Danny Spewak Q&A

August 22, 2022
Danny Spewak's grandfather was a war hero and football champion.

“I was so fascinated by how quickly my grandfather transitioned from playing football at the University of Minnesota to serving in the military during World War II, along with the rest of the Gophers on the 1941 national championship team. That was what really inspired the book.”

Your grandfather inspired your book. Did he talk much about his war experience? 

Since my grandfather died when I was only 9, I relied on my dad to relay many of the World War II experiences. It’s my understanding he spoke a fair amount about his service in the South Pacific with the Army Air Corps, although I wish I could have asked my grandfather more questions while he was still alive. I’m so fascinated by how quickly he transitioned from playing football at the University of Minnesota to serving in the military during World War II, along with the rest of the Gophers on the 1941 national championship team. That’s what really inspired the book and led me to want to learn more about the individual experiences of each player.

Did your grandfather serve with any teammates?

I can’t say for sure, but I would say there’s a good chance that he did. In fact, many of the members of Minnesota’s 1941 team ended up in close proximity to him in the South Pacific, so it’s possible he even ran into a few teammates. Along similar lines, several Gopher football players from that era fought alongside each other at Iwo Jima. They served in different military branches, so I wasn’t able to verify whether they were aware that they had teammates nearby, but I’m sure it’s something they learned once they all returned.

How long did you work on the book?

From initial research to publication, the book took nearly three and a half years. I started looking into the idea during the summer of 2018, shortly after I moved to the Twin Cities, and then began scanning archives and interviewing family members of the players. I’d say it took me a full year and a half to write the first draft of the book — followed by a lot of revisions and then the publication process.

Bernie Bierman won five national titles but he doesn’t get mentioned when people talk about legendary coaches. Should he be considered up there with Bear Bryant? 

I think it’s definitely fair to characterize Bierman as a legendary coach, and while it’s hard to compare him or place him on a list, I agree completely that his accomplishments are overlooked in today’s world. The sustained success of the Minnesota football program during the Depression and in the years before World War II is astounding if you look at the numbers. In a time before true national recruiting, the Gophers finished undefeated and untied four times in 1934, 1935, 1940 and 1941, giving the state of Minnesota a national identity as a powerhouse in college football. Before the age of television, the Gophers routinely played games in front of millions of radio listeners on NBC and CBS — sometimes both stations at the same time. It’s a shame that Big 10 policies didn’t allow the league to compete in the Rose Bowl back then, otherwise Minnesota would have appeared on that prestigious stage many times under Bierman.

What was his greatest coaching innovation?

I think Bierman succeeded as a coach because of his simplicity, attention to detail and emphasis on fundamentals. He ran a very old-school single wing offense without a lot of passing plays or fancy tricks, but he drilled the basics into his players and got them to buy into his disciplined style. This style did not work as well after World War II, once the game had gotten faster and more pass-heavy, but in his prime, Bierman was arguably the best college football coach in America.

Do you now have the bug when it comes to writing history? 

This book was my first attempt at writing history and I thoroughly enjoyed the process. It was fun to look back through old documents and newspaper archives to get a sense for daily life in the months before, during and after World War II.

What is next for you?

I’m hoping to get to work on a second non-fiction book project in the coming weeks, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the process takes me.