by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)
The biggest surprises often come in the smallest packages.
Cameras were rolling as Gophers legend Bob Stein spoke with the National Football Foundation’s interview crew. Stein was set to be featured in the foundation’s ‘Football Matters’ series. Steven Hatchell, the President and CEO of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, joined Stein in the room.
During the interview, Stein was asked by the crew, “how do you feel about the guys that are in the Hall of Fame?” While responding to the question, the Gophers’ star was abruptly interrupted. A special FedEx delivery had arrived.
“The FedEx delivery guy walks in and hands me a box that I figured was some kind of trinket to say thank you for doing the interview,” Stein said.
Stein ripped open the cardboard and found a life-changing present inside. He rolled over a painted football and immediately froze. Stein couldn’t believe what he was reading.
“I opened it up and it was a football with a painted panel that says, ‘Bob Stein: 2020 Class, College Football Hall of Fame,” he said. “I about fell down. I was completely caught by surprise and stunned. There are a lot of things more important than sports, but for me, the enormity of that kind of recognition was unbelievable.”
After hearing the exciting news, Stein instantly thought about all of his past teammates, coaches and friends. The former two-time All-American defensive end knows this achievement wouldn’t be possible without key people in his life.
“Frankly, I’m stunned. I couldn’t be more appreciative and it’s one of those things you do with a lot of people’s help,” Stein said. “Butch Nash, my college position coach. Murray Warmath was our head coach. All of the great teammates I had at Minnesota. The family, friends - it’s a time to be grateful for all of them,” he said. “I had all kinds of friends support me in the application for it.”
The Hall of Fame honor is extremely rare and places Stein among football’s all-time greats. Overall, only 0.02% of college football players and coaches are inducted into the Hall of Fame. Stein played for the Gophers from 1966-68 and will become the 21st University of Minnesota player or coach to enter the College Football Hall of Fame. Even Stein is still trying to process the magnitude of this moment.
“There are guys like Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell, who are on the NFL 100 All-Time team. I think to myself, ‘wait a minute, I’m in the same group as Knute Rockne and Jim Thorpe. They are going to try to withdraw,” Stein joked. “I look at the class that I’m going in with, a two-time SWC Most Valuable player in Eric Dickerson. These guys are all-timers and I kind of look around and say, ‘what I’m doing here?’ I’m thrilled.”
It All Started at Memorial Stadium
Stein’s love for college football first blossomed on a crisp fall afternoon at Memorial Stadium. Sunshine radiated across the campus as Minnesota’s band marched down University Avenue. Stein, a teenage fan, watched in awe as Gopher football legends Carl Eller, Bobby Bell and Sandy Stephens battled on the gridiron. The physicality and intensity of a Big Ten game instantly caught his attention.
“During the game against Purdue, I think there were about a half-a-dozen guys carried off the field. I remember sitting there with my dad and thinking, ‘wow, it doesn’t get better than this,’” he said.
The exuberant atmosphere of on-campus football brought maroon and gold fans together each week. During the program’s two Rose Bowl appearances in 1961 and 1962, interest exploded to another level. Stein witnessed the entire state of Minnesota connect with the university’s football program.
“At that time in the early ‘60s, [the Gophers were the] game in town. The Vikings had just started play in 1961, but Gopher football was far bigger than the [Vikings] were. It was an honor [to play here],” he said. “I almost went someplace else, but ultimately, I felt it was important to stay here and have my family be able to see me play. I’m glad I did.”
After growing up as a second-generation immigrant, Stein placed a strong emphasis on his academic future. Stein had the opportunity to pursue an Ivy League education, but decided to stay home at the University of Minnesota. He ultimately didn’t want to regret turning down a chance to play football in the Big Ten.
“At that time, the Big Ten was the premier conference in the country, football-wise. I felt if I went to an Ivy League school, that I would get a great education, but I would never know if I could play Big Ten football,” he said. “If I went to a Big Ten school, I could find out if I could compete at a high level in football and also get a real good education."
The University of Minnesota Journey Begins
In 1966, Stein began to develop his football career under legendary head coach Murray Warmath. The third-winningest coach in program history created an NFL talent pipeline in the Twin Cities. Warmath used athleticism and skill to elevate the Gophers’ football team to new heights. Minnesota finished the 1967 season with an 8-2 record and won a co-Big Ten Championship.
Stein recalled a late November game against No. 5 Indiana at Memorial Stadium. The Gophers ran past the Hoosiers for a 33-7 win and made a huge statement in the Big Ten Championship race.
“They were undefeated at the time and it was kind of a showdown game,” Stein said. “We just clobbered them, so that was really fun. Everyone pitched in together.”
One week later, after defeating Wisconsin 21-14 in the final regular season game, Minnesota’s 1967 postseason fate was eventually determined by a showdown between Indiana and Purdue. A Boilermakers win would have clinched Purdue an outright Big Ten Championship. However, conference rules indicated a team couldn’t make consecutive appearances in the Rose Bowl.
Therefore, with a Purdue win, the Gophers would have earned a trip to Pasadena. Late in the fourth quarter, the Boilermakers trailed 19-14, but had possession inside Indiana’s 5-yard-line. Boilermakers fullback Perry Williams fumbled and ended Minnesota’s Rose Bowl hopes.
“We ended up in a three-way tie for first place, but because Indiana had never gone to the Rose Bowl and Minnesota had gone in the ‘60s, the rule was they got to go and we stayed home,” he said. “It was my most vivid memory because it was so painful.”
The Gophers’ NFL Talent Pipeline
Under the instruction of Warmath, defensive ends coach Butch Nash and coordinator Bob Bossons, Stein became one of the conference’s most disruptive players.
Warmath and his staff rapidly developed NFL players and created a winning culture at Minnesota. Fifteen players on the 1967 Minnesota football roster were eventually drafted or earned training camp tryouts. Most notably, Gophers tight end Charlie Sanders was selected in the third round of the 1968 draft by the Detroit Lions. Sanders was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and eventually earned enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Out of the same group, Gophers linebacker Noel Jenke was drafted in the NFL, MLB and NHL. Additionally, Minnesota offensive lineman John Williams, an NFL and Super Bowl champion, played 12 seasons in the NFL for the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams.
Eventually, Stein followed the same path and was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the fifth round of the 1969 NFL Draft. He played eight seasons in the NFL and won both a Super Bowl and AFL Championship with the Chiefs. After learning of his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, Stein realized all four of the Chiefs’ starting linebackers are now in this exclusive group. Stein joined Kansas City teammates Willie Lanier, Jim Lynch and Bobby Bell in the College Football Hall of Fame.
“It truly is humbling to be in the company of those kind of guys,” he said. “I’m very appreciative and I feel like it’s a recognition for all of my teammates at Minnesota, too.”
Stein credits all of his teammates for helping him reach his full potential. Each year, spring practices were a time where the Gophers’ defensive end would go toe-to-toe with his friends. When Stein took the field for games, he was certainly prepared for the physicality.
“Jim Carter and I would butt heads like two idiot rams during pass-rush drills. We were friends and we were roommates living in a fraternity at the time,” he said. “We would both go home with headaches and have to take a nap after practice. I never got hit harder than that in any game I played in. The guys you play with make you a good player.”
Vince Lombardi and Murray Warmath’s Relationship
Murray Warmath’s coaching prowess changed the lives of Minnesota players, including Stein’s. His fierce and demanding mentality brought out the best in each student-athlete.
“[Warmath] was a terrific coach. While I played for him, I was scared to death of Murray. I didn’t have a normal conversation with him, like an informal one in four years on campus. He was a great guy,” he said. “He made sure everybody knew that there were consequences if you didn’t perform. I think that fear of failure is an important motivator, too.”
Before arriving in Minnesota, Warmath coached under Red Blaik at Army. He was on the same coaching staff as future NFL and Green Bay Packers legend Vince Lombardi. Despite going different directions in the coaching profession, the bond between Lombardi and Warmath continued. The legend even stopped by to watch Gopher football practices.
“[Lombardi] used to come over and see our practices in the spring once a year, but what I didn’t realize was he also brought Murray Warmath and our defensive coordinator Bob Bossons to Green Bay every summer to put on a week-long defense clinic for their coaches,” Stein said. “That wasn’t just because they were buddies. He knew how brilliant Murray was because they were friends and had coached together. Lombardi was all about getting the best to improve his team and that was Murray Warmath.”
The Next Shining Moment for Stein
Stein is one of the most successful figures in college football history. He became an all-time great football player, earned his law degree while playing for the Chiefs, became the Founding President and CEO of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and now runs his own law firm, Bob Stein LLC. Along the way, Stein has applied many of the lessons he learned on the football field.
“There are great lessons to be had in playing football - at any level. One of them is, you just have to remember to do your best every single day. You don’t become a star player during games nearly as much as you do in practice and preparation for games, both mentally and physically,” he said.
“On top of that, it’s just another part of life where it’s really important to try to do the right thing. How you deal with other people, your own integrity and trying not to let anybody down. You know you can’t achieve everything that you expect. There’s always going to be something that you want to do that you don’t quite get done. You don’t want to look back on that and say, ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda - I wish I would have worked harder.’”
Now, after all of his hard work, Bob Stein can finally add another honor to his resume - College Football Hall of Fame: Class of 2020.