Season opener at USC was golden in 1965

Minnesota quarterback John Hankinson finished his college career among the Golden Gophers' most prolific passers of all time. In his senior season, 1965, he and the Gophers traveled to Los Angeles where they opened the season against USC. / Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Athletic Communications.

(Editor’s note: As Minnesota prepares to open its 2011 college football campaign at USC on Saturday, Historically Inclined explored the last Golden Gopher season opener at USC, a game played Sept. 17, 1965. The quarterback of that Minnesota squad, John Hankinson, graciously reminisced with Historically Inclined recently, providing unique insight for which we are most grateful.)

It was a mild Friday night in Southern California and Murray Warmath’s Golden Gophers jogged onto the tight green grass of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as 10-point underdogs according to the pundits of September 1965. The unranked Midwestern visitors were too slow to harness USC and its mighty senior halfback Mike Garrett, they said. While certainly a less-than-flattering summation, it was meant more as praise to Garrett than as an indictment of Minnesota.

Just four seasons removed from their most recent national championship, the Golden Gophers were a quality opponent. But little was known about the 1965 team and how it measured against reputation. Even the coaches were uncertain. The customary three weeks of preparation for their season opener was cut by a third with the adoption of a 10-game schedule in 1965, leaving Warmath and his staff looking toward the season opener at USC to learn more. “They’ll certainly learn the facts of college football at its best in a hurry when they tangle with those Trojans,” said Warmath.

USC, by comparison, was anything but unknown having finished 1964 with a brilliant run of consecutive victories against Stanford, UCLA and then-No. 1 Notre Dame. Garrett entered 1965 as a Heisman Trophy hopeful and the odds-on favorite to pace the nation in rushing. His esteemed coach, John McKay, called him the best halfback he had ever seen. But despite their abundant ground-game splendor, McKay downplayed the Trojans’ projected advantage against Minnesota. “That margin is like the prediction for our season – badly overrated,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s the toughest opener I’ve had here in six years.”

Warmath paid no attention to McKay’s attempt at deprecation. The defending Athletic Association of Western Universities champion would be a formidable Gopher foe, along with the Southern California heat and the dark of night, which was to be encountered by a Minnesota team for the first time. Warmath wasn’t sure what to make of the 8:15 p.m. kick off or the white-striped game balls that would be used to increase visibility, but he had a unique practice plan in mind. As the Gophers convened for workouts on Sept. 2, they received a surprise from their old ball coach.

“Murray decided to have us practice three times a day including one practice under the lights each night,” recalled John Hankinson, Minnesota’s star signal-caller. “This went on for the two weeks leading up to our game with USC. Minnesota had never played under the lights and he wanted us to be ready.”

The players believed Warmath’s worries were somewhat unnecessary given that most had played night games in high school, but there was no questioning his plan. “We did what we were told,” said Hankinson. The final practice of each day was usually a passing scrimmage in shorts, a welcomed show of mercy in an otherwise grueling preseason crucible. “Murray never tempered his practices,” said Hankinson. “They were hard and tough. They were intense. There was a lot of contact. You couldn’t wait to get off the field so you could get right back on again.”

Warmath and his coaching staff were near-fanatical in their preparation, but their work ethic was contagious and it bred a defiant confidence in the underdog Golden Gophers. “There would be nights I was walking home at 11:30 p.m. and I’d still see the film machines flickering through the windows of our coaches’ offices,” said Hankinson. “It was a dedicated coaching staff. They were putting in everything they had and, as players, we were doing the same.”

Minnesota celebrated the end of its three-a-day grind with a bumpy flight to Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon. The turbulence left Hankinson battling air sickness, yet another worry for Warmath, who was already fretting about how his two-way players would react to California’s potentially stifling heat. Fortunately both worries were assuaged when a renewed Hankinson strode into practice amidst cool, cloudy conditions in Los Angeles.

An Art Moderne throwback even in 1965, the Coliseum’s grand peristyle suggested a certain grandeur that was not lost on the Gophers. “It was a great place. A fun atmosphere,” Hankinson said. “During our walk-through, we were confident. We felt we’d win. I’m sure they did too.”

When game day dawned, the Gophers were ready for action. Instead, they waited. The late start was torture. Upon finally reporting to Coliseum, Warmath glanced at the peristyle thermometer and liked what he saw. Cool and calm. Perfect for football.

The Golden Gophers emerged in their white tops with white helmets. USC was clad in traditional cardinal tops and gold pants. Back home in Minnesota, 48 radio stations buzzed with the sounds of impending Gopher Football. Never before had a Gopher game aired on so many stations. Nearly 59,000 spectators gathered in the Coliseum and hummed in anticipation. They wouldn’t be disappointed.

Neither team could score in the opening stanza, though Minnesota, riding Hankinson’s arm, twice thrust into Trojans territory. The second foray ended on a Gopher fumble, recovered by USC’s Ed King on the 20-yard-line. The “piston-legged” Garrett then took over, rambling for 51 of the Trojans’ 80 yards on a touchdown drive he punctuated with a seven-yard scamper across the Gophers goal line.

Next it was Minnesota’s turn to capitalize on a turnover as Bob Bruggers intercepted a Pat Mills pass on the Trojans’ 38-yard-line. Hankinson connected with Hubie Bryant, Aaron Brown and John Rajala before calling his own number on a touchdown sneak that brought the Gophers within one point, 7-6. Warmath elected to attempt a two point conversion which failed, allowing USC to maintain a tenuous lead.

Undeterred, Hankinson led Minnesota on another touchdown drive later in the second quarter, connecting with California native Kent Kramer on a 16-yard scoring toss. This time Minnesota chose the extra point and succeeded in taking a 13-7 lead, but USC quickly erased that lead with a 77-yard scoring drive consuming just 56 seconds. Garrett capped the assertive romp by hauling in an 11-yard touchdown pass from Troy Winslow. The extra point gave USC a 14-13 halftime advantage.

Hankinson went back to work in the third quarter, scoring his third touchdown and second on the ground. Randy Staten’s crushing block cleared a lane on the option left and the senior from Edina scampered through to give Minnesota its second lead of the game. USC answered in the fourth quarter but missed an extra point to leave the score tied, 20-20. The deadlock was unchallenged until the game’s final play when Trojans sophomore Tim Rossovich lined up for a 47-yard field goal attempt. His boot was strong but well off target, the white stripes twisting wide right through the night sky and tumbling indecisively to the Coliseum turf.

Though no victor emerged, the teams had treated fans to what Times reporter Paul Zimmerman called “the most spectacular college football opening game ever seen in Memorial Coliseum.”

Afterward, Warmath “almost went up in smoke and flame when asked about the two pass interference calls that went against the Minnesota team and figured in two touchdowns during Friday night’s 20-20 draw at the Coliseum,” reported the Minneapolis Tribune.

“I’m not saying anything, but I saw some things out there that I’m very unhappy about,” said Warmath. “And I don’t mean any of the players or coaches on either side.”

But the Gophers’ head coach was effusive in his praise of USC and especially its star halfback. “When you’ve seen a better one than Garrett, you’ve seen something,” he said.

McKay returned the cordiality. “Minnesota is the best passing team of the Big Ten clubs we’ve played,” he said. “And they have a good line for pass protection. We tried a linebacker rush and everything we knew, but we couldn’t get to Hankinson.”

In all, the Gophers’ quarterback connected on 17 of his 29 pass attempts for 203 yards and a touchdown. He scored twice more on the ground as part of his nine carries for 30 yards.

The aforementioned Brown was also brilliant for Minnesota as a pass catcher, blocker and tackler. “He never left the field for the first 15 minutes, playing both offense and defense,” said Warmath.

As for Garrett, he took his first step toward the Heisman Trophy with 187 total yards and two touchdowns. “That Garrett looks like he’s running in three directions at the same time,” Hankinson told the Times.

Undeterred by the pundits’ predictions or Garrett’s scampering, Minnesota came to California a confident bunch and emerged the same. “We felt they tied us, not we tied them,” recalled Hankinson. “It was our first test and we felt we passed it. We were competitive with one of the nation’s best teams.”

With increased freedom to pass granted by the usually run-heavy Warmath, Hankinson helped the Gophers overcome an assortment of injuries to key contributors throughout the season en route to a 5-4-1 overall mark and a fourth-place Big Ten finish. Fifteen team records were set at Minnesota in 1965, with Hankinson figuring in them all. His 6.9 passing yards-per-attempt ranked among the nation’s best, just fractionally behind Heisman contender Bob Griese and well ahead of the NCAA average. It was indeed an impressive aerial campaign, one that began on a mild night in Southern California.

- Jayson Hron

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