MORAGA, Calif. — 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 glistening amid a bunch of garbage in a campus trash area.
Reaching in, they were amazed to pull out a broken gold trophy, nearly 4 feet high, the prize for winning the 1939 Cotton Bowl.
St. Mary's in the Cotton Bowl? \o7 R-i-i-ight\f7 .
That had to be someone's idea of an expensive prank, didn't it? After all, the Cotton Bowl is for a Bear Bryant, a Darrell Royal or an Ara Parseghian, for a Georgia, 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. It was a football team Notre Dame wouldn't even play.
"In those days, at Irish Catholic services around here," says Joe DeLuca, the school's current football coach, "they used to announce from the pulpit that St. Mary's was playing."
The announcements are gone, but football is back at St. Mary's. The Galloping Gaels are at least trotting again. The team that will face Cal State Northridge this afternoon at St. Mary's Stadium is a rising power in NCAA Division II.
School officials would like to see the rebuilding process continue, but they know, budgets being what they are, that St. Mary's, 2,100 students strong, will never again be what it once was in football.
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 there to watch Galloping Gaels like 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 for a game at Cal, 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 \o7 season\f7 total of just six points--to Oregon in a 31-6 victory. St. Mary's finished 8-0-1 that season, after a scoreless tie with Cal 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," entertainer Will Rogers said in 1929.
The Gaels had a couple of shots at a national championship. In 1930, they became a national power via 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.
If you think it's rough beginning now with your most prized trophy in the trash, how would you like to begin with the legacy of a 127-0 defeat?
That totally humiliating beating was actually handed to the Gaels by Cal in 1920. Cal scored 18 touchdowns in the game, while St. Mary's managed just 16 \o7 yards \f7 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 cancelled.
Enter one Slip Madigan.
A center and guard on Rockne's Notre Dame teams of 1916, '17 and '19, 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.