Photo: Bernie Bierman coached the football Gophers from 1932 to 1941. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES
As the only Gopher ever to win the Heisman Trophy, Bruce Smith’s name is often tossed around in discussions of University of Minnesota football lore. However, the specifics of his legend are a little fogged by time. His name lacks the colorful resonance of Bronko Nagurski, and his achievements on the gridiron tend to be overshadowed by the memorable accomplishments of the teams on which he played. Still, who else in Gopher football history ever won a Heisman Trophy, starred in a movie made about his life, or was nominated for sainthood?
The arc of Bruce Smith’s playing career reached its zenith on the Saturday afternoon of November 9, 1940. Smith, a junior halfback, began the day not only a far piece from the glories to come, but quite a distance from the center of Minnesota’s football universe. Even the weather was a bigger story. It was a messy, slog-in-the-mud kind of day. The leading edge of a storm system that in less than 48 hours would huff and puff itself into the disastrous “Armistice Day Blizzard” was making its way over Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota, soaking the 64,000 spectators—a record attendance at the time—to the bone.
On the playing field below, the Golden Gophers lined up against their most bitter Big Ten rival: the Michigan Wolverines. Coached by Bernie Bierman, undefeated Minnesota was the best football program in the nation and was vying for a national championship, the first time the Gophers had been in that hunt since 1936. Michigan was also undefeated and aiming for that same title. Michigan had been Minnesota’s leading competitor for Big Ten championships since the birth of the conference. For 37 years, the schools had also maintained a traditional side-bet over the Little Brown Jug, considered the oldest trophy in college football history.
Though the Wolverines had a number of down years in the early 1930s, they were now rejuvenated under coach Herbert “Fritz” Crisler. To build the drama, Crisler had previously held the head job at the University of Minnesota. In fact, he had preceded Bierman, and been let go in a cloud of controversy, essentially because he hadn’t been successful enough to satisfy rabid Gopher fans. Now Crisler was back in
Minneapolis with a powerful team led by the best football player in the nation: senior tailback Tom Harmon.
The most acclaimed Gopher that day was not Bruce Smith but the other halfback on the team, speedy senior George “Sonny” Franck. If Harmon had any rival for the Heisman, awarded to the nation’s most outstanding college football player of the year, it was Franck. Smith was hardly an unknown commodity but was not yet considered of Franck’s caliber.Photo: Gopher halfback George Franck was a contender for the 1940 Heisman Trophy, which went to Michigan’s Tom Harmon.
Still, with his wavy blond hair and dimpled grin, Bruce Smith cut an awfully handsome figure and had a pretty good backstory of his own. His father, Lucius Smith (J.D. ’12), a Faribault attorney, had played end for “Doc” Henry Williams in 1910 and 1911, and though he would later deny the story, it became part of the legend that the only touchdown scored in the 1910 Little Brown Jug game was made by Michigan and had come around Lucius Smith’s end. It was said that Smith père vowed then and there, that if he ever had a Smith fils, that son would play Minnesota football and exact the old man’s revenge on the Wolverines.
Smith had started for the Gophers as a sophomore and was having a fine second varsity season as a triple-threat halfback; Smith could run, pass, and kick—all necessities for a quality back in the days of the single-wing offense. But eyes were not yet glued on him the way they were on Harmon and Franck.
Regardless of whether there was any truth to the story, Lucius Smith raised a good candidate for beating up on Michigan. Bruce Smith was a natural athlete who won four letters each in football, basketball, and golf at Faribault Senior High. He arrived at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1938, played well on the freshman team, won the starting left halfback position as a sophomore, and kept it as a junior, which is where he was ensconced for the game against Michigan.
The kickoff featured its two stars—Harmon booting to Franck near the goal line. Franck returned the ball about 40 yards, but nothing much happened afterwards, not just in that initial drive, but through the rest of the first quarter. It was back-and-forth football, primarily
played in the rain-soaked center of the field, with neither of the teams, or their stars, wowing the record crowd. The quarter ended, however, with Michigan threatening on Minnesota’s three-yard line.Photo: Herbert “Fritz” Crisler coached the football Gophers for the 1930 and ’31 seasons. He was head coach of the Michigan Wolverines when they came to Memorial Stadium in 1940.
It was the first of three inside-the-10 opportunities for the Wolverines in the second quarter. Minnesota’s stellar defense held on the first and last of these occasions; but in between, Harmon threw a seven-yard scoring strike to another Michigan all-American, Forest Evashevski. The extra point failed, and Michigan held a 6–0 lead as the first half neared an end and the saturated field grew sloppier.
After the touchdown, Minnesota once again went nowhere and Michigan once again moved down the field. Then the Gophers intercepted an errant Michigan pass in the end zone and took possession of the ball on their own 20-yard line. Just a couple of minutes remained in the first half when Smith’s number was called in the Minnesota huddle. Franck would get the snap and head right with another back in front of him. Smith, playing the wingback position just beyond the right side of the line, would head in the opposite direction, to his left, and receive a handoff from Franck. Smith would then head around left end with good luck and Godspeed.
Single-wing offenses relied heavily on reverses and ball trickery to gain yardage on running plays. Any of four backs could handle the football and multiple exchanges in the backfield were common. Viewing old film footage of the handoffs, pitches, and shifting, back-and-forth movements of a single-wing offense is like watching a fire drill in which only the leather helmets seem to know what’s going on.
So it was with this play. By the time Tom Harmon and the Michigan defenders realized that Bruce Smith was carrying the ball around left end, not George Franck heading right, Smith was already into the secondary with his shoulders squared and a bead on the goal line. He needed to beat Harmon, Evashevski, and a couple of others, but with a juke here, some good blocking there, and a long sprint to the end zone, Bruce Smith had completed the most important touchdown run in Gopher football history. Eighty yards to pay dirt.
The extra point was good. Minnesota took a 7–6 lead into the locker room, and by the time the teams came out for the second half, it
was like they were playing in a Rangoon monsoon. Michigan got deep into Minnesota territory one more time, where they were once again stopped, and that was that. The game ended as had the first half, 7–6 Minnesota, though now a lot more mud covered players on both sides of the field.Photo: Lucius Smith (J.D. ’12), father of Bruce Smith, played Gopher football from 1910 to ’11. He’s pictured in the 1912 Gopher annual.
Minnesota would finish the season undefeated at 8–0, owner of both the Little Brown Jug and the Gophers’ fourth National Championship under Bernie Bierman. Michigan’s sole loss that season was that one-point defeat in Minneapolis. Its consolation prize, Tom Harmon’s 1940 Heisman Trophy, was not much consolation at all.
As for Bruce Smith, the glare of the national college football spotlight was suddenly shining on him. With both Harmon and Franck graduating and that brilliant 80-yard run a warm memory, Smith entered his senior year at Minnesota as the Big Ten’s premier player and a leading candidate for the 1941 Heisman. “Bruce Smith of Minnesota will be the back of the year,” reported the Saturday Evening Post in a preview of the 1941 college football season that was echoed in a number of publications. “He weighs 200 pounds, can kick, pass, run hard and deceptively, and on any kind of field.”
Not only that, Smith had a widely acknowledged modesty that was so pronounced that the Minnesota Daily actually retained the “gee’s” and “gosh’s” from his speech. “I got a big kick out of making that touchdown run against Michigan,” Smith is quoted as saying on the occasion of being voted senior captain of the team, “but gee . . . this is absolutely the biggest thrill of my life.”
It wasn’t as if Smith didn’t have to show up for his last year as a Gopher to win all-American honors, but he did seem to have a leg up on the competition. Statistically speaking, his senior year was less impressive than his junior; he gained fewer yards rushing and actually missed all or most of three games due to injury. But he was a stellar performer nonetheless. The Gophers again went 8–0 and were once again crowned national champions. No one in Minnesota was surprised to hear that Bruce Smith had been voted winner of the 1941 Heisman Trophy.
Momentous days in Smith’s football life tended to coincide with events of historical significance. The Michigan game had been played as a
prelude to the Armistice Day Blizzard; Smith received his Heisman Trophy in New York City on December 9, 1941—two days after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
With Smith in New York were his father and coach Bierman. After thanking them and his teammates, the small-town hero assured his audience that: “In the Far East they may think Americans are soft, but I have plenty of evidence in black and blue to prove otherwise. I think that in this emergency the value of football to a nation will be demonstrated.”Photo: Bruce Smith in the Heisman pose, in 1941.
It is doubtful that many members of the “greatest generation” listened to that pronouncement with any question of its basic truth. This was an era when college football heroes epitomized all-American values, both on and off the field—a fact that Hollywood well understood. Just a few months after Smith received his Heisman, Columbia Pictures announced that his life story would be dramatized in a 1942 film titled Smith of Minnesota. (It wasn’t the first or last time in these years that the motion-picture industry plucked a college football star from the playing fields and set him down on a studio lot. In fact, Tom Harmon had just starred in his own feature, perhaps not surprisingly, called Harmon of Michigan, which was then playing in theaters across the country.)
In Smith of Minnesota, the movie’s namesake was the centerpiece of the movie, but not exactly its star. That would be an actor named Warren Ashe, who played a Hollywood scenarist sent off to Faribault, Minnesota, to write a script based on the exploits of football hero Bruce Smith, who played himself. The writer is cynical about the all-American qualities Smith is supposed to possess, but in the end, he’s won over by the town’s admiration for its favorite son and, of course, by Smith.
Anyone interested in viewing Smith of Minnesota will have a hard time finding a copy. This is not the sort of biopic on anyone’s must-be-preserved list. By the time it premiered in Minnesota in September 1942, Smith himself was in Chicago, enlisted as a flier in the U.S. Navy. Smith of Minnesota represented the first and last of his film credits.
Smith spent three years in the Navy, some of that time as a football player for the Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago and then for St. Mary’s Flight School in California. After the war, Bruce Smith played three years of pro ball with the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams, but injuries—and the fact that the Packers played him only as a defensive back—prevented Smith from reaching his full potential as a professional.
Smith married Gloria Bardeau, a fashion model from Phildelphia he met while in the service, and they had four children. In the 1950s, he opened a sporting goods store with a partner in Northfield, Minnesota, and he subsequently worked in sales for a clothing store in Faribault
and for a beer distributor in Alexandria, Minnesota. By 1967, Smith was fatally ill with cancer and died in August of that year at the age of 47.Photo: Smith tackles Wolverine Tom Harmon in the 1940 game at Minnesota. Harmon won the Heisman Trophy that year.
There were a couple more accolades left to come for Smith of Minnesota. In 1972, he was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Bernie Bierman said at the time that “Bruce Smith was the most complete ball player I ever saw or coached.” And his number, 54, was the first to be retired by the Gophers, in 1977.
High praise indeed, but really nothing compared to that offered to Smith in 1978 by a Paulist priest named Father William Cantwell when he proposed that Bruce Smith be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Smith had been devout his entire life, praying before and after games and once declaring to his father “that every man should spend at least an hour a day with God.” Cantwell had known Smith only in his last few months, when he was physically wasting away. Despite his ailments, Smith made hospital rounds with Cantwell, visiting and comforting dying young cancer patients. Cantwell told the National Catholic News Service that “because he lived a life of heroic virtue and because of the way he died,” Smith deserved to be canonized.
Achieving sainthood is a process longer and more serious than, say, Warren Ashe’s efforts at checking into the character of a college football hero from Faribault, à la Smith of Minnesota. In fact, according to a recent report in the Star Tribune, the canonization campaign is ongoing, having been taken up by another Paulist priest, the Rev. Michael Martin, 30 years after it began with Cantwell.
Regardless of the outcome, it’s plain to see that Bruce Smith set a high bar for the next Minnesota Gopher who wins the Heisman.