COLERAINE — Six decades ago, the University of Minnesota football team captured its last national championship.
It was in 1960 that the Gophers were voted as the top football team in America, winning the Big 10 championship and going on to play in the Rose Bowl. Robin Tellor, a 1958 graduate of Greenway High School, was a starting lineman on that team of long ago, and he took time Friday to talk about that magical year when the U of M was the best team in the nation.
Tellor was no stranger to good teams as he was a member of the Greenway High School team of 1957, one which came in second to Edina in voting for the top high school teams in the state that year. The Raiders had just one blip on their record – a tie against Grand Rapids. After winning the Iron Range Conference title, they defeated Brainerd in a game played at Brainerd. Then, in a game billed as “The Pumpkin Bowl,” Greenway rolled over Anoka to finish with just the one tie.
“That was a great team,” remembered Tellor, 79, from his home in Duluth. “We had some great players to include Tom Hecimovich, Tom Delich, Kent McAlpine and a number of others.”
As was Tellor, Hecimovich was highly-recruited by national powerhouse football programs as he went on to play at the University of Notre Dame. Tellor said he also received a scholarship offer from the Fighting Irish but his heart was set on achieving his dream of playing at the University of Minnesota.
“I could have gone to 140 or 150 schools but I always was going to go to the U,” Tellor explained.
Tellor played fullback for Greenway on offense and linebacker on defense. He was recruited by the Gophers for those positions, receiving a scholarship. However, during his freshman year he was pulled aside by a Gophers coach who asked him if he would like to move to guard. Seeing the competition he faced at the fullback position, the 195-pounder transitioned into a lineman.
“I was just a simple kid from Coleraine and Wally Johnson (freshmen coach) put his arm around my shoulder and he said, ‘Tellor, we’d like to try you at guard.’ I said OK and the next day I was a guard,” Tellor laughed.
Playing at a top weight of 205 pounds with the Gophers, Tellor said he wasn’t at a size disadvantage against his opponents. He was a three-year starter for Minnesota, in 1959, 1960, and 1961. He remembers that the Gophers struggled mightily in 1959, winning just two games.
“You have to remember that when we went 2-7, we had a great sophomore class,” said Tellor. “(Quarterback) Sandy Stephens really was the star and we had some great linemen who were all sophomores. The next year we won the national championship.”
Tellor said everything went right for the Golden Gophers during the magical run to the 1960 national title. The final poll was conducted after the regular season in those years, and the Gophers had one loss, to Purdue. They would go on to lose the Rose Bowl to the University of Washington in January 1961.
“We never talked about a national title, and we didn’t even think about it,” Tellor said. “The Big 10 was tough every year. Losing the Rose Bowl to Washington that year was certainly disappointing. But winning the national championship, it didn’t even dawn on me that we were the national champions. When I came home to Coleraine everybody congratulated me. That’s the Model Village, you know.”
Other Northeastern Minnesota players on that national championship team included Peter Bergman and Dale Halverson of Duluth, Jack Park of Aitkin, and Russell Peterson of Virginia,
In 1961, the Gophers did not win the national championship but it got revenge with a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA.
“UCLA certainly wasn’t as strong as Washington was,” he remembers. “We pretty much crawled all over them.”
When asked what it was like to play for Gophers coach Murray Warmath, Tellor said, “He was a great coach. He knew every single corner of the game and he had some good assistants too.”
Tellor played with a number of Hall of Famers during his time with the Gophers to include Carl Eller, Bobby Bell, Tom Brown and Greg Larson.
“Tom Brown, who played in Canada, is maybe the best football player this state has ever seen,” Tellor said.
After graduating, Tellor said he had no aspirations of playing professional football. He served as an assistant coach at Grand Rapids High School before moving to coach at his Alma mater while working on his master’s degree. He then took a job coaching at the University of New Hampshire where he worked for five years. He then changed directions in his career and became a financial planner, something he still does.
Tellor said he keeps in contact with some of the members of the team, citing that a 50-year reunion was conducted. He added that half of the players on the team have passed away. He and wife Valerie had two children along with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Tellor said it often happens that people find out he was a member of that 1960 Gophers team.
“It happens regularly because my national championship ring is also a wedding ring,” he explained. “People ask me about the ring and I tell them.”
Now, 60 years later, the Gophers are 8-0 entering a big game against undefeated Penn State. Although it is a stretch, Tellor was asked how he would feel if the Gophers won out and captured another national championship.
“I would be thrilled,” he said.