham, McNair, Bassett, Smith, Hammond, Crafts."[2]:14

Date Opponent Site Result
10/29/1883 at Carleton Northfield, MN L 2–4  
11/03/1883 vs. Hamline W 5–0  
Ex-Collegiates Minneapolis, MN L 2–4  

Frederick S. Jones[edit]

Dean Frederick S. Jones was a college football head coach for the University of Minnesota from 1886 through 1888, leading the team to a 3-3 record in three seasons. He came from Yale to teach physics and became known as the "father of Minnesota football".[5]:4 Unlike Coach Peebles, he preferred the rugby style of football. They each put together competing teams, but practical considerations helped to decide the future of football at Minnesota - Alfred F. Pillsbury arrived on campus and he owned a brand-new rugby ball, which was rare in those days. From that point on, football at Minnesota was played in the rugby style.[3]:15

Following his time as coach, Jones continued his involvement in athletics. He helped secure land and funding for Northrop Field, the program's first true home field. He also signed Dr. Henry L. Williams to be the new coach in 1900.[5]:4

1886 season[edit]

1886 Minnesota Golden Gophers football
Conference Independent
1886 record 0–2
Head coach Frederick S. Jones
« 1883 1887 »

The 1886 Minnesota football season was the first season under head coach Frederick S. Jones. After not fielding a team in 1884 and 1885, the 1886 season saw the debut of Alf Pillsbury, a crucial figure in the early days of Minnesota football. Due to a lack of rules regarding eligibility in college football, he played on the team for eight years and was captain for two of them. On the way to the game in Faribault, the team designed its first set of signals. It didn't seem to help much in the game itself, which they lost 9-5.[3]:17 The rematch with Shattuck back in Minneapolis marked the first time that admission was charged at a Minnesota game.[3]:17

Team of 1886: Rushers, William Wagner (center), Alf F. Pillsbury, F.W. Nickerson, Christopher Graham, J. Paul Goode, Birney E. Trask, Charles H. Alden; Quarterback, Howard T. Abbott (captain); Halfbacks, John F. Hayden, Herschel J. Mayall and E.R. Allen; Back, Frank D. Jones; Substitutes, Henry Cotton and A.D. Meeds; Coach, Frederick S. Jones.[2]:33

Date Opponent Site Result
10/25/1886 at Shattuck Faribault, MN L 5–9  
Shattuck Minneapolis, MN L 8–18  

1887 season[edit]

1887 Minnesota Golden Gophers football
Conference Independent
1887 record 2–0
Head coach Frederick S. Jones
« 1886 1888 »

The 1887 Minnesota football season was the second season under head coach Frederick S. Jones. For this season, the Ariel recorded that "The alumni have had their turn and the Minneapolis high school had been met and conquered" but a hoped for game against Michigan couldn't be arranged and no other recorded games were played this season.[2]:16

On one occasion, while getting the team ready to play, Alf Pillsbury noticed that the team was short a man, so he recruited a student from the group of Minneapolis Central students who were on hand. His name was William Walter 'Pudge' Heffelfinger and after playing for Minnesota for a year, he went on to Yale and became one of the biggest names in the early days of football.[3]:16

Team of 1887: Rushers, Paul Goode (center), Fred M. Mann, John H. Corliss, Birney Trask, William H. Hoyt, Henry S. Morris, Edmund P. Allen; Quarterback, Alf Pillsbury (center); Halfbacks, John F. Hayden, William D. Willard; Back, Alonzo D. Meeds; Substitutes, W. Dann, Walter Heffelfinger.[2]:33[5]:1

Date Opponent Site Result
                      Minneapolis High School Minneapolis, MN W 8–0  
Alumni Minneapolis, MN W 14–0  

1888 season[edit]

1888 Minnesota Golden Gophers football
Conference Independent
1888 record 1–1
Head coach Frederick S. Jones
« 1887 1889 »

The 1888 Minnesota football season was the third and final season under head coach Frederick S. Jones. Following the 14-0 Minnesota win over Shattuck, the Ariel reported that "The game was followed by a bus-ride about the city, and the University and Shattuck yells combined to make the day hideous till supper time."[2]:16

Team of 1888: Rush Line, S.S. Start, J. Paul Goode, M.E. Trench, William H. Hoyt, M. H. Gerry, William C. Leary, Birney E. Trask (captain); Quarterback, Alf F. Pillsbury; Halfbacks, John F. Hayden, George K. Belden; Fullback, Grant B. Rossman.[2]:33

Date Opponent Site Result
10/28/1888 at Shattuck Faribault, MN L 8–16  
10/31/1888 Shattuck Minneapolis, MN W 14–0  

Al McCord, D.W. McCord, Frank Heffelfinger and Billy Morse[edit]

Al McCord, D.W. McCord, Frank Heffelfinger and Billy Morse were college football head coaches for the University of Minnesota for the 1889 season, leading the team to a 3-1 record. After Fred Jones stopped actively coaching, the team used game coaches for one season instead of finding a replacement for him.[5]:5 The McCords, like Coach Peebles, had played football at Princeton.[2]:17

1889 season[edit]

1889 Minnesota Golden Gophers football
Conference Independent
1889 record 3–1
Head coach Al McCord, D. W. McCord,
Frank Heffelfinger and Billy Morse
« 1888 1890 »

The 1889 Minnesota football season was the only season to feature game coaches. Once again, an attempt was made to schedule a game with the University of Michigan, but "Michigan wanted Minnesota to pay all of the expenses of the trip, which would amount to two hundred dollars. The Minnesota management was not able to see its way clear to guarantee this and so the game was given up."[2]:17

1889 finally saw the formation of a football association. Before 1889, there wasn't any kind of official connection between the football team and the student body, which sometimes resulted in player shortages and required recruitment from other schools in order to have enough men to play in the games.[2]:17

Team of 1889: Quarterback, Alf F. Pillsbury (captain); Halfbacks, George K. Belden, John F. Hayden; Fullback, Grant Rossman; Rush Line, Birney E. Trask (l.e.), A.J. Harris (l.t.), R.B. Brower (l.g.), E.H. Day (r.e.), J.E. Madigan (r.t.), George C. Sikes (r.g.), H.R. Robinson (center); Substitutes, M.B. Davidson, Charles E. Guthrie and W.M. Thompson.[2]:33

Date Opponent Site Result
10/05/1889 Ex-Collegiates Minneapolis, MN W 2–0  
10/26/1889 Ex-Collegiates Minneapolis, MN W 10–0  
11/11/1889 at Shattuck Faribault, MN L 8–28  
11/20/1889 Shattuck Minneapolis, MN W 26–0  

Tom Eck[edit]

Tom Eck was a college football head coach for the University of Minnesota for the 1890 season, leading the team to a 5-1-1 record. He started holding signal drills before each game and established a training table. This is considered to be the start of "scientific football" at Minnesota.[4]:311 He also acted as the team's trainer.

1890 season[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Men's Intercollegiate Athletic Department of the University of Minnesota (1981). Ralph Turtinen, ed. 100 Years of Golden Gopher Football. John Roberts. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m The General Alumni Association (1928). Martin Newell, ed. The History of Minnesota Football. The General Alumni Association of the University of Minnesota. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Rainbolt, Richard (1972). Gold Glory. Wayzata, Minnesota: Ralph Turtinen Publishing. 
  4. ^ a b University of Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics (2004). Jeff Keiser; Shane Sanderfeld, eds. Minnesota Football 2004 Media Guide. University of Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics Communications. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Papas Jr., Al (1990). Gopher Sketchbook. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Nodin Press.