The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth
Volume 18 • Number 1 • Winter 2001

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A tribute to Lloyd Peterson by Ben Korgen

By the time six of his football teams had won conference championships and two of them were undefeated, Lloyd Peterson began attracting the attention of football experts nationwide.

Ben Korgen, a 1956 alumnus, provides an insightful look at UMD athletic history and at one of the personalities that laid the groundwork for the present athletic program.

In 1929, Duluth State Teachers College (DSTC) struggled to survive. It had no football field and a gymnasium too small for basketball games. In spite of an ongoing economic depression, DSTC administrators gambled on future growth by investing in an athletic program. They could afford to hire one person. Their search focused on Lloyd Peterson, a former Minnesota fullback.

A story concerning Peterson’s exploits raced through the fifty-student DSTC campus. It focused on the third quarter of the 1924 Minnesota-Illinois game when a previously humbled Minnesota team kicked off to national champion Illinois. The ball was fielded by Red Grange, one of the greatest running backs of all time. Lloyd Peterson sprinted ahead of the pack and met Grange head-on with an ear-splitting tackle. Grange lost momentum and Minnesota pulled off what still stands as one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

The hero of that story came to DSTC in 1930 and stayed for 38 years, guiding the athletic program from its infancy through the transition to UMD and beyond. In his early years at DSTC, Lloyd Peterson was athletic director, coach of all sports, head of physical education, and professor of enough different subjects to personally offer a major in physical education. He also served as professor of human anatomy and physiology for prospective nurses and medical doctors.

His first love was football, but his efforts to build basketball were so successful, his win-loss record became better in basketball than in football! He even fielded a DSTC basketball team that gained national recognition by defeating the Harlem Globetrotters!

By the time six of his football teams had won conference championships and two of them were undefeated, Lloyd Peterson attracted the attention of football experts nationwide. During World War II, Iowa Pre-Flight had one of the best football programs in the nation. The head coach there was Don Faurot, an innovator who revolutionized football by inventing the split-T offense. Faurot hired three of the most promising young coaches in the country to be his assistants. Two of them, Bud Wilkinson and Jim Tatum, later became head coaches and developed national champions at Oklahoma and Maryland. Faurot, Wilkinson, and Tatum have been inducted into the College Football Coaches Hall of Fame. The third assistant hired by Faurot was Lloyd Peterson.

After Iowa Pre-Flight, Lloyd Peterson had a decision to make. He had opportunities elsewhere but could see the potential for growth at DSTC. He decided to return to DSTC as head football coach and professor of physical education to find out where the program was going.

World War II had a profound influence on Lloyd Peterson. Some of the young men he had worked with did not return from the war. In the words of Lloyd Peterson, others returned "all broken up." He decided to live the remainder of his life not for prestige or hollow victories, but for his family and for values that really matter. He knew that he would be risking his superb win-loss record, reputation, and position.

When he returned to DSTC, Peterson abandoned recruiting and his youthful zeal for the technical aspects of football. His detractors jumped on his change of heart as evidence of decline.

But time revealed a new and positive look. Lloyd Peterson’s admiration and respect for his players and his intriguing uses of humor caught the fancy of his players and former detractors as something worth emulating. His happy relationship with his wife Irene and his success as a father of five children won the hearts of many more. He used no profanity, even in the most stressful coaching situations. One of his provosts wrote him a letter stating that virtually all the male UMD faculty and administrators would rather be a football coach like Lloyd Peterson than carry out their present duties.

Lloyd Peterson was a modest man who avoided the limelight. He quietly made his contributions to his players, mostly in ways unknown to others. He taught them values. He found part-time jobs and low-cost lodging for those needing financial support. He served as a substitute father for players whose own fathers had abandoned them.

Hundreds of young men wanted to be football coaches like Lloyd Peterson. This led one media person to claim that "Lloyd Peterson prepared more young football coaches than any other man." Peterson focused on developing "project players," or players with limited physical gifts, but with big hearts, big minds, or both.

One of Lloyd Peterson’s players was Dan Devine, who later became the head football coach at Arizona State, Missouri, the Green Bay Packers, and Notre Dame. Devine’s coaching success led him to being inducted into the College Football Coaches Hall of Fame.

Devine differed from Peterson in recruiting and in the technical aspects of the game, but he emulated Peterson’s efforts as a humanitarian and role model. To Peterson insiders, the Hollywood movie Rudy, reveals insights into Lloyd Peterson’s way of doing things. It is the story of Rudy Rudiger, a lowly scout-team player at Notre Dame during Dan Devine’s tenure as head coach. Rudy played with frantic zeal in scrimmages, primarily to force improvements on the varsity players, but always with the hope that he might play in a varsity game before he graduated. Devine was portrayed as a reluctant "heavy" who finally relents under pressure from his players and allows Rudy to play in a varsity game. In real life, letting Rudy play in a varsity game was Devine’s idea. To me, Rudy reveals Lloyd Peterson’s values being expressed by Dan Devine.

In 1947, DSTC became UMD. In the late 1950s, Lloyd Peterson realized that he could accomplish more by turning over the details of coaching football to a younger man so he could return to developing the strong, balanced athletic program he had dreamed of before the war. He became the athletic director again and did everything he could to hire Jim Malosky, his replacement as head football coach, and give Malosky the best possible start. Malosky went on to become a living legend at UMD.

Lloyd Peterson directed an athletic program that was ethically beyond reproach. He lived beyond retirement to age 86 and died in 1986. His successes in athletics helped to change DSTC’s character and size. More male students enrolled, and the college expanded. By 1950, UMD’s enrollment was more than 40 times the DSTC enrollment when Lloyd Peterson arrived. As part of Lloyd Peterson’s legacy, the modern UMD enrollment is at 9,000 students and still growing.

I thought of Lloyd Peterson when I read the following 2,500 year-old passage written by the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu as advice to Army Generals: “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”

A small number of UMD backers has endowed the Lloyd W. Peterson Memorial Scholarship to support student-athletes with the attributes of courage and discipline that Lloyd Peterson most admired. Anyone interested in supporting this scholarship fund should contact Dale Race, Coordinator of the Bulldog Club, at 218-726-8189.

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