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Rick Moore on what it means to be a Gophers fan and what it takes to write a book


University Relations writer Rick Moore has written a history of the Golden Gophers

By Adam Overland

Little Brown Jug
The coveted "Little Brown Jug" appearing at the state fair. The famous traveling trophy has become quite decorated throughout the years.

December 17, 2008

Buildings afire, pandemonium, brown jugs, and the point-a-minute squad: an intriguing set of words for a book about the history of Minnesota Gophers football. When Rick Moore sat down to research and write it (sat down not once, but hundreds of times) he didn't know all the details, but the more he learned the more he burned to tell the tale. It's a history that spans from the leather helmets of old to the rigid plastic present, with a thousand touchdowns and a few tears in between. Take a look into the University of Minnesota Football Vault: Golden Gophers (Whitman Publishing, 2008), by Rick Moore, and read stories that--like sports at their ideal--not only entertain but inspire.

The last time the Gophers went to the Rose Bowl (the granddaddy of college bowl games) was in 1962, 30 days before Rick Moore was born. "In a way," says Moore, "I think what made me a good fit to write this book is because I'm kind of symbolic of many Gopher football fans--there has been little glory in my lifetime." But that hasn't hampered Moore's enthusiasm or dashed his hope. On the wall of his office in Morrill Hall hangs a ticket stub given to him by his uncle Ed--a stub from that 1962 Rose Bowl game where the Gophers defeated UCLA 21-3. "I look at that stub every once in a while, and I think 'Okay, it would be nice to go to the Rose Bowl again soon,'" says Moore.

There has been much success in the history of the Gophers, and just as many fans like Moore's uncle Ed have fond memories. So the book he's written is anything but a story of disappointment. It's a story that lays out a part of U sports history as representative of the grit, glory, and persistence of Minnesota and its fans:

"People are proud to be Gophers fans. We're in the same boat: You keep thinking this is the year, and then something happens and you get let down. It's a good character builder to be a Gophers fan," says Moore wryly. "It's a good character builder to be a Minnesota sports fan in general--but it was kind of ruined when the Twins won those two World Series, because we could no longer band together as long-suffering Minnesota fans with no recent titles."

Okay, so maybe it's not all rainbows, sunshine, and Hail Mary touchdowns. But becoming national champions or even winning the Rose Bowl isn't easy. Writing a book isn't easy either, as Moore soon found out.

Rick Moore headshot           Rick MooreThe writing of a book

The book assignment came Moore's way, he says, when Whitman Publishing approached the U of M in search of an author that could write a history of the Gophers as part of the publisher's series of college football "vault" books. As a writer with University Relations, Moore covers everything from art, engineering, and sports for the U. His name surfaced and he jumped at the opportunity.

The format of the book, says Moore, is like a coffee-table book meets scrapbook. "It's full of big photos and reproductions of memorabilia--like game programs that have been reproduced into actual functioning postcards--so it's very three-dimensional," says Moore. Much of the research took place at the Andersen Library archives, where Moore would descend after work to look through boxes of materials from the library vaults.

"Once I started doing the research I realized there's been so much glory in Gopher football past, and so many great names and great stories, that it became really fun to uncover that," says Moore. Getting started on a book, however, isn't as easy as you might imagine.

With the cementing of the book contract in late September 2007, Moore's deadline was set for a distant and dreaded April 15 (tax day), 2008. "Writing is every bit as agonizing as it is rewarding," says Moore. "There were times when I thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?'" (He even suggested that publication be delayed closer to the opening of the new stadium on campus.) "The first couple of months I just sort of schemed about it (read: procrastinated), thought about it, woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking about it, and really didn't get cranking on it until about December or January," says Moore.

"Luckily, every weekend in January, February, and March was cold and or dreary, and the worst thing that could have happened to my motivation was if a Saturday bloomed in early April and it was 65 and sunny. But when I finished up the draft of my last chapter on April 15 it was sunny and perfect," says Moore. Writers appreciate a little symbolism and a happy ending, now and then.

A juggernaut and a jug

A good game and a good story have much in common, and on that a writer and football fan can both agree. The history of Gopher football is chalk full of each. In addition to recaps of key games, there are stories about the icons from 126 years of football--historic players like Alf Pillsbury (son of John Sargent Pillsbury, the "Father of the University") and Bronko Nagurski; famous coaches like Bernie Bierman and Murray Warmath; and familiar names of the modern era: Bob McNamara, Bobby Bell, and Tyrone Carter.

Short tales from the vault

Think the new stadium has gone up quickly?

Consider Memorial Stadium, the home of the Gophers from 1924 through 1981. The groundbreaking for the stadium was in March of 1924, the cornerstone was put into place in the middle of June, and the stadium was completed in time for the Gophers' first game that fall (Oct. 4) against North Dakota--42 days ahead of schedule.

How's this for an all-purpose athlete?

Bobby Marshall was a player for the Gophers in the very early years of the 20th century. His football career began at Minneapolis Central High School in 1899 and didn't end till he was 54 years old. At the U, he earned letters in football, track, and baseball, playing first base on the league champion Gopher team of 1907. He played professional football, semi-pro baseball, and even pro hockey.

The Williams in Williams Arena

When the main field house on campus was remodeled in 1949, it was renamed Williams Arena, after Minnesota's longest-serving football coach. Henry L. "Doc" Williams coached the Gophers from 1900 to 1921--a total of 22 seasons. His teams went 136-33-11 for a percentage of .786. They finished undefeated five times and won or shared eight conference titles. He was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

One of Moore's favorite game stories is the origin of the oldest and most famous traveling trophy in college football--the Little Brown Jug. It's a trophy that changes hands between rivals Michigan and Minnesota, and has its beginnings in 1903. Moore calls the game that took place on that day the most anticipated in the history of Minnesota football.

"The Gophers had had a few good years in a row, and were outscoring teams by a wide margin, but Michigan had a 29-game winning streak and had outscored their opponents in the span of two and a half years by 1,631 points to 12...1,631 to 12!" says Moore. "They were just a juggernaut. They scored 600 points in 10 games" (thus earning the 'point-a-minute' nickname). The game ended with thousands of fans storming the field after a tying touchdown by Minnesota. It was pandemonium. Play was unable to continue and when the haze cleared, Michigan had left behind a five-gallon water jug. When the Michigan coach asked for it back, Louis Cooke, head of the U's athletic department, told him, "You'll have to win it." Since then, the jug has changed hands a number of times, having most recently been in Minnesota's possession in 2005.

So what is the future of Gopher football?

It's said that if you want to know the future ask someone who knows about the past. Rick Moore knows the past and has little doubt that he'll see a Rose Bowl game some day. "I think things are cyclical and I think the Metrodome was somewhat of a curse for us. With the new TCF Bank Stadium--the return of football to campus is a good omen for the Gophers. I'm not just saying this, but I think really great times are ahead," says Moore. "And I'm looking forward to it."

Whatever that unwritten history may be, it will be noted, it will be remembered by fans and players alike, and good games and good stories will be set down in pages by those who live the next chapters. And no doubt the book publisher will come calling on Moore to do the writing. "The future update of the book is probably mine if I want it," says Moore. Oh, and if you're wondering about the "buildings afire" reference, you'll have to read the book.

The 7-5 Gophers of 2008 have been invited to the Insight Bowl on Dec. 31, 5 p.m., Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz. For more information on that game, see Insight Bowl.

A portion of the book's sales benefit the U of M. See the U of M Bookstore or Amazon. The book is also available at Gold Country stores.