When Slip Madigan’s train pulled out of the station, heading for New York City back in 1936, it carried his Saint Mary’s College football team, alumni, local businessmen, supporters and eventually even a few celebrities to the Galloping Gaels’ game against Fordham at the Polo Grounds.
Could he have known where that 18-car train might also lead?
Did he realize that someday it might lead to Dick Vitale, March Madness or maybe even Beyoncé performing at halftime of the Super Bowl?
The famed Saint Mary’s football coach understood, well before many in his time, that sports is entertainment. Two teams taking the field in competition is more than a game. It is a show. And Edward “Slip” Madigan was absolutely a showman. Madigan learned at the knee of his own coach, the legendary Knute Rockne, at Notre Dame. And then he just took it to another level.
Headed to New York? Invite Babe Ruth to a party at the Waldorf. Want to make sure people will remember your team? Dress them in red silk jerseys and shiny green pants.
Want to get in good with the media? Buy them drinks and bring gifts up to the guys in the print shop, the people who determine where stories about your team will be placed.
As Saint Mary’s College celebrates its 150th anniversary, part of this College’s legacy is Madigan’s unmistakable contribution to a modern sports culture that says a game is never merely a game.
Colleges began hiring professional coaches and college sports began to turn into a real business... It was a powerful way to gain valyable publicity and exposure for your institution.
If it were, the Gaels wouldn’t be playing men’s basketball games at midnight to fit into a 24-hour ESPN marathon. The West Coast Conference would not be playing its postseason tournament in Las Vegas, a city that doesn’t have a WCC school within 250 miles.
If it were, large universities wouldn’t be changing conferences like a game of big-money musical chairs, erasing rivalries and exploding travel budgets.
If it were, “Dickie V” Vitale wouldn’t be a household name. Because, while the former coach knows a lot about basketball, that’s not why he’s famous. He’s become part of college basketball culture on the basis of a bigger-than-the-game personality.
Madigan? He also had a bigger-than-the-game personality.
Slip Madigan was hired at Saint Mary’s in 1921. The College, in 1920, had 71 students. Saint Mary’s officials were looking to increase enrollment and improve the financial health of the College. Athletics was an increasingly viable way to do that.
Richard O. Davies, a sports historian and professor at University of Nevada, said many universities across the country were discovering the financial merits of sports programs, particularly football.
“College football players were becoming heroic figures,” Davies said. “The administrators at many universities were looking at students, who were selling tickets to these games and thinking ‘We ought to be doing that’. Colleges began hiring professional coaches and college sports began to turn into a real business; suddenly it was tied to the free enterprise system. It was a powerful way to gain valuable publicity and exposure for your institution.”
Some of the most storied stadiums in college sports were built in this period, including Cal’s Memorial Stadium, Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium and the Big House in Michigan.
Tiny Saint Mary’s, Davies said, found itself “riding the wave.”
Saint Mary’s kinesiology professor and sports historian Deane Lamont said SMC President Brother Gregory Mallon made the College’s intentions clear.
“He was quoted as saying, ‘A college or university that does not appear on the sports pages of the newspaper is out of the running. The boy coming to college selects his school largely because of its athletic prowess. We pedagogues might like to think otherwise, but we are deceiving ourselves’,” Lamont said. “The very next year, guess who arrives.”
Madigan was audacious and bold, and a great coach, turning Saint Mary’s football into a powerhouse program. He gave the College a national identity with the team’s play on the field.
It started with Madigan’s insistence on bringing the Gaels to the East Coast, said Randy Andrada, who wrote the book, They Did It Every Time: The Saga of the Saint Mary’s Gaels.
“There was no one who had ever taken a team coast-to-coast to play,” Andrada said. “He fully recognized the importance of New York. And the College saw it as a way to increase its exposure.”
Madigan knew the names of all of the local sports reporters, knew what liquor and wine they liked to drink, what cigarettes they liked to smoke. He brought Christmas gifts into the printing room at the San Francisco Chronicle.
“He knew he didn’t want to forget anyone,” Andrada said. “He always said it was as important to remember the name of the cub reporter as much as the editor. He also understood marketing and that it was well worth it to be quotable.”
Madigan wrote newspaper columns, hosted radio shows. He was on billboards and served as a pitch-man for a local grocery store chain. He also wrote articles for national magazines.
“All of the Catholic colleges wanted to be like Notre Dame. Saint Mary’s, along with Fordham, came the closest because of Madigan’s approach,” Andrada said. “The barnstorming road trips were adopted by many schools.”
Madigan also fueled the Gaels’ national reputation by orchestrating elaborate pranks, notably “stealing” the Fordham mascot Rameses IV after defeating the Rams. Saint Mary’s issued a press release that the ram in Fordham’s possession was actually a ringer they’d brought in to cover the embarrassment of losing Rameses IV. In actual fact, the ram Madigan displayed upon returning to San Francisco had been borrowed from a Sacramento area ranch as the train brought the team back home to a ticker tape parade.
Andrada contends the Saint Mary’s campus was built in Moraga in 1928 on the back of the football program’s success and the revenue it provided. “That’s just a fact,” Andrada said.
But the program that was the College’s boon also became its bane, just a few years after that trip to Fordham.
“The program became a financial burden in the late ’30s,” Andrada said. “It was a very complicated situation.”
Madigan was making a large salary and taking a percentage of the football gate at a time when the College was struggling mightily with financial challenges from the Depression—diminished enrollment, near bankruptcy and threatened foreclosure.
Brother Albert, the president of Saint Mary’s in 1936, was quoted in a 1967 Sports Illustrated story saying, “I paid Mr. Madigan because I recognized a just debt and I recognized that he had brought certain assets to St. Mary’s.”
Andrada said people were “shocked” by the amount of money Madigan was bringing in.
“And there were people on the campus who were interested in a more European tradition of culture and education and refinement, and they questioned how Madigan’s barnstorming tour fit into that notion of education,” Andrada said. “No question, there were tensions.”
The College’s adminstrators felt ambivalence about Madigan’s emphasis on athletics.
“Saint Mary’s initially wanted and needed Slip and what he could do for enrollment,” Lamont said. “But that came at a cost. Lots of folks on campus felt that things had gotten out of hand. That there was too much of a focus on athletics.”
Madigan was ultimately dismissed by the College in 1940 with a record of 199-58-13, three years after Saint Mary’s filed for bankruptcy in the Great Depression.
But his legacy of showmanship has lived on in sports of every ilk ever since.
“Ours is the only university system in the world that has assumed the role of entertaining the public through athletics,” Davies said.
In fact, the tug-o-war between academics and athletics persists across colleges today, particularly as universities and conferences gain increasing leverage through billion-dollar television contracts and media deals.
“College sports are entertainment,” Andrada said. “Is the effort worth it, worth the revenue and advertising that comes to the university? Many of the questions we are dealing with today are the same questions they were asking in the late ’20s and the ’30s.”
Modern college athletics and to a greater degree professional sports are about exposure and entertainment. Teams play at times day and night dictated by television networks. Music blares during the run of play. Children play in inflatable jumpy-houses that sit beyond the outfield fence. Celebrities sit courtside. Luxury boxes host dignitaries and luminaries. All in the name of a game.
“For major sports teams, they are now selling an entire experience,” Davies said.
What Madigan did 80 years ago looks quaint, but prescient.
“There is ambivalence,” Lamont said. “We know what the big time programs are like, we know what happens at these schools. At Saint Mary’s, we are very serious about our academics.
“On one hand, we are very proud of our student athletes and the success they’ve had. And I believe our faculty feels like they are true student-athletes. But we are wary of it wary is the right word of becoming like it is at many other places.”
Creating strong student-athletes takes a concerted effort on the part of faculty and staff, said Saint Mary’s Athletic Director Mark Orr, who is proud of the Gaels’ legacy of producing outstanding student-athletes.
“It is a commitment. We have done a lot in terms of student services, a lot of education on time management and balancing. We put in resources, with tutoring and study halls. But it starts with having the right young men and women in your program.”
It's different here than at some of the major football schools. Student-athletes are students first.
Orr cited the school’s 92 percent graduation rate for student-athletes, which ranks third in the state of California and second in the West Coast Conference.
“It’s part of the fabric of our institution,” Orr said. “It’s different here than at some of the major football schools. Student-athletes are students first.”
Saint Mary’s football legacy ended in 2007 when the program played its final season, discontinued in the name of athletics resource re-allocation.
But the Gaels’ athletic success lives on, particularly in men’s basketball. Saint Mary’s, behind nationally respected coach Randy Bennett and a pipeline of talented student-athletes from Australia, have reached the NCAA Tournament three times since 2008.
“One of our most visible athletes, Australian Matthew Dellavedova, on the men’s basketball team, is one of five Division I players to be named an Academic All-American. He truly embodies what you look for in a student-athlete,” Orr said.
A trip to the Sweet 16 in 2010 raised the College's national profile to its highest level since the days when Madigan’s team ruled campus culture and changed American sports forever.
Michelle Smith has been a Bay Area sportswriter for 23 years and spent 10 years at the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently a contributor for espnW.com.