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Sid Hartman often said that when it came to sports, Gophers football always was his first love.

It was an unwavering childhood passion that stretched past his 100th birthday. Even with a coronavirus pandemic confining him mostly to his home, he arranged a ride to coach P.J. Fleck’s house in mid-May, for a driveway interview.

“You could tell he cared so much about Gopher football and wanted to see it become successful more than anyone,” Fleck said last Sunday after learning of Hartman’s death.

The Gophers have several tributes planned for Hartman during Saturday night’s season opener against Michigan, including a helmet decal featuring his column sig.

Hartman’s Gophers fervor started in the 1930s, when the team was reeling off national championships under Coach Bernie Bierman. An adolescent Hartman sensed there was money to be made amid the weekly hoopla at Memorial Stadium, so he started parking cars and hawking newspapers.

His first hunts for scoops as a professional newspaperman began in 1944 for the Minneapolis Times. When that paper folded in 1948, the Minneapolis Tribune hired him to cover the Gophers football beat.

“The war had just ended, and a lot of guys were coming back after two to four years in the service,” said Bud Grant, who played for the Gophers from 1946-49. “He wasn’t much older than we were. He could mingle with us. He was privy to what young guys were doing. He had inside access to the locker room, but he never put any of us in a bad light.”

Hartman canvassed the athletics department daily for scoops and continued the practice long after he first started his “Hartman’s Roundup” column in 1946.

“He did everything but get a cot at Cooke Hall,” said Harvey Mackay, who golfed for the Gophers in the early 1950s. “No one, and I mean no one will ever outwork Sid Hartman.

“He wasn’t the handsome young newsman with $15,000 worth of capped teeth,” Mackay added. “He never played the games he wrote about. He never made it to college, let alone journalism school. Yet he blew away the competitors that came along.”

Early bond with Holtz

Joe Salem arrived on campus in 1957, as a quarterback from Sioux Falls, S.D.

“In those days, TV was just getting going, and the Tribune was where you went to find out what was going on,” Salem said. “Sid was the kingpin of athletics, so to speak. When he said it, it became gospel.”

Lou Holtz was a graduate assistant at Iowa in 1960, when Hartman first met him.

“He treated me like I was a big-time coach, and I was just a graduate assistant,” Holtz said. “From that time on, anytime I came within 50 miles of Minneapolis, he’d come to see me. He was all class. He always wore a coat and tie. It didn’t feel like you were talking to a reporter, it felt like you were talking to a friend.”

NFL Hall of Famer Bobby Bell felt snubbed when Hartman hadn’t asked to interview him by his sophomore year with the Gophers.

“Finally one day I said, ‘Sid why don’t you ever want to talk to me?’ ” Bell recalled. “He said, ‘Kid, you’ve got to earn the right to talk to me.’ ”

But Bell had an eye-opening debut that 1960 season debut in the win over Nebraska.

“Sid comes up and goes, ‘Hey Bell, come here, I want to talk to you.’ I walked up to him and said, ‘You have to earn the right to talk to me.’

“That was the beginning of a great relationship. I mean, he’s like a father to me.”

Grant went on to a Hall of Fame coaching career with the Vikings. Salem became the Gophers head coach in 1979 and guided the team through five lean seasons.

“He stopped at every office in our building every day, like a doctor making house calls,” Salem said. “He enjoyed doing it. And he wanted to win. He bled maroon and gold. You weren’t supposed to cheer in the press box, but I’m sure he did.”

Friends to the end

After the 1983 season, the Gophers fired Salem and hired Holtz.

“That first year, every night at 9:30, I’d leave the office and get together with Harvey Mackay and Sid for a burger, and we’d talk about how to make the Minnesota program better,” Holtz said. “I spent more time with Sid Hartman than I did with my wife.”

Hartman’s enthusiasm for the Gophers barely wavered, even as the team went from 1962 to 2015 without playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game.

“It’s like Sid was an alumni, and he never took a class [at the university],” Grant said. “That’s his No. 1 love, No. 1 loyalty. I don’t care who it is — a new coach, a new athletic director, a new president — he’d stand up for them, sometimes even when he shouldn’t.”

Hartman was 90 by the time the Gophers hired Jerry Kill in December 2010. Kill continued to grant Hartman inside access to the program and appeared on Hartman’s radio show almost without fail every Sunday.

“I think I was smart enough to know enough about it before I got here,” Kill said in 2015. “Here’s a guy who’s in his 90s, with his history, I wasn’t going to tell him what he could and could not do.”

When Hartman turned 99 two years later, Fleck presented him with a No. 99 maroon Gophers jersey during spring practice.

“I had great admiration and respect for him,” Fleck said. “ … Even in really hard times here, he treated me so well. I’m really going to miss him.”