University of Minnesota

Gophers 1951-53
(Authentic Reproduction)




The football tradition at Minnesota was outstanding under the long-term leadership of head coach Bernie Bierman. Earning his way into the College Football Hall of Fame, his teams played low-key, solid, fundamental Single-Wing football. Successful as the head coach at Montana, Mississippi State, and Tulane, he ran the Minnesota program from 1932 through 1941 until interrupted by WW II and resumed his position at the helm from '45 through 1950. His resume was impressive with six Big Ten titles, five undefeated seasons, and an almost unbelievable five National Championships. Having Bud Wilkinson as his QB and guard from 1934 through '36 helped bring one of those National Championships to the Gophers and though his overall 93-35-6 record at the school was superb, his years after World War II weren’t as impressive. The program suffered from the limitations of recruiting almost exclusively in-state and the absence of athletic scholarships. The 1949 team was expected to take the Big Ten title but dropped consecutive games to Michigan and Purdue to disappoint the fans. Leo Nomellini’s presence as a two-time All American, leading a tremendous line that featured fellow All American, center Clayton Tonnemaker and two-time All Big Ten end Bud Grant, the same Bud Grant that would become a heralded head coach in both the CFL and NFL with the Vikings, had raised hopes to feverish levels and the dismay was palpable.



Born in Lucca Italy, Leo Nomellini always considered himself a “Chicago Guy” due to the attachment to his adopted American home. Yearning to play athletics at the vocational Crane Technical High School he attended, football glory remained a dream as young Leo followed his school days by toiling in a foundry after class dismissal to help support his family. It was only in the U.S. Marines that he was introduced to on the field play and this led him to the University Of Minnesota after his discharge as a combat veteran in the Pacific Theater.  As a Gopher, he made up for lost time as a two-time gridiron All American and he succeeded further as the Big Ten heavyweight wrestling champion, threw the shot put, and amazingly at 6’3”, 250 pounds, ran the anchor leg on the 4 x 100 yard relay team. Dominant in almost every game he played, he was the very first number-one draft choice of the NFL San Francisco Forty Niners in 1950 and he had a storied pro career. Nomellini played in every one of the Forty Niner games for fourteen seasons and was an All Pro in six of them, earning the distinction of having been granted the honor at both offensive and defensive tackle positions. A ten-time Pro Bowler, he used his unbelievable strength and quickness to dominate opponents. The subject of a university sponsored strength research experiment, Nomellini destroyed the testing machine when he was asked to exert force against its resistance arm. “The two-by-fours started flying, the wires broke, the scales fell off and the doctor’s eyes popped out. Leo just exploded the machine, blew it apart…He made a big mistake in telling Leo to pull as hard as he could” said Forty Niners GM Lou Spadia. It was that strength that separated the great tackle from his peers. The only trait “lacking” was a killer instinct for Nomellini, nicknamed “Leo The Lion” was a rather gentle lion off of the field even though for a number of years, he supplemented his football income as a professional wrestler. Considered one of the all time greats of the NFL, Nomellini is a member of the College and Pro Football Halls Of Fame and The Professional Wrestling Hall Of Fame. 


Bierman’s finish in 1950 was a poor 1-7-1 mark, the worst in school history. All agreed, Bierman included, that it was time for a change and “The Silver Fox Of The Northland” retired from coaching with an overall 146-62-12 record.  The successful Ohio State coach Wes Fesler, seeking a less high-pressure position than the Buckeye head job, opted to join the Minnesota clan for the '51 season. A three-time first-team consensus All American end at OSU, Fesler won nine varsity letters, also excelling at basketball and baseball and even served Harvard as its men's basketball coach. Seen by many Buckeye fans as the greatest athlete in Ohio State’s history, he had left Columbus with a four-year record that was solid in the victory column. He took Ohio State to a Rose Bowl win in 1949, produced Vic Janowicz as the 1950 Heisman Trophy winner but had an intense dislike for the constant pressure the Ohio State head coaching job came with and retired to private business selling real estate. When approached by Minnesota, he quickly un-retired to take the head coaching position for 1951. Adopting the Riddell plastic RT helmets, Fesler donned the Gophers in Green Bay gold headgear with a maroon one-inch center stripe which improved the team’s appearance but the 1951 squad did not improve much upon Bierman's final one-win effort, finishing with a 2-6-1 record. Fesler knew what he was getting into when he was first asked to consider the Gopher job and his debut was very much what he had predicted. Noting that his own Ohio State team had beaten Minnesota 48-0 in 1950, he realized that there was a lack of Big Ten caliber personnel. Fesler also had to make a rapid change to the system of recruiting that had been used at Minnesota for years. Bierman’s earlier teams of the 1930’s were so dominant that they served as the only recruiting tool the Gophers needed. Every in-state player and many throughout the Midwest felt honored to play for the exalted coach who had won a string of National Championships. The Minnesota athletic department did not offer athletic scholarships but instead assisted its recruits in finding work that would pay for their education, room, board, and additional expenses. Fesler realized that times had changed since the end of World War II and the better players were being offered complete coverage of their educational expenses at most other schools. Fesler helped to establish and raise funds for a scholarship program for athletes which leveled the recruiting playing field. He warned his staff and the influential alumni that they should be prepared for a rough period of time because the team was going to use as many freshmen as possible for the next two seasons but he believed the squad would be competitive in three years. “We said there would be no moaning when we got beat, and that this was the time to work harder for that goal down the road. Right from the start we decided we would use every incoming freshman we could. When that first season started, we were using a lot of freshmen who didn’t have the benefit of the spring practice.” Despite the poor ’51 record, Fesler did change the attitude of the players and moved the offensive approach from a power running game to an aerial assault behind the great throwing ability of soph Paul Giel. A gifted baseball pitcher who had representatives from eight Major League Baseball teams visit his house with contracts in hand the day after his high school graduation, Giel was a serviceable high school Single-Wing tailback but not highly recruited for the gridiron. He entered the University Of Minnesota and played on the 1950 freshmen team. Upon Fesler’s arrival Giel was one of the first Gophers to receive the benefits of the newly founded and newly funded Williams Scholarship Fund. Giel burst onto the varsity scene in 1951 and was immediately comfortable utilizing Fesler’s varying offensive alignments which included the Single-Wing, Double-Wing, and T-Formations. He set eight school offensive records, a total offense mark of 1473 which established a new Big Ten standard, and finished with fifty-seven completions for 688 yards, tremendous stats for that era. HB Gino Cappelletti and end Roger French, who was primarily a defensive player, were Giel's support system although the record 258 points given up by the defense indicated that support was needed on that side of the squad.


The record crept up to a 4-3-2 mark in 1952 with Giel being named an All American and Big Ten MVP, rushing for 663 yards, throwing for 645, and punting for a 37.5 yard average. Bob McNamara who had missed the ’51 season serving in the military, stood out as an All Conference back and end. Halfback and receiver Gino Cappelletti starred primarily as a defensive player. It was the play of All Big Ten tackle Percy Zachary and Cappelletti’s performance on a tougher defense that was most responsible for the Gophers’ improved record. 1953 started with optimism after the improvement shown in ’52 but Minnesota dropped three of the first four games in part due to the NCAA rules that legislated the return of one-platoon football. Fesler knew he did not have the athletic talent to have many of his players go both ways effectively. The season unfolded in a similar fashion to ’52 with the 4-4-1 Gophers dependent upon the talent of Giel. Though McNamara was very effective after moving from end to halfback, often running behind the blocking of guard/LB Ron Hansen who played with the Redskins in ‘54, it was Giel, once again the conference MVP and the first to earn the honor in two consecutive seasons that determined the squad’s success. He also was a first-team All American, the runner-up to Notre Dame's Johnny Lattner for the Heisman award, and was named UPI’s National Player Of The Year completing his Minnesota career with tremendous offensive numbers for his era; 2188 yards rushing and 1922 passing. The do-it-all athlete also led the Gopher baseball squad and played Major League Baseball with the Giants, Pirates, and Twins. After retiring from the Major Leagues in 1961 Giel first was a sports announcer and program  director for a Minneapolis radio station and would return to the University Of Minnesota as their AD and serve from 1971-’89. Fesler decided he had taken the Gophers as far as he could. The usual practice of recruiting in-state players created more pronounced limitations for Minnesota than it would have for other Big Ten programs. He and most others recognized that the wintry climate dictated a shorter playing season and this stunted the development of many high school players. An unspoken problem, even then considered to be “politically incorrect” in open discussion, was recognition of the fact that the heavily German and Scandinavian population centers of the state produced big, strong youngsters but not the more athletic African-American, Polish, and Italians that populated the rosters of other Big Ten and both Eastern and Southern independent squads. Fesler returned to his post-Ohio State decision to retire, remained in Minneapolis, and entered the business world where he was very successful as an investment counselor and money manager.

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