Those Gaels, What Tales : For St. Mary's, Football Glory Is Just a Memory

Times Staff Writer

In the late 1960s, several rugby students at little St. Mary's College in this quiet community on the outskirts of Oakland spotted a shiny object amid a bunch of garbage in a campus trash area.

Reaching in, they were amazed to pull out a broken gold trophy, nearly four feet high, the prize for winning the Cotton Bowl of 1939.

St. Mary's in the Cotton Bowl? Oh, sure. . . .

That had to be someone's idea of an expensive prank? After all, the Cotton Bowl is for a Bear Bryant, a Darrell Royal or an Ara Parseghian, for an Alabama, a Texas or a Notre Dame.

St. Mary's, at the time the trophy was found, didn't even have a football team.

Well, as those students discovered, it was no prank. They had a football team three decades earlier, a football team led by a coach who could match even the legendary Knute Rockne, hyperbole for hyperbole, a football team Notre Dame wouldn't even play, a football team so popular the first San Francisco 49ers pro teams seemed a poor imitation in comparison. So, on occasion, did USC and UCLA.

"In those days, at Irish Catholic services around here, they used to announce from the pulpit that St. Mary's was playing," says Joe DeLuca, the school's current football coach.

They don't anymore, but football is back at St. Mary's today. The Galloping Gaels are at least trotting again as a rising NCAA Division II team.

School officials would like to see the rebuilding continue, but they know, budgets being what they are and constantly growing for big-time college football, St. Mary's, 2,100 students strong, will never again be what it once was in football.

Nor, probably, will any school in this age of the pros.

But once upon a time. . . .

The only crowds they get now on Sundays at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium are packs of sea gulls, picking with their beaks at the grass once chewed up by some of football's great names.

But back in the 1920s, 30s and part of the 40s, you practically had to wait for someone to die to get a ticket to watch Galloping Gaels such as the Hawaiian Hurricane Squirmin' Herman Wedemeyer, Icehouse Wilson and Angel Brovelli, the Dark Angel of the Moragas. Sixty thousand people would routinely fill the Kezar stands.

In 1931, a year the nation was plunged deeply into the Depression, nearly 400,000 turned out to watch the Gaels at home. Only USC, with its 90,000-plus seating capacity at the Coliseum, outdrew St. Mary's.

In the 1930s, there were 78,000 at Berkeley, 83,000 at a USC game at the Coliseum and 65,000 at a Fordham game at New York's Polo Grounds. In each case, St. Mary's was the opposition.

The Gaels were 8-2 in 1925, including a 28-0 win over UCLA. They were undefeated in 1926 at 9-0-1. They not only repeated that feat in 1929, but surrendered a season total of just six points to Oregon in a 31-6 victory. St. Mary's finished 8-0-1 that season, after tying Cal, 0-0, in its opener.

"We have a team out here called St. Mary's (which sounds effeminate), but they haven't lost a game since the gold rush," Will Rogers said in 1929.

The Gaels had a couple of shots at a national championship. In 1930, they were considered a national power after a 20-12 upset victory over Fordham, a big Eastern team in those days, but a one-point loss to Cal in St. Mary's opener probably cost the school the No. 1 spot.

In 1934, the Gaels beat Fordham and California, but were upset by Nevada, 9-7, and lost to UCLA, 6-0, and another national title had slipped away.

The Gaels defeated previously unbeaten Texas Tech, 20-13, in that '39 Cotton Bowl. St. Mary's made two other bowl appearances. The 1945 squad lost to Oklahoma A&M;, 33-13, in the Sugar Bowl. The 1946 team fell to Georgia Tech, 41-19, in the now-defunct Oil Bowl.

Among its fans, St. Mary's could count Babe Ruth, Errol Flynn, Ginger Rogers and presidential candidate Al Smith. Joseph Kennedy, father of the future president, sat on the St. Mary's bench several times.

It all started with Slip.

Some will tell you, it ended with him as well.

Think it's tough beginning with your most-prized trophy in the trash?

How would you like to begin with the legacy of a 127-0 loss?

That humiliating beating was handed to the Gaels by Cal in 1920. Cal scored 18 touchdowns in the game, while St. Mary's managed just 16 yards of total offense.

The student body, at a college that had played football on and off since 1892, numbered 71 in 1920.

The rest of the season was canceled.

Enter one Slip Madigan.

A center and guard on Rockne's Notre Dame teams of 1916, 1917 and 1919, with a year out for World War I, Edward Patrick Madigan gained his nickname from his ability to slip past defenders.

He was just a 25-year-old junior college coach in Oregon when he was hired by St. Mary's.

According to his son, Edward E. Madigan, an Oakland developer, his father said that his greatest thrill in a St. Mary's coaching career that stretched to 1939, came in that first season when he held Cal to a 21-0 victory.

"He often said it was a lot better than 127-0," the younger Madigan says. "And the way he pulled that off was with several ringers he had brought in from Notre Dame. He also filled out the bench with local high school players so it would look like they had a full squad. He told me he would have played himself if he could have."

First time out, he did. In his book on the Gaels, "They Did It Every Time," Randy Andrada relates how Madigan had only 15 bodies show up for his first, bleak spring practice. Madigan scrimmaged with the team. He also washed the towels, fixed broken equipment and had his wife and mother-in-law patch up torn jerseys.

But most importantly, Madigan recruited. He was awfully good at it. Not surprising since he learned under the master, Rockne.

"There was a story going around," says Dick Mesak, now retired in the Bay area but formerly an All-Coast lineman on the Cotton Bowl-bound Gaels, "that Slip was out on a recruiting trip when he came upon Wee Willie Wilkin (subsequently an excellent tackle for the Gaels) working with a plow in the fields.

"He asked Wilkin how to get into town. Wilkin picked up the plow with one hand and pointed. Madigan signed him right up."

There were a lot of stories about Madigan, whose ability to inspire his squad wasn't far short of Rockne's.

Rockne had the Gipper to win one for--George Gipp, a player whose dying wish, supposedly, was for victory for the Fighting Irish.

Madigan had a whole cast of characters to draw from.

"He always seemed to have a dying grandmother reciting a rosary for his boys that we couldn't disappoint," one of his players is quoted as saying in Andrada's book.

A typical Madigan spiel, according to Andrada, involved the coach's wife, Charlotte.

"Charlotte's up there in the stands praying for you boys," Madigan would say. "You can't let her down . . . the fighting human heart is made to win."

Madigan's son will never forget one particular appeal.

"I was about five, I guess, and I was just getting over the flu or something," the younger Madigan says. "My dad apparently was making this speech, exhorting the team to win one for his dying son.

"Unfortunately, at that moment, I walked into the locker room."

Madigan remembers another instance of his father at work during a game against the Trojans at the Coliseum.

"He told the team he had this holy water for them," Madigan says. "That he had gotten from an old monk on his deathbed. But actually, someone had seen him getting it from a Coliseum drinking fountain."

Andrada passes on an old Arthur Daley story from the New York Times.

"Madigan used to spur his heroes to greater efforts with the invention of a Notre Dame teammate named Deegan," Daley wrote.

"If his Gaels messed up a play, Slip would sigh and tell them that Deegan would have never done it that way. If a Gael did something extraordinary, Slip would pay him the supreme compliment by telling the youngster that the play was worthy of Deegan. No matter what they did, Deegan was always there.

"Later, when fellow Notre Dame alumni struggled to recall Madigan's fictitious friend, Slip would grin and reply, 'Deegan never won any games at South Bend, but he sure pulled out a few at Saint Mary's.' "

Eddie Erdelatz, who later became the first head coach of the Oakland Raiders in the old American Football League, played for Madigan and was later quoted in a San Francisco paper as saying, "Slip Madigan was cheated. He never received what he really deserved--an Academy Award. Slip was the greatest halftime actor since Knute Rockne."

If Madigan could be characterized as the leading man in this theatrical production, then surely Will Stevens deserved some honor for best supporting actor.

On one occasion, Madigan sent Stevens, the team publicist, to the East Coast to build interest for an upcoming St. Mary's-Fordham game.

Eating lunch with Grantland Rice, one of the premier sportswriters of his time, Stevens decided to really lay on the sauce. He told Rice they were so tough at St. Mary's, they ate their meat raw.

And to prove his point, he ordered his steak that way and consumed it, before an amazed Rice.

Stevens went back to his hotel to get sick, but Rice had swallowed the tale.

He wrote in his column that the team was so tough, even its publicist ate raw meat.

This incident was no aberration. Madigan always had the press eating out of his hand.

He worked at it. He not only knew the favorite brand of whiskey and cigars of every reporter who covered St. Mary's, but he also supplied backshop personnel at their respective papers as well.

He gave them plenty to write about. He wanted his teams to be colorful, not only in style but appearance as well. He introduced tear-away jerseys, red-silk pants and even briefly experimented with different colors for different positions.

He never seemed to miss an opportunity. During one cross-country trip, his team had stopped for a view of Arizona's Grand Canyon.

Madigan handed a football to his kicker, Jerry Dowd, and had him boot it into the canyon, first making sure, of course, that all the photographers had their cameras poised. He later boasted how his kicker could claim the world's longest punt.

Even Madigan's trips were legendary.

They began in 1922 when he arranged a financial deal with a Hawaiian auto dealer who agreed to pay the expenses for the team to sail over to the islands to play an all-star team and a U.S. Navy squad.

By 1930, Madigan was looking for new horizons.

Rockne was telling the press, "None but the brave should schedule St. Mary's."

But he never would.

"If you beat me, you'd be a hero," Rockne told his former guard. "If I beat you, it would be no big deal."

So, instead, Madigan emulated his mentor and scheduled a game with Eastern powerhouse Fordham. It was through his East Coast trips that Rockne had gained national fame.

Even Rockne never did it up quite so grandly as Madigan. He chartered a 16-car train, referred to as "the world's longest bar," became a travel agent selling spots on the train and received money back from the railroad for each passenger he delivered.

The subsequent 20-12 victory over favored Fordham made the Gaels national heroes. On the way home, they took a detour to meet President Herbert Hoover at the White House.

Even Madigan's detours became famous. One year, he took the team to Havana, Cuba "on the way home."

Levine Bettencourt, an All-American end at St. Mary's, recalled that trip.

"We heard they had some good burlesque shows down there," he said. "That was before (Fidel) Castro, you know. So one of the other fellows on the team told me that we ought to slip away from the team and go see them.

"Once we got to Cuba, we did. We figured we'd gotten away with something. But when we walked into the club, there was Slip Madigan sitting in the front row. He smiled and said, 'What took you boys so long?' "

The smiles ended suddenly for Madigan.

He was fired from St. Mary's early in 1940.

Why? For one thing, the college was losing money and there were some lingering bad feelings over Madigan's earlier contract which gave him 10% of the St. Mary's gate, home and away.

That wouldn't have bought a nice dinner when it was put into effect. Ten percent of nothing is nothing.

But as Madigan built up the program, he did the same for his bank account. And in 1936, when the college had fallen behind on his pay, he was handed the entire check from the Fordham game, $38,324.15. By 1940, there were no profits, attendance was down and there was apparently some jealousy of Madigan, some feeling that he had become bigger than the school.

"There was some bitterness," his son says of his father's feelings over being dismissed. "But it passed quickly. He had a temper, but his anger didn't last long."

Madigan coached several years at Iowa during the war and had a brief stint as general manager of the L.A. Dons of the old All-American Football Conference.

But he got out of football in 1947 and never looked back.

"He used to say he knew everybody from the big house to the White House, but once he got into the construction business he cut all ties to football," his son says. "He didn't even watch it on television that much. He'd had enough of life in the fast lane of football.

"There had been a lot of pressure on him. He had a bad ulcer, and I can remember him living on baby food.

"When he was in the construction business, he would say he loved the fact that 60,000 people didn't critique his work. 'At least,' he would say, 'I'm not dependent on some 18-year-old freshman for my livelihood.' "

Madigan remained in the construction business until his death in 1966 at the age of 70.

In the tract of homes he built in the Bay Area community of Concord, he named several of the streets for old figures from the St. Mary's days.

Football players?

Nope, sportswriters.

St. Mary's football didn't end with Madigan.

In the mid-40s, along came a multi-talented back from Hawaii named Herman Wedemeyer, a handsome, multi-sport (baseball, swimming, boxing and golf) star whom Grantland Rice called America's best athlete in 1946.

"I packed my surfboard and hopped on a ship," Wedemeyer recalled the other day by phone from his home in Hawaii. "I landed in San Francisco and hitchhiked across the bay to get to St. Mary's."

Once there, he played for a coach, Jimmy Phelan, "who was always one for entertaining the fans," Wedemeyer said. "He would tell us that people had paid to see a show, so that's what we put on."

That they did.

The Gaels' specialty in those days was the lateral. They scored a touchdown on one occasion after a triple lateral. By the time the referee's whistle had blown on another occasion, St. Mary's had pulled off a six-lateral play.

Another Wedemeyer specialty was the quick kick. In those days, if you weren't satisfied with your field position after a punt, you could kick the ball right back to the opposition.

"They didn't know what to think of me," Wedemeyer said. "There was one play where I received the ball and saw 11 guys coming at me. So, I said, 'The hell with it.' I punted it right back. The ball wound up on their 11-yard line. We next got an interception and scored."

Wedemeyer, who played for the school in 1943 and then '45-'47 after World War II, finished fourth in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy one season.

In later years, he wound up with a regular part in the television series "Hawaii Five-0" and a political career that included two terms as a state congressman.

He fared a lot better than his school.

St. Mary's wound up with four men--Madigan, Wedemeyer, Phelan and 1920s center Lawrence Bettencourt--in the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame.

But the glory was too soon gone.

With the emergence of pro football on Sundays at Kezar Stadium, continuing financial losses and a shocking turnout of less than 150 fans for St. Mary's final game of 1950, against Villanova, something had to be done.

It was. In January of 1951, the school announced it was dropping football.

The garbage heap beckoned.

St. Mary's is slowly hiking its way back to football respectability today, three decades after its program was literally trashed. The school plays a Division II schedule with the exception of one game against the University of San Diego, a Division III school. Today, the Gaels travel to Thousand Oaks to play Cal Lutheran.

In 1968, football was reborn on campus as a club sport, with the students paying the coaches' meager salaries.

In 1970, the college took over the program and St. Mary's was back in the NCAA as a Division III school, playing the La Vernes and the Claremonts of the world.

The Cotton Bowl trophy had been repaired, shined and given a prominent, glass-encased spot in the school gymnasium. The sport was back.

In 1978, the Gaels beat an old rival from the glory days, the University of Santa Clara, 31-18.

"That was kind of the yardstick for credibility around here," says Jim McDonald, currently the team's offensive coordinator, formerly the head coach, and a man associated with the program since its rebirth. "Beating Santa Clara was something to hang our hat on. We were not just a glorified high school program anymore."

In 1980, the school moved up to Division II.

And now, despite a 5-6 record last season, St. Mary's has taken on what Coach DeLuca proudly labels "the toughest schedule we've ever attempted since football was brought back to St. Mary's."

There have been tougher starts.

As Slip would remind him if he were still around, at least no one is asking DeLuca to come back from 127-0.

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