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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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UW grid star's performance prompts look back at the deeds, fate of Husky's first football star

Sportswriters who gushed at Washington Husky halfback Bishop Sankey's performance this season that included tying the school record of 38 career touchdowns probably took no more than a moment to wonder about the guy who set that most enduring of UW football marks back in the mid-'20s.

 

The deeds of George Wilson, who might legitimately be described as UW's first football star for his career from 1923-25 that included leading the Huskies to their first two Rose Bowl appearances, are shrouded in gridiron antiquity for most fans, who view the deeds of stars of their great-grandfathers' or even grandfathers' era with disinterest. After all, his record was established almost nine decades ago, but the curious or those hungry for a bit of history can learn about him on various websites.

 

Those who take the time to delve into history are left to ponder Wilson's story, which epitomizes the fleetingness of fame and the fickleness of fate, as for a mere half a decade his star shone brightly on the national football stage, first as a collegian then as a highly publicized pro football player.

 

Then, unlike some of his high-visibility football peers who managed to parlay fame into later successful careers, he personally faded rapidly from the scene, doing some professional wrestlingfor a for a few years, working in the Texas oil fields, then as a longshoreman in San Francisco, dying on the dock there of a heart attack in 1963.

But in an example of the often strange links in the chain of fortune forged by fate, Wilson, at the highly publicized outset of his pro football career, set the stage for a little-noted player from Gonzaga College named Ray Flaherty to launch a professional career in which he went on to become one of the most successful coaches in the history of the NFL.

 

Wilson, nicknamed "Wildcat," was a kid from Everett who had already fashioned a name for himself as a high school player who guided his Everett team to what was acknowledged to be the nation's best high school football two years in a row, before arriving on the UW campus.

 

Although the Huskies prior to Wilson's arrival had some noteworthy accomplishments, including the record of Gil Dobie, whose pre-World War I teams posted a remarkable 58-0-3 record,performances in those early days in the West got little national visibility.

 

Wilson, however, brought national recognition to the Huskies. In addition to guiding UW to those first two Rose Bowl appearances,he was a first-team All-America selection in his senior year in an all-star backfield that might vie for the best ever, a backfield that included "Red" Grange, the "Galloping Ghost" from Illinois, and Stanford's Ernie Nevers, plus Wilson.

 

Upon his graduation in 1926, Wilson was enticed to join the just-forming American Football League (not the AFL of later decades) by the league's co-founder, who had already lured Grange to join the league as his partner but wanted a name player to compete with Grange on the field.

 

Wilson was named president of the league's traveling team, the Los Angeles Wildcats. The league actually paid the bills and filed the franchise ownership papers for the team known as "Wilson's Western Wildcats," actually based in Chicago because of the travel difficulty of being based in Los Angeles in those days.

 

Grange's traveling all-stars and Wilson's Wildcats actually met on the field once that season, in Los Angeles before a crowd of 70,000. While Grange's squad, which later became the Chicago Bears, won the game, 17-7, Wilson outgained Grange, rushing for 128 yards to 30 for grange.

 

Wilson stocked his team with players from the West, including two from Gonzaga College in Spokane. In addition to Flaherty, an end, he tapped Matty Bross, a halfback, to be part of the western stars' team.

 

Ironically, as Wilson's star would quickly fade, Flaherty, who hadn't gained much attention as a collegian at a small school removed from high-visibility opportunities, went on to make pro football his career. After his year with the Wildcats, he moved to the New York Giants, where he was an all-star end, then became head coach of the Washington Redskins, where his four trips to the NFL title game and two championships earned him acknowledgement as one of the NFL's all-time best coaches.

Choosing Flaherty for his Wildcats and thus earning credit for setting the stage for what followed is a contribution not mentioned in the sports history books, and perhaps not other than this column.

 

The AFL didn't last and Wilson joined the Providence Steam Rollers of the NFL, where he played for three seasons, including 1928 when Providence won the NFL championship and Wilson scored five touchdowns and had four interceptions to lead the team that year.

 

There is still another irony, or perhaps small-world aspect, to Wilson's story. It's that another Gonzaga College player, Houston Stockton, was guiding the Frankfort Yellowjackets (later the Philadelphia Eagles) to the NFL title in 1926 while Wilson's Wildcats were gaining attention.

 

Stockton's statistics as a collegian were almost as impressive as Wilson's, including a 77-0 Gonzaga victory over Wyoming in which Stockton scored six touchdowns and kicked 10 extra points.

In that era when players played both offense and defense, both Wilson and Stockton were viewed as stars on defense as well as offense and were regarded as punishing tacklers.

But Stockton's exploits got scant attention, being played out at a little school in out-of-the-way Spokane. His national recognition was limited to twice being named an honorable mention All-America.

  

Stockton, grandfather of NBA hall-of-famer John Stockton, had joined the Steamrollers and was a teammate of Wilson's for the 1929 season, before he returned home to Spokane to go into business and Wilson left football to begin his mysterious decline from fame and attention.

  

Wilson's years away from the limelight were interrupted only twice for reminders of what had been, once when he was inducted into the football Hall of Fame and in 1959 when he was invited home to UW, by Post-Intelligencer Sports Editor Royal Brougham, to be honored prior to the Huskies Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.

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Spokane deserves a role in Washington Redskins' look back on key anniversary

The Washington Redskins kicked off the celebration of the 80th anniversary of their NFL franchise this summer with a two-month Thank You Tour that brought players, coaches, cheerleaders and personnel to pre-season pep rallies across Redskins' fans land. Spokane obviously wasn't one of the stops on the tour, but somehow the Inland Northwest's unique tie to the Redskins should be remembered. In fact, it's a bit amusing that the Redskins owners are celebrating the birth of the franchise 80 years ago - in Boston -- when it was 75 years ago, the Diamond Jubilee, that the franchise re-located to Washington, D.C. It was with that move to the Nation's Capital that the Spokane chapter in Redskins history began when owner George Preston Marshall hired Ray Flaherty, then ending his playing career as a star end for the New York Giants, as the new team's new coach. The Giants had drafted Flaherty more than a decade earlier after his college career at Gonzaga, a virtually unknown little Jesuit school in Spokane. Flaherty launched his coaching career in style for that 1937 season, bringing the Redskins and their new city the franchise's first NFL title as they defeated George Halas' Chicago Bears on a frozen field, 28-21. Over the next six years, until World War II interrupted his coaching career and he joined the Navy, Flaherty was perhaps the most successful NFL coach of his time, winning two national titles and making it to the title game on two other occasions, posting a 56-23-3 record. Only Halas, whose Bears' 73-0 victory over the Redskins in the 1940 title game was the worst championship-game drubbing in NFL history, might have been viewed as Flaherty's equal. The prestige and power of being a prominent professional football coach never made Flaherty forget his Spokane roots as he returned home each off season to visit with and be lobbied by old friends about the latest Gonzaga football star. Thus each year, Flaherty drafted the top Gonzaga backfield star, creating the improbable result that a world championship pro football team (the 1942 Redskins squad) would have three of its backs from a little college in Spokane, including brothers Ray and Cecil Hare. On occasion, the Hares were starters. And Flaherty even brought the entire team West in 1939 in what was likely the first coast-to-coast training trip as the redskins held their training camp at what was then Eastern State Normal School (now Eastern Washington University) in Cheney, just southwest of Spokane. Gonzaga itself, which was among a host of tiny private colleges that in the '20s and '30s nursed the illusion of being the next Notre Dame, discontinued college football with the outbreak of World War II. Thus things like the Redskins-Flaherty connection are the kinds of memories important to keep alive for a lot of Bulldog fans, aware that before there was basketball at Gonzaga, there was a degree of prominence on the football field. But it wasn't just the Gonzaga connection that is a part of the Inland Northwest's tie to Washington Redskins, for 50 years after Flaherty arrived in Washington, the Redskins drafted a Washington State University quarterback named Mark Ripien. Ripien, who was born in Calgary but grew up in Spokane, starred for the Cougars in Pullman. But in the pro ranks he became one of the NFL's most feared quarterbacks and guided the Redskins to a 37-24 Super Bowl victory over Buffalo in 1991, being named the game's Most Valuable Player after passing for 292 yards and two touchdowns. Both Flaherty and Ripien are in the Redskins' Hall of Fame. In an interview with Flaherty in 1968, I asked how it was that the player generally regarded as the best to come out of Gonzaga, Tony Canadeo, eluded Flaherty to become a Green Bay Packer. Canadeo, who earned the nickname "The Gray Ghost of Gonzaga" because of his prematurely gray hair, became the first Packer to rush for more than 1,000 yards (1,052) in 1949, only the third player in the NFL to that time to achieve that mark. Flaherty recalled that he intended to have Canadeo on the Redskins' roster, but figured as a player from a tiny school in Spokane, that Canadeo would still be available in later rounds of the draft and he could use his early picks for other players. "I tried my darndest to talk the Packers out of Canadeo," Flaherty recalled in the interview. "But they seemed pretty suspicious about why I was so anxious to have him so decided to keep him. I had a lot of trouble with the Spokane folks over the fact I failed to get him." Descendants of Flaherty and the Hare brothers, as well as others whose ancestors were part of Gonzaga football, and Ripien and his family and a whole cadre of WSU football fans, would be more than enthusiastic participants if the Redskins should come up with an event to recognize the franchise's Spokane tie.
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