A forgotten legend: Book shines light on former St. Mary’s coach ‘Slip’ Madigan

A St. Mary’s football player goes airborne as coach Slip Madigan looks on in this 1930s publicity photo. (Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s Magazine)

Edward Patrick “Slip” Madigan was an innovator and motivator who turned the football program at a small East Bay college into a national sensation in the 1920s and ’30s.

Madigan, known to all by his childhood nickname of “Slip,” compiled a record that should put him in the pantheon of great college coaches, argues author Dave Newhouse, who has written “The Incredible Slip Madigan: The Flamboyant Coach Who Modernized Football,” a book that examines the career and remarkable accomplishments of a forgotten legend.

Newhouse spoke about the golden era of college football and the man who almost single-handedly brought the sport into the 20th century at a Commonwealth Club program earlier this month.

Dave Newhouse discussed his book about former St. Mary’s football coach Edward Patrick “Slip” Madigan at the Commonwealth Club’s Toni Rembe Rock Auditorium earlier this month.

“I looked at this book as a history project, bringing to life an era and aura, and presenting players that today’s society wouldn’t know about and coupling that with the great players of the past that they do know about,” said Newhouse, who retired in 2011 after 47 years as a sports reporter and columnist with the Oakland Tribune.

The Madigan story is a compelling one.

He came to St. Mary’s College, then a small Catholic school in Oakland, as a graduate of Notre Dame who played for the legendary Knute Rockne.

In 1921 he took over a team that had lost to powerhouse UC Berkeley 127-0 the year before and shocked the football world with a 21-0 loss to the undefeated Golden Bears, a difference of 106 points.

Enrollment at St. Mary’s was so small that there weren’t enough students for a marching band, so Madigan bought uniforms and hired union musicians.

The school had no football field of its own, so it played home games at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, often selling out the place.

“As someone who always loved sports, it took my breath away to see what sports was like during the Depression,” Newhouse said. “Slip must have been the most overworked coach in the Bay Area. He coached football, baseball, basketball, track and field. And he was the trainer, groundskeeper and sold tickets.”

Madigan was so successful during his first decade at St. Mary’s that enrolment and its coffers swelled and the school was able to build a new campus in Moraga in 1928.

Madigan was an innovator off the field as well, and a master promoter.

“They were the first team to go coast-to-coast, when they took the train for a game against Fordham,” starting an annual series with the big-time football school in New York that brought the Galloping Gaels national attention, Newhouse said. “St. Mary’s was the first mainland team to play in Hawaii. They took the boat over, there were no flights.”

College football was king of the West Coast sports world in the 1920s and 1930s and Slip Madigan and the Galloping Gaels of St. Mary’s College commanded considerable ink in the many Bay Area newspapers of the era. This is from 1931.

Ever a shrewd promoter, Madigan traveled first class and paid the way for Bay Area sports writers to come along, wining and dining them while making sure they had memorable quotes. San Francisco had four daily newspapers at the time and Oakland had two, so it was a large contingent that gladly provided St. Mary’s plenty of ink.

A friend of Newhouse who knew Madigan had suggested the coach as a book topic.

Most of Madigan’s contemporaries are departed, but there was a good primary source available, a son who still lives in the family home in Oakland, not far from where Newhouse lives.

“Slip Madigan lasted 19 years at St. Mary’s (1921-1939). If there’s no Slip Madigan, there’s no St. Mary’s, in terms of reputation,” Newhouse said. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

“He took me to the basement and showed me all these thick scrapbooks, one for every year,” Newhouse said.

“I was retired so I had time. I took eight or nine months just going through each scrapbook, just sitting there like a repository of history. It was a lovely chore just sitting down there turning the pages. It was a fun thing to do. He opened his home to me. It was just an incredible experience.”

Newhouse, now 80, has written a half-dozen books since retiring, weaving sports, history and the issues of the times for modern audiences.

“It brings me great joy to see if I can improve myself at this age,” he said. “The key is passion. If you have passion you can achieve at any age.”

It’s the same kind of passion Madigan used to bring a small college to national prominence.

“Slip Madigan lasted 19 years at St. Mary’s (1921-1939). If there’s no Slip Madigan, there’s no St. Mary’s, in terms of reputation,” Newhouse said.

“I think his success was also to his detriment in terms of his health,” Newhouse said, noting that Madigan long suffered from ulcers. “I think St. Mary’s retired him to save his life. He paid a steep price for his success.”

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