By Ryan Larson
Athletics have always been an important part of the university experience, and no sport has been more popular among universities than football. The University of Utah is now one of the top football schools in the country, but from 1948 to 1992, the football team struggled. The football team only participated in one bowl game during that time frame, the 1964 Liberty Bowl. The coach who was able to help the University of Utah to achieve greatness in the midst of those years of struggle was Ray Nagel.
On January 31, 1958, the Deseret News reported that the University of Utah had hired Nagel to become the new head football coach. He replaced Jack Curtice as head coach. It was a surprising hire for Utah because Nagel was only 30 years old at the time and considered very young for the position. The Deseret News described him on January 31, 1958, as, “personable, youthful” with a “boyish grin.”
Prior to taking over at Utah, Nagel had been a player for UCLA, where he was an All-American honorable mention at quarterback. He also spent time as an assistant coach for the Chicago Cardinals, the University of Oklahoma and UCLA. He was serving as grid assistant for UCLA when he was hired by Utah as head coach, the Salt Lake Times reported on February 7, 1958.
One of the reasons Utah chose to hire Nagel was because he wanted to implement a new offensive system for the football team. The Daily Utah Chronicle reported on April 18, 1958, that Nagel would be running the straight “T” offense, which would be a slight change from the winged “T” that the team used in previous seasons. A former player of Nagel’s, wingback John Pease, would later recall to Matthew Piper of the Salt Lake Tribune on December 14, 2014, that Coach Nagel’s practices were like “street fights.”
However, Nagel was well liked by his players and by the student body. The Daily Utah Chronicle reported on November 16, 1962, that 35 students invaded Nagel’s home to “abduct” him and take him to the local television station, where the students read a letter proclaiming their loyalty to Nagel and the football team.
Nagel had moderate levels of success in his first six seasons as head coach for the university. The team’s record was 30-30-1 during those seasons. The Utes always won at least four games each season but never had more than seven wins in a season. (“Ray Nagel,” Sports Reference College Football)
Things began to change for the Utes in 1964 as the team reached a previously unobtained level of success. The team success was based on a Nagel-led offense that the former players told Matthew Piper of the Salt Lake Tribune, “Had four run plays and about as many pass plays.” Utah went 8-2 during the regular season. The team’s only two losses came against Missouri and Wyoming. The 8-2 record was good enough for Utah to earn a share of the Western Athletic Conference title. It was also reported by the Daily Utah Chronicle on December 7, 1964, that Nagel had been named the Western Athletic Conference’s Coach of the Year.
At the end of the season, Utah was invited to participate in the Liberty Bowl against West Virginia. It would be the Utes’ first bowl appearance since 1948. The Liberty Bowl was to be played in New York on December 19, 1964. As the New York Times reported that day, it was the first bowl game to ever be played indoors, and the most expensive ticket for a bowl game ever to that point.
The Provo Sunday Herald would report on December 20, 1964, that Utah demolished West Virginia in the game, winning 32-6. The newspaper quoted Nagel after the game as saying, “This was our best game of the season. We got the jump on them and they couldn’t pick up momentum.” Ron Coleman was voted the game’s most outstanding back. Utah would not compete in another college football bowl game until 1992.
The 1965 season would be the final season with Nagel serving as head coach for the University of Utah. The Utes’ would go 3-7 during the season after losing much of the core that composed the 1964 team. At the end of the season, on December 12, 1965, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal would report that the University of Iowa had hired Nagel to become the school’s new football coach. This marked the end of Nagel’s tenure at Utah, where he finished with a record of 42-39-1. (“Ray Nagel,” Sports Reference College Football)
After Nagel left for the University of Iowa, Reece Stein of the Daily Utah Chronicle reported on January 11, 1966, the University of Utah had hired Mike Giddings to replace Nagel as head coach. Giddings had served as an assistant coach at the University of Southern California for five years before accepting the Utah job.
Nagel would coach at Iowa for five more years before retiring from coaching at the end of the 1970 season. His career coaching record would be 58-70-1. The 1964 football team that Nagel coached would be inducted into the Crimson Club Hall of Fame in 2014 in recognition of their Liberty Bowl victory that year. (“Crimson Club Hall Of Fame 2014,” Utah Utes Athletics) The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Ray Nagel died on January 15, 2015, at the age of 87.
Ray Nagel was one of the most successful football coaches the University of Utah had during the twentieth century. He helped lead the Utes to what would be the most significant win in program history up to that point at the 1964 Liberty Bowl. No other coach was able to reach the same level of success at Utah until the 1990s.
A successful football team can have a major impact on all aspects of university life. An increase in the success of a college football team tends to lead to more monetary donations being given to the university. (Humphreys and Modello, p. 278) This in turn brings in more money that can be used for academic funding and to improve other areas of university life.
Aside from the financial impact, college athletics are also an important part of the culture and tradition of many universities. The University of Utah is one such university, and few coaches have obtained the level of success that Ray Nagel achieved. Fifty years have passed, but the 1964 Liberty Bowl team remains one of the defining football seasons for the university. This is evident by their induction into the Crimson Club Hall of Fame. As the University of Utah continues to strive for success in college football, it is important to remember the legacy of Ray Nagel. He achieved success at the University of Utah that has seldom been matched since his departure.
Ryan Larson is a junior at the University of Utah. He is double majoring in economics and communication with a journalism emphasis.
Dee Chipman, “All’s Normal At Utah With Naming Of Nagel,” Deseret News, January 31, 1958, 8.
Vince Pearson, “Newest Ute? Coach Nagel!” Daily Utah Chronicle, January 31, 1958, 1.
“University Coach Youthful, Qualified,” Salt Lake Times, February 7, 1958, 3.
Terry Eagan, “SLC Quarterback Club Honors Nagel,” Daily Utah Chronicle, March 11, 1958, 1.
“Coach Nagel Starts Fourth Year At Utah,” Daily Utah Chronicle, September 21, 1961, 8.
David Jonsson, “Howling Mob Grabs Nagel From Home,” Daily Utah Chronicle, November 16, 1962, 1.
“Coach, Tackle Receive Honors,” Daily Utah Chronicle, December 7, 1964, 3.
“UTAH IS FAVORED IN LIBERTY BOWL; Strong Defense Is Ready for West Va. in Jersey Today,” New York Times, December 19, 1964, 33.
UPI, “Utah Whips West Virginia 32-6 in Liberty Bowl Game,” Provo Sunday Herald, December 20, 1964, 18.
AP, “Iowa Hires Nagel, Utah Head Coach,” Spartanburg Herald-Journal, December 12, 1965, 12.
UPI, “Ray Nagel Gets Head Grid Coaching Post at Iowa U.,” Provo Sunday Herald, December 12, 1965, 18.
Reece Stein, “New Grid Mentor In S.L. for Talks,” Daily Utah Chronicle, January 5, 1966, 4.
“Utah Football: Ray Nagel, coach of Liberty Bowl champions, dies,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 21, 2015.
“Crimson Club Announces 2014 Hall Of Fame Class,” Utah Utes Athletics, April 15, 2014.
Humphreys, Brad R. and Michael Mondello. “Intercollegiate Athletic Success and Donations at NCAA Division I Institutions,” Journal of Sports Management 21, no. 2 (April 2007): 265-80.
“Ray Nagel,” Sports Reference College Football.
Piper, Matthew. “Utah Football: 50 years later, love and friendship endures for Liberty Bowl teammates,” The Salt Lake Tribune, December 14, 2014.