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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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National attention in '22 bowl game fed thirst for grid glory at Gonzaga before basketball

As UW and WSU football fans bask in the satisfaction of 2015 bowl-game victories and the college football season comes to a climax with this week's NCAA national championship game, a few students of sports-history trivia may recall when a third team from the State of Washington played in a national-visibility bowl game.

That was back in 1922 when the San Diego East-West Christmas Classic was scheduled to pit Notre Dame against little Gonzaga College from Spokane. It attracted national attention in advance of the game because it was a dream matchup pitting the teams coached by Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais, the two men credited with teaming at Notre Dame to create the forward pass.

But the game wasn't to be as Notre Dame lost its last game of the '22 season to Nebraska and Rockne decided his team didn't deserve a post-season game. So what developed was even more of a David-and-Goliath game, matching Gonzaga against a West Virginia that was undefeated and a victor over the Pittsburgh team that would play in the Rose Bowl a week later on New Year's Day.

Conversation at a recent Christmas-holiday gathering of Gonzaga alums and fans from across the state visiting in advance of the Bulldogs' annual basketball game in Seattle to give Westside fans a chance to see the Zags play turned inevitably, during the climax of football season, to that San Diego bowl game, and the era when Gonzaga played football.

That's a clue that this is a special-interest column from one who grew up in Spokane and graduated from Gonzaga, a column thus likely of interest primarily to fans of Gonzaga athletics or Spokane prominence, but perhaps also for fans of the underdog, in whatever setting or era. Others may wish to move on to more interesting fare.

The fact that there was football at Gonzaga before there was basketball will amuse or intrigue some who have been impressed with Gonzaga's record of 17 consecutive trips to the NCAA basketball tournament.

Basketball has served to satisfy Gonzaga's hunger for national athletic prominence in a way that would have been too far fetched to have even been dreamed of in years past on the Gonzaga campus. But the fact is that the hunger for a "big time" role in sports was first nurtured on the football field, beginning back in the '20s.

For two turbulent decades Gonzaga pursued a dream of gridiron glory, spurred in part by the visibility in gained in that 1922 bowl game, only to become entangled by the late '30s in a morass that threatened financial ruin for the tiny school.

It was a story repeated often across the country, beginning in that splashy era of the 1920s, when all America burned incense to the god of sports and small, private colleges, struggling to compete with their bigger brothers for academic recognition, turned to football as a ticket to prestige and prominence.

Gonzaga was among the first of many small, mostly private, schools to seek football prominence, pursuing an Ozymandian delusion of grandeur that football could be the ticket to a wealthy campus and national renown.

But back to the 1922 game against a West Virginia team competing in its first bowl. Gonzaga was led by a triple-threat back named Houston Stockton, who as a sophomore was writing large on the national football scene as his grandson, John Stockton, would do on the collegiate basketball scene at Gonzaga and in the professional ranks 60 years later.

Stockton had already attracted national attention a year earlier when as a freshman at St. Mary's in California, he gained honorable mention honors on the most prominent All-America team in 1921. But he transferred to Gonzaga and 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 odds against Gonzaga on that Christmas Day 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, which he guided to the NFL championship in 1926. Dorais headed for the University of Detroit where he spent most of the rest 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 to stardom in pro ball, setting the Green Bay Packers' single-season rushing record.

Ray Flaherty, a member of the 1924 undefeated team, became an all-NFL end in a decade with the New York Giants. Then he was hired to coach the Washington Redskins and became one of the dominant coaches in the NFL, guiding the Redskins to two NFL titles and five division titles.

His teams always included a cadre of Gonzaga players whom Flaherty routinely drafted, explaining to me in an interview years ago "I'd take too much heat from my Spokane friends if I didn't draft each year's best Gonzaga players. Some never forgave me for letting Canadeo get away."

The outbreak of war in 1941 ended Gonzaga's pursuit of football fame, a quest that was doomed to die at some point, having cost the school the then-dramatic amount of $60,000 in its worst year and providing less than a dime of profit in the best.
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