Maybe it was just true grit and the record-shattering performances of quarterback Tim Rosenkranz and tight end Jon Braff that earned the Galloping Gaels of St. Mary's that thrilling, come-from-behind 27-24 win over the Santa Clara Broncos in the 45th Little Big Game earlier this month. Or maybe...just maybe, mind you...the unseen hand of a long-departed coach had something to do with it. Of course that's nonsense, and yet when these two traditional San Francisco Bay Area rivals play, ghosts have a way of making their presence known. And on the St. Mary's campus, nestled in bucolic splendor beneath yellow hills in the Moraga Valley, one of these restless shades has, it's said, been seen and heard.
There was no question that the Gaels needed all the help they could get in this year's Little Big Game. They were trailing the Broncos 24-20 when they started their last drive of the game on their own 25-yard line. Ten plays later, five of them passes from Rosenkranz to Braff, they were on the Santa Clara 10, with time ticking away. Then, with 37 seconds left, Rosenkranz, scrambling for his life, found Braff alone in the far right corner of the end zone for the winning score. The touchdown pass was Rosenkranz's third of the game and his second to Braff, and it gave him a single-season St. Mary's record of 1,833 yards passing. The catch was Braff's 15th of the day (for 155 yards), a Gaels' single-game record, and the 193rd of his career, a Division II record for tight ends. More significantly, the win gave St. Mary's a 10-0 regular-season record, its first undefeated and untied season in football history that dates back to 1892.
This Little Big Game was played before a crowd of 6,000 that spilled out of the stands in St. Mary's Stadium and onto a grassy knoll beneath oak and pine trees on the opposite side of the field. It was the perfect setting for small-college football, and if the two stars of the game were a bit undersized—Rosenkranz is only 5'11", 175 pounds and Braff is 6'2", 195—they demonstrated beyond argument that they can play pitch and catch with the best of the big boys.
It was the sort of Little Big Game that fans of both schools have come to expect. In the schools' last four meetings, three of which St. Mary's has won, the margin of victory has been no more than six points, and all have been decided in the final minute. But what genuinely sets the Little Big Game apart from other small-college rivalries is its glorious past, because this is an event that for the better part of three decades was very big indeed. The Little Big Games of the 1920s, '30s and '40s filled Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, the home field for both teams, to its 60,000 capacity with fanatical and, more often than not, bibulous "streetcar alumni." Cal and Stanford may have called their annual matchup the Big Game, but St. Mary's and Santa Clara were every bit as big back then, playing major-college schedules, often against intersectional opponents.
In '30, the Gaels upset powerful Fordham 20-12 in New York City's Polo Grounds and in '31 knocked off USC's Rose Bowl-bound Thundering Herd 13-7 in the Los Angeles Coliseum. In '39, St. Mary's defeated Texas Tech 20-13 in the Cotton Bowl. The '45 Whiz Kid team, coached by Jimmy Phelan and led by the triple-threat Hawaiian halfback, Squirmin' Herman Wedemeyer, won seven of eight regular-season games, including a 26-0 whitewash of another USC Rose Bowl team, before losing to powerful Oklahoma A & M (now Oklahoma State) in the Sugar Bowl.
Santa Clara won Sugar Bowls under coach Lawrence T. (Buck) Shaw in 1937 and '38 and whipped a Kentucky team coached by Bear Bryant and quarter-backed by Babe Parilli 21-13 in the '50 Orange Bowl. The Broncos were ranked among the nation's top 15 teams in '36, '37, '39, '40 and '42.
The football reputations of both schools were built by a succession of Notre Dame-trained coaches: at Santa Clara, Adam Walsh, Maurice (Clipper) Smith and Shaw, who would later coach the 49ers and the 1960 NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles; and at St. Mary's, Edward P. (Slip) Madigan and Jimmy Phelan. While ambitious, young Catholic athletes in the East and Midwest may have gravitated toward Notre Dame in those years, West Coast stars headed for Santa Clara and St. Mary's. Madigan recruited largely from the Irish and Italian neighborhoods of San Francisco and from the farms of central California. It was said at the time that if he asked a farm boy for directions and the lad pointed with his plow, the youth would be signed on the spot.
The Bronco and Gael rosters of those times were filled with marvelous names. At Santa Clara there was Len Casanova, who punted a 97-yarder in the 1924 Little Big Game; Frank Sobraro, who pioneered the "pogo," or jump pass; Nello (Flash) Falaschi, Frank (Hands) Slavich, Al Wolff, Dick Bassi, Kenny Casanega, Phil Dougherty, Alyn Beals and Hall Haynes. St. Mary's had Norman (Red) Strader, Boyd (Cowboy) Smith, Ducky Grant, Wee Willie Wilkin, Angelo (the Dark Angel of the Moragas) Brovelli, Johnny Podesto from Modesto, Gonzales Morales, Squirmin' Herman and, for one memorable season before he transferred to Arizona State, future NFL Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson. In the '20s, the Gaels also had an All-America center, Larry Bettencourt, who should be the envy of linemen everywhere: During his college career, he blocked 10 kicks (including punts in six successive games), recovered 20 fumbles and scored 12 touchdowns.
The Little Big Game's bubble would burst in the late 1940s and early '50s, when it became financially impossible for small schools (St. Mary's rarely had an enrollment of more than 500 in those days; Santa Clara's was about 1,500) to support big-time football programs. Besides, the newly established 49ers were appropriating the best dates at Kezar Stadium and luring away the streetcar alums. The Gaels dropped football after the '50 season, and the Broncos followed that painful course two years later. Santa Clara returned to football at the small-college level in '59 under the resourceful Pat Malley, the late father of current Bronco coach Terry Malley, but it would be another eight years before St. Mary's would tentatively resume play.
In 1969, after a 19-year hiatus, the Little Big Game was revived—Santa Clara winning at Kezar 43-7 behind future pro quarterback Dan Pastorini—and was played sporadically for a few more years while the Gaels regained their football footing. The teams have met annually since '78, alternating between the Broncos' 10,000-seat Buck Shaw Stadium and 3,500-seat St. Mary's Stadium. The numbers at the gate are smaller, but the game has lost none of its intensity.
Neither school has entirely abandoned its storied football past. Eighty-year-old Jim Jennings, a retired lawyer, is the resident Little Big Game archivist in the Santa Clara athletic department, and St. Mary's assistant coach Jim McDonald, who teaches a course in sports history at the college, has an office fairly bulging with Gael memorabilia, including Squirmin' Herman's last helmet. And there are those who say the most famous and outrageous football figure at either school, Madigan, is still very much around the campus, in one form or another.
Madigan, who played under Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, had all of that legendary coach's tactical genius and oratorical power, and he was even more of a showman. He dressed his teams in gaudy silk pants, transported them cross-country aboard a train, known as the St. Mary's Special, to play Fordham and persuaded his fellow Catholic independents in the Bay Area to play on Sundays, the working stiff's day off. The train trips to New York—13 in all—were two-week grand tours that included side trips to such tourist attractions as the White House. On one such junket to the Grand Canyon in the late 1930s, Madigan, who had heard quite enough about Bronco Casanova's historic punt, had his punter, Jerry Dowd, line up, take a snap and boot one into the void. Then, when someone would mention Casanova's feat, Madigan would boast that his man had kicked the ball a mile farther. Madigan had only two losing seasons from '21 until '40, when he was fired, supposedly for allowing the athletic tail to wag the academic dog, but mostly because his salary—10% of the gate receipts—was deemed too high. Over one span he was undefeated in 12 straight Little Big Games, counting a tie in 1933, losing finally to Shaw's Sugar Bowlers in '36. His '26 and '29 teams were undefeated, but both tied once, the '29 team allowing only one touchdown in nine games. Madigan was, for the better part of two exciting decades, a beloved figure, ever pacing the sideline in his trademark trench coat and his floppy hat.
Madigan died in 1966, but his legend is still alive at St. Mary's. The legend—and just possibly something more. Steve Jacoby, now the Gaels' defensive line coach, was a player five years ago when he first saw Slip—where else but in the Madigan Gymnasium. "It was after a game, and I was so tired that I dragged a mat out onto the basketball floor and took a nap," Jacoby recalls. "After an hour or so, I was awakened by the sound of footsteps. It was dark but I could clearly see a man pacing back and forth at the top of the stairs. He had on a trench coat and an old-fashioned hat. I couldn't move, I was so scared. Then, as he passed by a window, he was gone. I ran up to where he had been, but I could find no trace of him. I went home and told my roommate what I'd seen, and he said, 'Oh, that was just the ghost of Slip Madigan.' I haven't actually seen him since, but when I'm working late at night in the gym, I can still hear him pacing back and forth."
Jacoby has been too embarrassed to do much talking about these eerie encounters, but he did confide in Braff and offensive tackle Bil Gang before this year's Little Big Game. They believed him. In fact, they're convinced that old Slip still keeps an eye on the team and that he must have known that going into this year's Santa Clara game, the Gaels had a chance to fulfill his lifelong ambition of an undefeated, untied season. "I know Slip was there on the sidelines," Gang said, quietly separating himself from the victory celebration that day. "I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't call that last play himself."
And why not? Where there's tradition, there are ghosts. As the old man so often advised the living, "The fighting heart is made to win."
Braff (left) and Rosenkranz savored the win that gave St. Mary's its first perfect season.
Santa Clara's Paul Marcy was the leading rusher with 101 yards.