Before there was basketball at Gonzaga, there was football. And just as a Stockton (John) in the backcourt in the mid-80s set the stage for the Spokane school's subsequent hoop prominence, a Stockton (Houston) in the backfield 60 years earlier keyed a 20-year quest in which Gonzaga sought to use football as the key to fame.
Appearances by Gonzaga University basketball teams in NCAA post-season play have become almost the norm over the past decade. But the Bulldogs also made a post-season appearance on the football field, a Christmas-day game in 1922 that was intended to match Gonzaga against Notre Dame.
The idea for the long-ago game was a promoter's dream: a post-season contest between the Notre Dame team of Knute Rockne and the Gonzaga team coached by Charles E. "Gus" Dorais, the man who had quarterbacked the Irish while Rockne played end.
This is the story of how that game came about and the effect the outcome had over the next two turbulent decades as Gonzaga pursued a dream of gridiron glory, only to become entangled in a morass that threatened financial ruin for the tiny school.
Gonzaga, like Notre Dame, had been calling itself the fighting Irish for years. In fact, the nickname bulldogs was used for the first time in 1921.
According to legend, the decision on whether Rockne or Dorais would be hired as Notre Dame's new head coach came down to a coin flip that Rockne won. Dorais stayed a year as the assistant then headed to Spokane in 1920, sought out by the little Jesuit school to fulfill its dream of national prominence through football, starting with hiring a "dream" coach.
Dorais spent his first couple of seasons beginning to build a reputation among Northwest schools. Then in 1922, Houston Stockton, John's grandfather, who had been singled out for All-American honorable mention as a freshman at St. Mary's in Oakland the previous year, transferred to Gonzaga.
Stockton quickly began to make his mark as a Bulldog. In the home opener in a new $100,000 stadium before an overflow crowd of 5,600, Stockton turned in a stunning single-game performance, scoring six touchdowns and kicking 10 conversions for 46 points as Gonzaga beat Wyoming, 77-0.
The Bulldogs beat College of Puget Sound, 34-0, Montana, 37-6, and Montana State, 12-0, in a Bozeman snowstorm. They lost 10-7 to Washington State College on a late-game field goal.
Then came the official invitation from San Diego officials for the dream-game clash between Rockne's and Dorais' teams. But Notre Dame was upset by Nebraska in its season finale and Rockne decided to turn down the invitation.
So West Virginia, undefeated in the 1922 season, victor over the Pittsburgh team that went to the Rose Bowl that season and a club generally regarded as one of the two or three best in the nation, was invited instead.
The odds against Gonzaga were overwhelming and the way the game unfolded bore that out as West Virginia took a 21-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Then Gonzaga found itself. The Bulldogs scored two touchdowns, one by Stockton, in 10 minutes. With two minutes to go, Stockton (who rushed for 110 yards that final quarter) found future Gonzaga coach Mike Pecarovich in the end zone. But he dropped the ball. Final score: West Virginia 21, Gonzaga 13.
The game got an eight-column headline in the New York Times sports pages as Gonzaga won praise from coast to coast, lauded as "the Notre Dame of the West." A Chicago Tribune sports writer enthused that "West Virginia won. But it wasn't a Christmas present. Pulling a bone from an angry bulldog is not like getting a toy drum from Santa Claus."
Dorais and Stockton teamed for two more years, including an undefeated 1924 season. Then Stockton moved on to professional ball with the Frankfort Yellowjackets, predecessor to the Philadelphia Eagles, and Dorais headed for the University of Detroit where he spent most of his coaching career.
A number of great players followed Stockton as Gonzaga stars. George (Automatic) Karamatic, who won a place on the 1936 All-America team, and Tony Canadeo, known as the "Grey Ghost of Gonzaga" for his prematurely gray hair, went on in pro ball to set the Green Bay Packers single-season rushing record.
Ray Flaherty, a member of the 1924 undefeated team, subsequently starred with the New York Giants for nearly a decade. Then he became coach of the Washington Redskins, guiding them to two NFL titles and five division titles, with his teams always including a cadre of Gonzaga players whom Flaherty routinely drafted..
The outbreak of war ended Gonzaga's football program, one that was doomed to end at some point, having cost the school $60,000 in its worst year and providing less than a dime of profit in the best.
It's been almost seven decades now since the blue-and-white uniforms were packed away for the last time. And 60 years since the dilapidated wooden grandstands of Gonzaga Stadium were razed to make room for the Crosby Library.
Old photographs carefully packed away in the basement of the Administration Building are the last tangible reminders of the days when Gonzaga pursued the mirage of big-time college football fame.
Gonzaga was among the first of a score of little colleges, mostly private schools, around the West to pursue an Ozymandian delusion that football could be the ticket to a wealthy campus and national renown.
Down through the years, sports has inevitably been the vehicle that colleges and universities have sought to use to gain prominence and recognition, as Seattle University is doing in seeking to restore the one-time luster of big-time basketball at the school.
For Gonzaga, basketball has indeed brought the prominence and financial success that football was never destined to do. But football will always be the ghost in Gonzaga's closet.
(The above is gleaned from old files compiled from long-ago newspaper clippings by a then-Gonzaga student who imagined that a book on Gonzaga football awaited in his journalistic future. But all that really came of that research was an article in the student newspaper in the mid-60s that stirred a short-lived student movement to revive football. The effort died quickly when the then-basketball coach advised a skeptical administration that the cost of athletic tape alone would be $20,000.)