Slip Madigan sat staring moodily out the window at the fleeing countryside as his train rumbled across America's heartland toward New York City. The Slip Madigan St. Mary's-Fordham Special was the affectionate name of this transcontinental party on rails, an annual affair of Madigan's creation that had become the stuff of legend. It was an early evening in mid-November 1939, an hour when Slip would ordinarily be in full social bloom, traipsing through the cars glad-handing his fellow football travelers or stopping by to trade jokes in Joe Millett's private compartment, where the revelry continued without cessation day and night.
Madigan was 44 and coach for the 19th season at little St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., a school he had single-handedly transformed from an athletic nonentity into one of the nation's ranking football powers and the reigning Cotton Bowl champions. Revered as a coach, he was equally famous as a personality, a wild Irishman who thrived in a circus atmosphere, the P.T. Barnum of football.
But Slip was feeling rotten this night. His ulcers were acting up, his team was playing poorly, attendance was down, and a new board of athletic control at the college was attempting to further strip him of his once absolute powers, harassing him to the point where he was being required to actually account for his expenditures. Imagine!
The glass of Scotch before him rested untouched. He had climbed into his powder-blue pajamas earlier than usual in the vain hope of getting a decent night's sleep, but a knock on the door of his drawing room roused him from his windowside reverie. He slipped into a burgundy dressing gown and admitted Art Cohn, the acerbic young sports editor of the Oakland Tribune, a good friend and, as far as Cohn's ironic nature permitted, a loyal Madigan supporter.
October 27, 1992
"The boys are missing you out there," Cohn said, swaying with the movement of the train. "I must say, though, you look like you could use some rest."
"You know, Slip, they're saying if you don't beat Fordham, you're through."
The needling seemed to ignite some of the old fire inside. "So that's what they're saying, are they?" Madigan retorted. "O.K., Art, I've got a proposition for you."
"Of course you do."
"No, seriously, since you're obviously a genuine football expert, I'll tell you what I'm going to do. After Fordham, and after our little side trip to Mexico City, we've got one game left, with Loyola in Los Angeles."
"So here's my proposition: If by some chance we don't beat Fordham, I'll let you coach the team on the field against Loyola. What do you say?"
"Are you kidding?"
"Then you got a deal." And Cohn bolted from the room to begin spreading the word among his fellow scribes.
Slip removed his dressing gown and headed, at last, for bed. "Well, what's the harm," he asked himself, as the train thundered through the impersonal night, "of one last little joke?"
Brother Gregory, the president of St. Mary's College, opened his office door one rainy afternoon in late December 1920 to see a rain-drenched youth standing there with matted black hair and a dimpled smile. The 43-year-old brother was certain this must be a student applying for the spring semester. The intruder was obviously new to the campus, because Brother Gregory personally knew every one of the 135 undergraduates in this college run by the order of Christian Brothers.
"I'm Slip Madigan," the young man quickly advised Brother Gregory. "And I could be just the Christmas present St. Mary's is looking for."
Edward Patrick Madigan, the son of Irish immigrants, was 25 then, newly married and not yet a year out of Notre Dame, where he had been a 160-pound varsity lineman for three seasons, with a year off for naval duty in World War I. In 1919, his last season at South Bend, he had been a teammate of George Gipp's on Knute Rockne's first undefeated and untied team. After graduation, in June '20, Madigan coached one season at Columbia Prep in Portland, Ore., taking a team that had not won a game the year before to the city prep championship. His success in Portland was duly noted by a visiting Christian Brother, who urged Madigan to apply for the vacant football job at St. Mary's, then occupying a single building—called the Old Brickpile—near downtown Oakland.
And now Slip Madigan stood before Brother Gregory, who, impressed by the applicant's brass and by his Notre Dame credentials, hired him on the spot. "You'll have to coach everything, though," he told the young man. "You might even have to collect tickets." And he might well have added, "See if you can find enough players to make a team."
As coach of football, baseball and basketball and as an instructor in law, economics and history at St. Mary's, Madigan received an annual salary of only $1,200. To make ends meet, he and his wife, Charlotte, opened a sandwich shop across the street from campus. His mother-in-law was the cook.
It would be an understatement to say that as football coach Slip faced a major rebuilding job—St. Mary's 1920 football season could charitably be described as having been catastrophic. After opening losses of 6-0 to the Mare Island Marines and 41-0 to Stanford, St. Mary's next played the University of California's first vaunted Wonder Team in Berkeley. The Golden Bears won 127-0; Brother Gregory immediately canceled the remainder of the schedule.
Madigan had just 17 candidates turn out for the 1921 squad. He outfitted them with hand-me-down uniforms and shod them with cut-rate shoes into which he himself screwed the cleats. On game days he supplemented his squad with "recruits" from among nonplaying students, oversized high school kids and a few local dockworkers, who just sat on the bench to give the opposition the illusion it was facing a real team.
From his old mentor, Rockne, he borrowed the famous Notre Dame backfield shift as well as the conviction that games are won on the practice field. Like Rockne, Madigan made sure that his players were spectacularly well conditioned—no mean advantage in an era when players were obliged to perform on both offense and defense, sometimes for the full 60 minutes.
Madigan's 1921 team was ragtag but rugged and finished the season 4-3. It was one of the losses, in fact, that was the season's great triumph: St. Mary's fell to Cal's second Wonder Team, but by a 21-0 score, a 106-point improvement over the previous year. Slip forever after hailed this moral victory as the coaching feat of the century. In his second year Madigan went 3-5-1; he would not suffer another losing season until his last.
The bench props were soon supplanted by players that Madigan, a most persuasive recruiter, discovered in the Irish and Italian working-class neighborhoods of San Francisco and Oakland and on the farms of the vast California Central Valley. These were young men who might not ordinarily have gone to college but who, upon arriving there on a Madigan scholarship, worked diligently to stay.
In 1924 Madigan got the break he needed to crack the big time when a dispute between Stanford and USC over player eligibility caused cancellation of their game that season. Madigan offered St. Mary's to fill the hole in either schedule. Stanford said no; Southern Cal, coached by Gloomy Gus Henderson, condescended to play Madigan's team. In six games that season the Trojans had lost only to Cal and were considered, as usual, one of the better teams in the country. But Madigan was ready with his best, including workhorse fullback Norman (Red) Strader, a smart quarterback in Louis (Dutch) Conlan and a rotating trio of halfbacks—Jimmy Underhill, Leo Rooney, Hugh (Ducky) Grant—a unit that the press, in emulation of Rockne's famous equine quartet, dubbed the Pony Backfield.
A relatively meager crowd of some 35,000 turned up in the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch this band of unknowns play mighty Southern Cal. St. Mary's didn't even have the requisite fight song then, so the Trojans' band director, improvising, played the popular tune The Bells of St. Mary's, which Madigan instantly adopted as the school song.
The game, however, began on a distinctly sour note: 15 seconds after the opening kickoff, USC's Hank LeFebvre scored on a 73-yard reverse. But with Strader carrying the load, St. Mary's rallied and trailed at halftime by only 10-7. Still, Madigan was not pleased. "This generation of Irish has lost its guts," he shouted into the upraised Gaelic faces in the locker room at intermission.
St. Mary's scored a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. Then, with three minutes remaining in the game, the Trojans launched a final drive from their own 37-yard line, desperate to stave off a humiliating upset, and moved to the St. Mary's six with less than a minute left. Three line plunges carried the ball to within a foot of the goal with seven seconds on the clock, but with no timeouts remaining, USC could not get off another play. St. Mary's had held against one of football's elite.
The 14-10 upset had far-reaching consequences. Henderson resigned under pressure. Stanford, not Southern Cal, went to the Rose Bowl, where it lost to Rockne's Four Horsemen. And little St. Mary's became the game's newest sensation. Madigan never looked back.
These are the Roaring Twenties, and for Slip Madigan and his boys the good times roll on and on and on.... In 1926 St. Mary's beats California for the first time, 26-7, inspiring Pat Frayne of the San Francisco Call-Bulletin to dub the team the Galloping Gaels, a nickname that sticks. The '26 team finishes undefeated. In '27 Pop Warner's Stanford Indians fall 16-0 in a game so rough and injury-riddled that Stanford thereafter refuses to schedule another Madigan-coached team. All seven of the wins of the '27 Gaels are shutouts, validating Madigan's creed that defense wins more often than offense.
"He was a defensive genius," says one of his linemen, George Canrinus, now 82. "He had us blitzing and stunting long before it was common. We didn't have to score much to win."
In 1929 the Gaels go undefeated and unscored upon until the last quarter of their ninth and final game, when Oregon's Bob Robinson connects on a 20-yard touchdown to Al Browne. St. Mary's wins anyway, 31-6.
Rockne, who refuses to schedule St. Mary's, advises Slip that if he really wants to make the collegiate big leagues, he has to play in New York. Madigan, taking this to heart, is able to fill an open date on the home schedule of powerful Fordham for 1930. Intersectional games between schools from opposite coasts are rare because of the time and cost involved in traveling cross-country by train, but Slip sees this as no obstacle. That summer, with the game safely scheduled for Nov. 15 in New York's Polo Grounds, he writes to his players, "From the rock-bound shores of Maine to the beaches of sunny California, the St. Mary's Gaels are about to make history."
And money. Madigan forms his own travel agency and, with the cooperation of the Santa Fe railroad, organizes a two-week excursion to New York for players and fans, with a side trip to Washington, D.C, thrown in. One hundred fifty "streetcar alumni" and six actual alums sign on for the maiden voyage of the Slip Madigan St. Mary's-Fordham Special, thereafter known as "the world's longest bar."
To prepare New York for his arrival, Madigan dispatches an enterprising student public-relations assistant named Will Stevens as his advance man, arming him with a thousand dollars in cash and a satchel packed with 'Coon Hollow bootleg whiskey. Stevens, later a popular San Francisco newspaperman, arrives a week before the Special. He hounds Damon Runyon, who finally writes a column about the upcoming game. By swallowing a slab of uncooked meat, Stevens persuades Grantland Rice to write that the St. Mary's crew is so tough they eat raw steak.
"I was never so sick in all my life," Stevens later recalls, "but it was worth it."
For Madigan's players this inaugural tour is a storybook adventure. For the rest of the entourage, it is a nonstop party. Madigan entertains nightly in his twin drawing rooms on the train. Joe Millett, a Bay Area businessman, recognizes no closing hour and knows no shortage of bootleg hooch in his compartment. Another booster, Dan Maher, sets off such a racket with his firecrackers at Chicago's Union Station that the homicide squad is summoned to quell what bystanders fear is another gangland shoot-out.
In New York, Madigan stashes his team at the posh Westchester Country Club in suburban Rye and his fans at the Vanderbilt Hotel in Manhattan, where two nights before the game he tosses a press party that one celebrant describes as combining "the most spectacular features of an old-fashioned Irish wake and the last days of Pompeii." Madigan explains, perhaps seriously, "It doesn't cost any more to go first class."
All that remains is the game. Fordham, coached by the Iron Major, Frank Cavanaugh, is unbeaten and has outscored its opponents 181-9. The Gaels have lost only to California, 7-6. The coast-versus-coast matchup draws such attention that it is broadcast nationally by CBS radio, with star announcer Ted Musing at the microphone. But Fordham scores two easy touchdowns in the first half and appears headed for a runaway victory. The Gaels troop miserably into the locker room at half-time, fearing lord-knows-what from their fuming coach.
Half time oratory, in this era, is considered as essential to gridiron success as any combination of X's and O's, and Madigan is a master of the genre, a spellbinder beyond compare, a veritable Barrymore of the bathhouse.
"He had a kind of magic," recalls Lou Ferry, 78, one of Slip's quarterbacks. "Even the most cynical veteran players were ready to run through the walls after he finished talking."
No oratorical ruse is beneath Madigan. Close members of his family are perpetually invoked, always on their deathbeds, pleading with Slip to win just one more before they pass into the great beyond. Madigan's young son, Ed, lies on the edge of extinction virtually every week. Slip does not skip a beat when, during one such locker room lament for the terminally ill child, young Ed himself wanders in to hear what all the fuss is about. He, too, begins weeping over his own fate.
And so now, sitting there in the bowels of the Polo Grounds, his players wonder, What will the coach come up with this time? Madigan fixes them with his turquoise-blue eyes, then, tongue to the back of his teeth, he recreates the sound of a clicking telegraph key. "Tick, tick, tick," he clicks. "The news is crossing the country that the Gaels are failures. Tick, tick, tick." Then, tearfully recounting the team's climb from the obscurity of the Brickpile to national favor, he cries out, "The fighting human heart is made to win! Do you hear me? The fighting human heart is made to win! Now, who will fight for old St. Mary's?"
From the rear of the room, one voice rises above the din: "I will, Slip! I will!" It is Angelo Brovelli, a sophomore second-string fullback.
"Then you'll get your chance," Slip rejoices, tears cascading-down his rubious cheeks. "You'll get your chance!"
Brovelli starts the second half and, carrying tacklers with him, hurtles forward lour straight times, to the Fordham 19. The Gaels score on a pass from Fred (Stud) Stennett to Dick Sperbeck. Twice more they score, spurred on by the helmetless Brovelli, his thick black hair cushioning his ferocious line plunges. Fordham is held scoreless in the second half.
The upset is hailed nationwide. Copeland Burg of the International News Service writes, "From Maine to Mineola they are bowing to Slip Madigan's blue ghosts, who slipped through the fog and murk of the Polo (hounds Saturday afternoon to turn back the unbeaten, untied Fordham, 20-12."
Back home the Gaels, wearing derby hats, ride at the head of a parade up San Francisco's Market Street—this after a stopover to meet President Hoover in the White House. Fordham demands a rematch. Madigan accedes after first negotiating a guarantee of $ 10,000 to cover travel expenses. It is a small price to pay, he suggests, for a legend in the making.
"Years and years ago, out in the beautiful Valley of the Moragas where Don Moraga and his vaqueros rode forth from the shelter of his adobe casa on a little knoll overlooking the valley, they saw the stately trees, gowned in brown and gold, that a few days before had been clothed in shining green. They knew that autumn had come; that days of peace and rest had come to the beloved valley and hills."
Thus, in prose, did bellelrist Madigan consecrate the new St. Mary's campus in the Moraga Valley. The move from the dreary Brickpile to this pastoral setting east of the Oakland-Berkeley hills was made in 1928, and Madigan personally raised an additional $115,000 to build the gymnasium that yet bears his name. The St. Mary's student body had increased fourfold since Madigan's first season, not merely coincidental with the growing fame of the football team and its histrionic head coach.
"Sit down, Slip! Sit down, Slip!" the multitudes chanted happily as Madigan strode like a Caesar before his bench. Snappily dressed in a blue serge suit and navy-blue topcoat, a checkered silk scarf fluttering beneath his noble chin and a pearl-gray fedora atop the sable locks, he roamed his stage, braying at the officials, "What're you doing out there, you horse thieves?"
It was Madigan's view that football—and society at large—had far too many rules. Did Prohibition make sense? Unnecessary roughness? Games and life itself, he said, were better when played with "wild abandon." And so when some referee indiscriminately tossed his flag, Madigan, in unbearable anguish, ripped that pristine fedora from his head, smashed it to the turf, stomped it to ruins and hurled the remains at the offending authority. "That hat," recalls Gael fullback Andy Marefos, now 75, "was on the field as much as we were."
It was all, of course, part of the Madigan persona. "In every St. Mary's crowd of, say, 50,000," wrote San Francisco Examiner columnist Prescott Sullivan, "25,000 are there to see Madigan get licked, 25,000 to see him win."
The Gal game at Berkeley annually drew 70,000 or more. The Fordham series filled the Polo (.rounds to its 55,000 capacity. The 1931 game against USG, which the Gaels won 13-7 over coach Howard Jones's otherwise undefeated national champions, was watched by 70,000 at the L.A. coliseum. And the annual clash with Santa clara became known as the Little Big Game, drawing raucous crowds of 60,000 to expanded Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.
Madigan had more than a rooting interest in big turnouts. With St. Mary's on the rise, he had negotiated a sweetheart deal with the Christian Brothers that, in addition to a modest salary, gave him 10% of the net gate at ever)' game. By the mid-1930s, deep in the Great Depression, he was the highest-paid coach in the country, with earnings estimated at more than $30,000 annually, virtually all of it from his percentage arrangement. As fellow coaching legend Bo McMillin remarked, "It's wrong to say that little St. Mary's College cut Slip Madigan in on the receipts. The truth of the matter is that Slip actually cut little St. Mary's in for a share." And yet, as Madigan later boasted, "There was always money in the till when I was coaching."
No one could complain that he didn't give the fans a run for his money. His showmanship even extended to costume design. From the early 1930s on, he dressed his bruisers in multicolored satin and silk; compared with more conventionally attired opponents, they looked like so many courtiers in a court of the Bourbons. In '36 his giants were turned out like leprechauns, all in green pants and jerseys, with gold harps on the bodices. For the most part, though, game wear was a modest ensemble of red silk pants, red helmets and royal-blue silk jerseys with white epaulets, which Henry McLemore of UPI described as "patterned after the formal dress coat of a high-ranking French Army officer.... Heaven help the St. Mary's player who catches a pass in such a position that he wrinkles his suit."
Each year the Fordham excursion grew longer and more ambitious. On one of these Madigan and a cohort named Max Podlech were separated from the group during a tour of the While House and blundered into a private study. "What can I do for you, my good men?" the occupant inquired. "Oh, hi, FDR," Podlech responded, backing away respectfully.
The 1934 junket covered 8,072 miles, 17 states and six Canadian provinces. In '37 Madigan took his team and some 250 revelers to Havana, where he had his photograph taken with the president of Cuba; he used the picture on the Christmas cards he sent that year. En route to the '38 game he had his punter, Jerry Dowd, who had led the nation in '37 with a 44-yard average, boot a ball into the Grand Canyon to confirm Madigan's boast that "Jerry can really kick the ball a mile."
Madigan prided himself on training his press agents, and in Tom (Tom-Tom) Foudy, class of 1935, he found a dream drum-beater. A week before fall practice was to begin in '36, Foudy spotted star end Jimmy Austin on campus. Austin, a handsome lad, told Foudy that he had such a good summer job as a handyman on the MOM lot in Hollywood that he was thinking of quitting school and maybe taking a crack at acting himself. Foudy then asked if, by chance, Austin had actually met any of the MGM stars. Austin said that, yes, Jean Harlow, the Platinum Blonde, waved to him once—or at least he thought she did.
Foudy needed no more. Headlines in the Oakland Tribune the next day declared that Austin was giving up football for Jean Harlow. A nice piece of publicity, thought Foudy, and Madigan heartily concurred. Within hours, newspapers across the country besieged both St. Mary's and MGM for details of the affair between the gridder and the glamour girl. Studio press agents responded predictably that Miss Harlow and the football player were "just good friends." Austin sequestered himself in the home of relatives; Foudy hinted to the press that he may have been kidnapped. Madigan philosophized that while the fighting human heart is made to win, it can all too easily be broken by love. Austin finally reappeared and announced he was ready to play football for St. Mary's. Foudy told reporters that Austin was renouncing Harlow for Madigan.
Alas, this was one stunt the Christian Brothers did not find amusing. Brother Albert Rahill, the St. Mary's president, even wrote to the actress apologizing for the mischief. Much to his surprise, she responded amiably and invited him to drop by the studio the next time he was in LA. Much to her surprise, good Brother Albert did, and over a bottle of Scotch they shared lamentations on the burdens of celebrity.
Before the Little Big Game of 1938, with a rumored Cotton Bowl bid in the offing, Madigan had Foudy make certain that Cotton Bowl founder J. Curtis Sanford was surrounded by St. Mary's operatives during the game. When the Gaels won 7-0, Foudy hurried Sanford downstairs to meet Madigan for dinner. "I caught up with them later that night having a high old time at Shanty Malone's bar," Foudy, now 80, recalls. "Slip had taken Sanford to the Fairmont Hotel, where he'd introduced him to Marlene Dietrich, who was performing there. How Slip knew Marlene, I'm not sure. But I understand Sanford actually danced with the woman. We got the Cotton Bowl bid."
And the Gaels beat Texas Tech 20-13 in Dallas on New Year's Day, limiting the Red Raiders' star halfback, Elmer (the Great) Tarbox, to just eight yards on seven carries. It would be Madigan's last big win.
Slip and Charlotte had enjoyed a rare night on the town together. What with the demands of coaching, his immense popularity as an after-dinner speaker and his general predilection for staying up to all hours, Slip hadn't had much time to spend with his wife and three children at their fine Spanish-style home in the Oakland hills. But on this night, March 10, 1940, they had gone to Mass and then to the movies to see Northwest Passage, starring Slip's good friend Spencer Tracy.
For a few hours at least, Slip had been able to put the disastrous 1939 season behind him. The Gaels had indeed lost to Fordham in New York, and true to his word, Slip had let columnist Cohn direct the team in their final game, against Loyola in Los Angeles. In fact, Slip's ulcers had confined him to his bed at the Biltmore Hotel during the game, which, Cohn would gleefully brag, St. Mary's won 40-7.
After the season, 14 St. Mary's players had been declared ineligible by the school for scholastic reasons, a serious blow to any hopes for 1940. Slip knew also that the college had been in serious financial straits for much of the Depression. His percentage-of-the-gate deal had been discontinued by the athletic board, which had insisted, albeit in vain, that he either toe the line on expenses or resign.
Still, Slip went to bed that night convinced, as always, that somehow he would work his way through this. He got the bad news the next day. Athletic board chairman J. Philip Murphy, a tackle on Madigan's great 1929 team, announced flatly that Slip's contract would not be renewed. No reason was given for the action, but the message was clear: Slip Madigan was fired. THE SHOWS OVER read the headline in the Call-Bulletin.
Madigan at first protested, blaming irresponsible enemies on the athletic board. But the fact was, the financially strapped college could no longer afford such a big spender. The Brothers were also concerned that far too many visitors to the college were translating the white SMC block letters set into the hillside above the campus as Slip Madigan College. The athletic tail had wagged the academic dog too long.
Murphy further announced that the famous Fordham junkets "are things of the past. From now on, St. Mary's teams will go by direct line to New York and come back as fast as possible. We will never again visit a foreign country during a football trip."
Madigan reluctantly accepted the verdict. "I suspected from the start it wasn't steady work," he told reporters.
In 19 years he had built a record of 116-46-12 against some of the best teams in the country. From 1928 to 1939, his winning percentage of .729 was among the best anywhere. Now it was time to get on with the rest of his life. "Dad took football for what it was," says his son, Ed. "He had other interests."
For a time he was general manager of a Bay Area racetrack. He sat in for an old teammate, Eddie Anderson, as the coach at the University of Iowa for two wartime seasons while Anderson was in the service. He was CM. for a year and a half for the professional Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference. And then, in partnership with Ed, he rather quietly made a fortune in real estate development in the Bay Area. On Oct. 10, 1966, after spending much of the night talking with Ed about football and old friends, Slip Madigan, wealthy and happy, died in his sleep of a heart attack at the age of 70.
Although many of the housing subdivisions he built in his last years were within a few miles of St. Mary's College, Madigan never set foot on the campus from the day he was fired to the day he died. But that's not to say he didn't drop in at least once afterward.
It was the fall of 1983, and St. Mary's, which had dropped football in 1951 for financial reasons, had returned to the gridiron, now as a Division II team. After a tough practice session, a defensive lineman named Steve Jacoby decided to take a snooze before showering in the Madigan Gym. He grabbed a wrestling mat, plopped it down in the middle of the basketball court and, almost instantly, fell asleep. He awakened hours later to a strange vision. There, atop the bleachers, he could make out the form of a man swiftly pacing back and forth. "Hello up there," Jacoby called out. The distant figure made no response, continuing to pace back and forth.
Jacoby was wide awake now. He climbed to his feet and moved in for a closer look. Moonlight was seeping in through the gymnasium windows. While the restless figure remained mostly indistinct, Jacoby could see in the fresh light that he was dressed in a dark suit of an old-fashioned cut and had on a topcoat and scarf. He was wearing a battered gray hat that looked strangely out of place with the rest of his neat clothes. Jacoby could hear a faint sound, almost like the roar of a distant crowd. "Hello, mister," he tried again.
No answer. Then the mystery man took one more turn and, as suddenly as he had appeared, was gone. Gone, although there was no nearby exit. Jacoby got out of there as fast as his legs would carry him.
Had the spirit returned to the place where the man refused to go? We'll never know. But it was autumn then in the beautiful Valley of the Moragas, and "the stately trees were gowned in brown and gold." They were playing football again at St. Mary's. Surely Slip Madigan couldn't stay away forever.