The Gophers upset Auburn 31-24 in the Outback Bowl last Wednesday to conclude an 11-2 season. This made P.J. Fleck’s football team the talk of our sports scene for 72 hours.
Then, the Vikings went into the Superdome in Sunday’s playoff game, upset New Orleans 26-20 in overtime, and the Purple presence as the sports king of Minnesota was restored.
The Vikings are in San Francisco on Saturday for a second-round playoff game, and the date — Jan. 11 — marks the 50th anniversary of their first Super Bowl, a 23-7 loss to heavy underdog Kansas City.
That short carry-over into the 1970 calendar marked the end of a 1969 sports season that dramatically changed the Minnesota landscape.
The Twins and the Vikings had arrived simultaneously in 1961. Baseball was the prize that made an area “big league’’ back then.
The Twins contended as soon as 1962, went to a World Series in 1965, and put rookie Rod Carew in a lineup with Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva for the American League’s Great Race in 1967.
Gophers football had been the overwhelming presence here in the 1950s. And when the Twins and the Vikings showed up in 1961, they did so in between consecutive Rose Bowl appearances for Murray Warmath’s Gophers.
The Vikings had their first winning season (8-5-1) in 1964 but fell into chaos a year later, with coach Norm Van Brocklin resigning and then reneging. He embarked on a feud with quarterback Fran Tarkenton that caused both to depart after the 1966 season. Bud Grant was hired from Winnipeg as Van Brocklin’s replacement for 1967. He went 3-8-3, causing locals to suggest the battle cry, “Tie one for Bud.’’
The Gophers were tied for the Big Ten title at 6-1 that season, and the Twins were in that Great Race. The North Stars also arrived across the parking lot at Met Center in 1967 as an NHL expansion team, leaving the Vikings fighting for third on the popularity meter.
The first sign of movement toward the top for the Vikings came in 1968, when they squeezed into the playoffs at 8-6, while the Twins fell below .500. The Gophers went 6-4.
Then came two dates that should live in infamy on the Minnesota sports scene:
Sept. 20, 1969: The Gophers, relying on big linemen and pounding fullback Jim Carter, went to Phoenix to play Arizona State, a WAC team, and were blown away by the Sun Devils 48-26. On that night, Warmath and the Gophers saw the future, and it was speed.
Oct. 13, 1969: Twins owner Calvin Griffith had sent Billy Martin to Class AAA Denver to “learn how to manage.’’ Then, he hired Martin before the 1969 season, and the Twins went 97-65, with attendance increasing by 200,000.
The public loved Billy, ignoring Martin’s penchant for loutish behavior. When the Twins announced Martin was fired a week after they had been swept by Baltimore 3-0 in the first ALCS, there were vows from large numbers of fans that they were done supporting Calvin’s team.
And many appeared to keep that vow, as attendance fell some with a 98-win team managed by Bill Rigney in 1970, and tumbled rapidly when the Twins started losing in 1971.
Meantime, the Vikings, the Purple People Eaters, went 12-2 in 1969 and won a pair of playoff games at Met Stadium to reach the Super Bowl.
The change at the top of Minnesota’s sports market had been made. And it has varied only in bursts of time:
1-Vikings. 2-Everybody else.
Seventy-two hours on top, Coach Fleck. Congrats. We’ve had coaches and managers spend a lot less time enjoying that lofty status.