By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Jackie Parker wanted a horn.
They were all over the place, the soundtrack to Mardi Gras 1953. Parker, a star football player for Mississippi State, was in New Orleans with some teammates and enjoying the festivities.
The more people were blowing those horns, the more Parker wanted one. So he reached out and tried to grab one from the hand of a fellow reveler.
That didn’t work out so well. The other guy had a good grip, and the metal instrument sliced Parker’s hand.
As Parker and his teammates examined the wound – it wasn’t too bad – coach Murray Warmath materialized. He saw Parker’s hand and then grabbed his quarterback, Bobby Collins, by the shirt and pushed him against a wall.
“You better not let anything happen to him,” Warmath growled.
All Collins could think was, “What am I gonna do? Hog-tie him and take him in?”
It was New Orleans during Mardi Gras, after all, and these were a bunch of college guys looking for fun. But Warmath, who just happened to be in town at the same time, was not the sort to tolerate nonsense.
He’s still that way. Warmath, who posted a 10-6-3 record in two seasons at MSU (1952-53), turned 98 on Dec. 26. While his mind sometimes betrays him these days, he still commands the respect of his former players, and he’s at his most lucid when the topic is football.
MSU was the first of two head coaching jobs for Warmath. The Humboldt, Tenn., native went on to become Minnesota’s head man from 1954-71, winning a national championship in 1960. The Gophers’ locker room is named after him, and he’s a beloved figure in the community.
Warmath currently lives at Friendship Village, a retirement community in Bloomington. When he gets around, it’s in a wheelchair.
His players still see him as “The Dictator,” a nickname he earned for his demanding coaching style. He played and coached under Gen. Robert Neyland – yes, the one Tennessee’s stadium is named after – and coached with Vince Lombardi at West Point.
“He was a taskmaster,” said Mike Reid, who was a player and later assistant coach under Warmath at Minnesota.
A couple of years ago, Reid was speaking with a couple of friends about Warmath and invited them to come visit the old coach.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you guys go out on your own and visit him?’ And they both said, ‘I’m still scared of him.’ After all these years.”
Warmath’s caretaker, Pete Franzen, said former players “have almost a Pavlovian response to him.” For example, the coach recently asked to look at a former player’s Super Bowl ring. No big deal, right?
“And we were like three feet from the curb, and all I can see was the storm drain right there,” Franzen recalled, “and I was like, ‘Please don’t drop it. Please don’t drop it.’ The guy just willingly peels the ring off and hands it to him. ‘There you go, coach.’”
Warmath’s winning formula
Warmath had two stints in Starkville, the first as an assistant from 1939-42 under Allyn McKeen, who owns the highest winning percentage (.747) in school history since the SEC was formed in 1933. Warmath then made stops at Tennessee and Army before returning to MSU, which at the time was called Mississippi State College.
Warmath was one of three head coaches under whom the quarterback Collins played, and he left quite the impression upon his players.
Warmath installed the split-T offense at MSU and brought in a young assistant named Darrell Royal to run it.
He insisted on swarming defense.
But the first point of order was special teams.
“Our philosophy (was) you’re going to press the kicking game,” Collins said. “It’s here where the breaks are made. And then he said, ‘Overall pursue, and gang tackle.’ He went over those prior to each game, and his deal was we’ll kick the pressure on them, and if you keep the pressure on the opponents during the game, somewhere along the line you’ll find a weakness.”
Warmath carried that approach with him to Minnesota upon his hire, but he quickly won over the players.
“We did more things on offense and we were ready to do more things on offense than most of the teams we played,” said Reid, who played on the 1963 and ’64 teams. “Everybody kind of categorized Murray in the same box that they put (former Ohio State coach) Woody Hayes – three yards and a cloud of dust kind of thing. It was really a variable offense.
“I thought he was a wonderful offensive coach, even though defense was where our trademark was.”
Warmath was apparently not well-received by everyone at Minnesota.
“There was a lot of grumbling from the older alums and fans about hiring a Southerner, but as players, we liked Murray right away,” former fullback Bob McNamara told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last month. “There was no nonsense. You could tell he was a football coach.”
It’s when football is broached that Warmath most resembles his old self.
“It’s amazing. He can remember things I can’t remember about specifics of games,” Reid said.
Franzen recalled one former player who visited Warmath, and the coach asked, “Oh, how’s your shoulder?”
The player said, “Oh, it’s good. It’s healed all the way.”
Warmath: “What was that, second down, second series, second quarter against Purdue that you blew out your shoulder?”
This had happened many, many years before.
Tough skin, soft heart
As tough as Warmath is, underneath that leathery personality was – and still is – a deep concern for his players.
Franzen said Warmath used to have in his room a picture of Parker, MSU’s career record-holder in pass efficiency. The coach always spoke highly of the Bulldog great.
“Murray, quite frankly, puts Jackie in the class of, ‘Never coached anyone better,’” Franzen said. “He’ll never pick his top player, but he’ll say, ‘I’ve never coached anyone better.’”
That’s an elite class that includes Pro Football Hall of Famers Bobby Bell and Carl Eller, along with Sandy Stephens, Minnesota’s first black quarterback and the leader of the 1960 national championship team.
Warmath’s devotion to success and to his players has long made him a popular man in Minnesota.
After he retired following the 1971 season, he was an assistant athletics director at the school and worked on the team’s radio broadcasts.
In the late 1970s, Warmath was an assistant for the Minnesota Vikings and then scouted for them for several years.
While he’s out of the spotlight now, Warmath is not forgotten. At the school’s football awards banquet last month, he got a standing ovation just for attending. He’s missed only two home games the past nine years, so he remains a constant presence in the program.
After games, fan after fan will come up to Warmath and talk about fathers or cousins who played for him, or about how they used to watch him as a coach.
“When we leave the stadium, we’re pulling out of the stadium after a game, I have to sometimes be flat-out rude to people to get him into the van, because I can’t get the wheelchair through the crowd,” Franzen said.
Warmath is just as treasured at Friendship Village, where he flirts with the nurses and accepts admiring visitors. Franzen, a close friend of Warmath’s late son, Bill, is there constantly for the old coach.
And while Warmath’s rugged personality might overshadow his devotion to those closest to him, there are moments when Franzen knows how “The Dictator” feels about him.
Franzen recently had to go check on his mother when she had some surgery. Upon returning to Bloomington, he was greeted with this exchange.
Warmath: “Where the hell you been?”
Franzen: “My mom had surgery.”
Warmath: “She OK?”
Warmath: “I ain’t gonna make 100 laying on my (butt), get me out of bed.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571
Murray Warmath’s coaching path
1935-38, Tennessee (line/ends)
1939-42, Mississippi St. (line)
1945-48, Tennessee (line)
1949-51, Army (line)
1952-53, Mississippi St. (head coach)
1954-71, Minnesota (head coach)
*–He served in the Navy from 1943-44