Local Sports Writer Brings Legendary St. Mary’s Coach Slip Madigan to Life

(Elana O'Loskey, Photographer)
Author Dave Newhouse, here with Orinda Books owner Maria Rosen, will be appearing at the store on Feb. 12 to read from his book about legendary St. Mary’s football coach Slip Madigan.

    On Feb. 12 (Lincoln’s Birthday), from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m., Orinda Books will host a reading by Dave Newhouse, who retired after forty-five years as a sports reporter and columnist, mostly with the Oakland Tribune. Newhouse will speak about the fifth book he’s published (in addition to two other E-books) since, a read most apt for his Lamorinda audience entitled The Incredible Slip Madigan: The Flamboyant Coach Who Modernized Football.
    Newhouse’s riveting story tells the tale of the coach who took tiny St. Mary’s College to a major Bowl game and a myriad of matches with the football powers of the day before crowds of up to 90,000 people during the roaring twenties and through the Depression. A local story, it’s the ultimate tale of the underdog triumphing, while also featuring incredible anecdotes about a bigger-than-life figure that Newhouse accurately characterizes as “a promoter, showman, innovator, raconteur, hustler, celebrity-magnet and giant-maker.”
    Even after leaving coaching, Madigan (named Slip for his inability to stay on his skates during his Illinois upbringing) cut quite a figure in the Bay Area. After his 1939 parting of the ways with St. Mary’s, the 1974 inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame did a favor to a friend and coached the University of Iowa for one year during World War II. 
    Locally, after helping St. Mary’s establish a pre-flight school at the college, which had flirted with bankruptcy in the late ‘30s, Madigan became the face of Golden Gate Fields for a short time as its general manager and then became a millionaire homebuilder. Many tracts and homes in the Bay Area bear the Madigan name and his son Ed, who lives in the family home in Oakland, still runs that business. 
    Ed, observing that his Dad, a life-long staunch Catholic who met his wife through a priest while playing center for Notre Dame as an underweight undergrad, majored in both Architecture and Law (an undergraduate degree then) at the iconic University outside of Chicago. Ed avers that this combination contributed to his success: “He designed houses and his legal training helped him in the business end.” 
    His love of words from his law courses and Irish story-telling background might also have helped him with refs (“the hat was on the field as much as we were,” one player claimed after a game in which Madigan punctuated his running commentary with the refs with the throwing of his iconic hat, a Borsalino), the press (who he cultivated) and his own publicity people (for example, promoting Angelo Brovelli, until then a third string halfback, as the “Dark Angel of the Moragas” after that player’s sterling effort in the Gaels’ first upset of Fordham in New York City). 
    Former 49er Coach George Seifert says about Madigan, “We all love the story about a person who has the gall to be the best. It motivates our horizon.” This surely describes the Fighting Irish graduate who played under the legendary Knute Rockne and made St. Mary’s, with an enrollment somewhere between 71 (when Madigan first arrived), 300 (in 1929 right after the college moved from Oakland to rural Moraga), and 600 (in 1938 when the Gaels first played in a Bowl game), the gridiron Notre Dame of the West.
    Tiny SMC bested then undefeated Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl, 20-13, after that ‘38 season. In 1931, the Gaels (originally called the Saints, but nicknamed the Galloping Gaels by SF sportswriter Pat Frayne) had opened the season with back-to-back wins over ultimate national champion USC and Cal. Stanford refused to schedule the Gaels after losing to them in 1927. Both those ’31 USC and ’27 Stanford teams won the Rose Bowl on their way to becoming national champions. For his two-decade coaching career in Moraga, Madigan, who also coached many other sports in the ‘20s, sported a record of 117-45-12 as a Gael coach while taking on numerous then national powers not afraid to schedule the small Moraga college, including Alabama, Marquette, Tulane and Temple. 
    In the late twenties and early thirties, the Gaels beat UCLA five out of six games and during a seven-game stretch from 1929 to 1935, St. Mary’s played Oregon seven times and beat the Ducks in six of the games. From 1923 to 1935, Rival Santa Clara never beat the Gaels, and USF, during that same time period freshly minted as the Dons after being called the St. Ignatius Grey Fog, only beat the Gaels once. Still, it was the road trips that really solidified the Gaels’ renown nationally and made Slip Madigan a legend and media darling. 
    Recruiting many sportswriters and a couple hundred “subway alums,” people who hadn’t graduated but felt a kinship with the small Catholic college that Madigan dressed in uniforms featuring green pants and satin jerseys with golden harps for some games, joined the Gael traveling party as it took legendary train trips across country to play then national power Fordham in the Big Apple. The first such adventure in 1930 produced a great upset of Fordham, 20-12, which that decade highlighted a “Seven Blocks of Granite” team starring the legendary Vince Lombardi. The Gaels dominated the Rams through the decade until the last three meetings.
    Madigan, who had played under the Golden Dome with the equally iconic George Gipp (played in a movie by Ronald Reagan – Madigan was an advisor to Pat O’Brien who played Rockne in that movie), was all about making his own legends. No college team had ever traveled across country to play games before he did just as no major college team had played at night until an early ‘20’s clash with UCLA at the LA Coliseum. The closest was Notre Dame’s annual Chicago to LA trip to play USC. Madigan’s excursions, first advertised as “The Longest World’s Cocktail Party” and usually coupled with another game on the way in Los Angeles, made various stops along the way, inviting much publicity.
    After the train stopped in Arizona on the 1938 trip, the Gaels scrimmaged what would become the Arizona State team, practiced against Texas Tech, and then worked out with Loyola in New Orleans. The school did send professors on these trips to keep students learning: “The train [also] served as an elongated classroom. A dozen students were taking Louis LeFevre’s History class, a course in historical method and research, and others were in Brother Leo’s class preparing for a test on their return.” With many alums enjoying post-collegiate success, the Gaels certainly emulated Madigan’s love of learning. 
    Over the years, these junkets, “Slip Madigan’s Fordham Football Tour around America/the World,” passed through Canada, the National Parks, the White House, the South, Eastern Coastal states, Mexico, and Miami – with a side trip to Havana. The SMC promotion machine really hummed. During a stop at the Grand Canyon, punter Jerry Dowd kicked a football into the Grand Canyon to set the Guinness World Record for longest kick. After the 1930 game, Slip’s charges supposedly had stolen the Ram mascot of Fordham, displayed at a ticker tape parade when the train embarked back by the Bay. In reality, it was another ram he had found and kept in Sacramento.
    In another bit of self-promotion, Gael star Jim Austin, with matinee idol looks, got linked with Hollywood bombshell Jean Harlow. The upshot was that when SMC President Brother Albert left an apology for the star for the “false reports,” she invited the Christian Brother over for a cocktail while the Gaels were in LA to play Loyola. He accepted and enjoyed himself. 
    Besides making sure Babe Ruth attended a game at the Polo Grounds and Joe DiMaggio at Kezar, Madigan walked in the company of many stars. These included Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Robert Taylor, Errol Flynn, and Toots Shor. When trying to garner the Cotton Bowl bid, Madigan made a point to introduce the bowl rep to Marlene Dietrich, staying at the Fairmont, who he knew. Both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt invited Madigan to see them as did the famous NYC Mayor, Jimmy Walker.
    Earlier, bemoaning the fact that big marching bands like USC’s almost dwarfed the number of students in the Gael student body, Madigan hired high school and Union musicians to make up his own Gael Marching Band to serenade the “Sons of the red and blue from Moraga’s hills.” Newhouse, in fact, chuckles over the fact that Robin Orr, the Society Editor for the Trib during his years there, was the Gael baton twirler while a high school junior.
    St. Mary’s played its home games at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco and often on Sundays to avoid conflicts with Cal and Stanford before professional football had established itself. “The Little Big Game” against rival Santa Clara and games against USF routinely packed the Stanyan Street Stadium which then held 60,000 seats.
    Dave Newhouse has authored 13 books including Disqualified, Dare to Dream, Jim Otto: The Pain of Glory, The Jim Plunkett Story, Heisman: After the Glory, and The Million Dollar Backfield. He notes that the seven (including two E-books) he has written since his 2011 retirement have been a real joy since “people don’t realize how hard it is writing a newspaper column five days a week and trying to do other things too. Now, I can research and write at a far more measured pace.” Newhouse, a Menlo Park, California native, graduated from San Jose State after serving four years in the U.S. Air Force. He resides in the Oakland Hills house he has owned for fifty-two years with his wife Patsy, an art teacher.
    Newhouse, who threw the shot and played other sports at Menlo-Atherton High School, learned to be a sportswriter and columnist during his Air Force stint. In fact, he dedicates this work to Jack Wendell Jones “who planted the seeds of a writing career long ago on an Air Force base in far away France.” 
    He maintains, “I like writing books that otherwise might not have been written,” before adding, “I can’t imagine being the 700th person writing a biography of Lincoln.” In that vein, he mentions his book Disqualified in which Eddie Hart tells his story of the tragic 1972 Munich Olympics and another about former Cal basketball coach Lou Campanelli (Dare to Dream) when he coached James Madison University to Men’s NCAA Tourney basketball upsets not long after the school transitioned from a single-gender female school.
    Clearly, Newhouse, who says people reach out to him to ask him to write good stories, loves stories of underdogs and, as he puts it, “people who changed things and lives.” The conduit for this change-agent story was Orinda’s own George Guppy: “George put me in contact with Ed Madigan, his wife, Carol, and sons Fred and Edward. In their basement, they have scrapbooks up to ten inches thick stacked in three piles from 1910 through 1939, along with photographs on the walls of their father, the coaching celebrity, with famous people who gravitated toward him, from sporting arenas to Hollywood to the White House.” In fact, Ed recalled Slip had once quipped, “I know people in the White House and the big house.” 
    This “repository of great sports lore” informs Newhouse’s story and provides anecdotes and first-hand accounts from many pioneer sports journalists swept up in Madigan’s orbit. The list of celebrities is replete with the biggest of names. 
    Slip Madigan helped make the college (described when the college moved there in the late ‘20s as a “cow town full of rats”) and, by extension, the whole Lamorinda area and county what it has become with the fame he brought the area during his tenure and the houses he built after. While he didn’t build the college, it might still be in downtown Oakland without the success of his first football teams. In fact, some at the college bristled when people assumed the “SMC” still visible on the hill above the chapel stood for “Slip Madigan College” or “Slip Madigan, Coach” instead of St. Mary’s College.

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