Gophers’ Stephens a Black Pioneer
Much of the sports world has forgotten Sandy Stephens. Black History Month is a good time to remember him.
Stephens was the first black major college first-team All-American quarterback. In 1961, his senior season at Minnesota, he was named All-American by six organizations including the Associated Press, United Press International, Sporting News and the American Football Coaches Association.
The Uniontown, Pennsylvania native led the Golden Gophers to the 1962 Rose Bowl. Stephens ran for two touchdowns in Minnesota’s 21-3 win over UCLA in Pasadena. He was named Rose Bowl MVP, becoming one of the first African Americans ever honored in the historic game that dates back to 1902.
Stephens was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2011. Eleven years earlier his No. 15 jersey was retired—to this day, one of only five former Gophers ever so honored.
At 6-foot-1 and about 215 pounds, Stephens was powerfully built. He sometimes tried to “dance” around tacklers, but he was at his best when he bulldozed them. He was a run-first quarterback who excelled on option plays and quarterback sneaks, including near the goal line.
Passing success didn’t come to Stephens until his final season. Before that Gophers fans and media suggested he was better suited to play halfback or fullback. No doubt, there were observers who didn’t like the idea of an African American playing the leadership position of quarterback.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s there were only a handful of black quarterbacks playing major college football. Despite some prejudice among Gopher followers, my recollection is Stephens was accepted and even popular with Minnesota fans.
He had arrived in Minneapolis in 1958 as a potential star and savior for the program. Ohio State and about 50 other schools wanted him to accept their scholarships. At least a few of the coaches at those schools likely had thoughts of switching Stephens to another position, but not Minnesota coach Murray Warmath, a southerner who had played college football in the segregated Southeastern Conference in the 1930s. The coach stayed committed to his gifted recruit from beginning to end, and he also gave scholarships to many black players in the 1960s.
Freshmen weren’t eligible to play college football in the late 1950s, so Stephens made his varsity debut as a sophomore in 1959. He completed only 29.3% of his passes, with two touchdowns and nine interceptions, per Sports-Reference.com. His junior season results throwing the ball weren’t much better but as a senior, despite a low completion percentage of 35.3, he threw for a career high 869 yards and nine touchdowns.
In the era that Stephens played, defenses usually dominated and offenses were mostly conservative. Substitutions were limited and gifted players like Stephens played both offense and defense. He was a defensive back and his size and athleticism made him a standout.
The Minnesota program was struggling when Stephens arrived from his home located near Pittsburgh. The 1957 team, a roster of almost all white players, had been a preseason Rose Bowl favorite but collapsed into a losing record of 4-5. The 1958 team was devoid of talent and speed; their final record was 1-8. The “wolves” were at Warmath’s door.
With Stephens eligible in 1959, there was optimism about the program’s future. The Gophers had some talent around him, including two running backs who would become major contributors to the program before their careers ended at Minnesota–Dave Mulholland from Fargo and Judge Dickson, a black star from western Pennsylvania, who came west to play with Stephens.
The Gophers, though, made too many mistakes in 1959 to be a winning team. Stephens exemplified the inconsistency of that team as he struggled to establish himself as Minnesota’s best quarterback. The Gophers finished with a 2-7 record.
In 1960 the Gophers were the surprise of college football. They were a powerful and punishing team on offense and defense, led by two of the school’s greatest linemen ever. Nose guard Tom Brown and tackle Bobby Bell formed a shutdown defensive line that was the envy of college football.
Brown, a senior from Minneapolis, was awarded the 1960 Outland Trophy. Bell, a black sophomore from North Carolina, led a growing roster of African Americans who would impact much of Warmath’s success over the coming decade, including a 22-6-1 record from 1960 to 1962.
Stephens was a key contributor to the 1960 Big Ten title team and national championship success. While he was the starting quarterback, he sometimes was benched when Warmath turned to Joe Salem and Larry Johnson. Both were better passers than Stephens.
Salem, a senior in 1960, was also an inspirational leader who helped spark the offense in Minnesota’s never-to-be-forgotten 27-10 win over Iowa. The Gophers entered the game ranked No. 3 in the nation, Iowa No. 1. The win was Minnesota’s most important in earning the team’s way to the national title. (In that era national champions were named prior to bowl games).
The 1961 season was Stephens’ coming-out party. It was his last go-round and he put his skills together for one season of high level and consistent play. The starting quarterback position was his, and without Stephens the Gophers couldn’t have made their way back to Pasadena. A 7-2 record earned them a 1962 Rose Bowl invitation.
The October 28, 1961 game against Michigan was one of the highlights of Stephens’ career. The always menacing Wolverines came to Minneapolis and led the Gophers 20-8 in the fourth quarter. That set up one of the most dramatic and entertaining comebacks ever in the historic rivalry for the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota rallied to win with big plays including a one-handed interception by Stephens of a Michigan pass late in the game.
Stephens, married just days before, was a hero on offense and defense in the 23-20 win. “Sandy played a hell of a game. He must have been playing for his new wife because he never played that well for me,” Warmath joked in his biography The Autumn Warrior.
After the regular season the Chicago Tribune awarded Stephens the Big Ten Most Valuable Player Award. That honor and all the other recognition were nice, but Stephens and his teammates wanted a return to the Rose Bowl and a victory there. The 1960 team had lost to Washington in the 1961 game in Pasadena. The defeat stung for the national champs and the players had to live with the disappointment for almost 12 months, not knowing if they could earn their way back to California.
Earn it they did, and win it they also did. That team was perhaps Warmath’s finest and had several outstanding African American players including Uniontown sophomore running back Bill Munsey and Winston-Salem, North Carolina behemoth Carl Eller, who became one of the greatest defensive linemen ever to play for the Gophers.
That 1961 team was the most balanced on offense and defense of Minnesota’s great teams of the 1960s. The offensive spark came from Stephens more than anyone else. Sadly, several of those Gophers from the 1960s have passed away including Stephens, who died in Bloomington in 2000.
Sanford Emory Stephens II was a pioneer for African American quarterbacks. His success at Minnesota opened the way for others in the Big Ten and eventually throughout the entire country.
African Americans proved they can play the quarterback position at the highest levels of football. That seems like such a simple realization now but it took early trailblazers like Stephens to demonstrate that fact when so many thought otherwise.
College football historians would be wise to never forget what Stephens accomplished.