Before there was basketball at Gonzaga there was football, including a Christmas Day bowl game a century ago
The little Spokane school’s 20-year quest to use football to gain collegiate sports fame never achieved anything like the prominence basketball has brought Gonzaga, though there were moments of gridiron glory.
The highlight was that national visibility for the Bulldogs a century ago this week. Stories atop the sports pages of major newspapers like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune heralded Gonzaga’s performance in a 1922 bowl game in San Diego against West Virginia, undefeated that season, including a victory over Rose Bowl-bound Pittsburgh.
The long-ago game was originally a promoter's dream: envisioned as 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. Both won All-
American honors at those positions in 1913, the year they popularized the forward pass.
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, after Dorais’ arrival.
According to legend, the decision on whether Rockne or Doris 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 building a reputation among Northwest schools.
Then in 1922, Houston Stockton, grandfather of John Stockton, the renowned Zag basketball star and eventual NBA all-star with the Utah Jazz, arrived.
Stockton, nicknamed “Hous,” had been singled out for All-American honorable mention as a freshman at St. Mary's in Oakland the previous year, then 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.
In a Bozeman snowstorm, the Bulldogs beat College of Puget Sound, 34-0, Montana, 37-6, and Montana State, 12-0. 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 in its season finale, Notre Dame was upset by Nebraska, 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 team viewed by some as the best team in the nation in the era before rankings, 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 with a pass into 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 play professional ball with the Frankfort Yellowjackets, the 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. They included George (Automatic) Karamatic, who won a place on the 1936 All-America team backfield, and Tony Canadeo, known as the "Grey Ghost of Gonzaga" for his prematurely gray hair, who 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 then 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 eight decades since the blue-and-white uniforms were packed away for the last time. And 70 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 western colleges, mostly catholic schools hoping to follow Notre Dame to schools to pursue an Ozymandian delusion that football could be the ticket to a wealthy campus and national renown.
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.