Slip Madigan sat staring moodily out the window at the fleeing countryside as his train rumbled across America's heartland toward New York City. The Slip Madigan St. Mary's-Fordham Special was the affectionate name of this transcontinental party on rails, an annual affair of Madigan's creation that had become the stuff of legend. It was an early evening in mid-November 1939, an hour when Slip would ordinarily be in full social bloom, traipsing through the cars glad-handing his fellow football travelers or stopping by to trade jokes in Joe Millett's private compartment, where the revelry continued without cessation day and night.
Madigan was 44 and coach for the 19th season at little St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., a school he had single-handedly transformed from an athletic nonentity into one of the nation's ranking football powers and the reigning Cotton Bowl champions. Revered as a coach, he was equally famous as a personality, a wild Irishman who thrived in a circus atmosphere, the P.T. Barnum of football.
But Slip was feeling rotten this night. His ulcers were acting up, his team was playing poorly, attendance was down, and a new board of athletic control at the college was attempting to further strip him of his once absolute powers, harassing him to the point where he was being required to actually account for his expenditures. Imagine!
The glass of Scotch before him rested untouched. He had climbed into his powder-blue pajamas earlier than usual in the vain hope of getting a decent night's sleep, but a knock on the door of his drawing room roused him from his windowside reverie. He slipped into a burgundy dressing gown and admitted Art Cohn, the acerbic young sports editor of the Oakland Tribune, a good friend and, as far as Cohn's ironic nature permitted, a loyal Madigan supporter.
"The boys are missing you out there," Cohn said, swaying with the movement of the train. "I must say, though, you look like you could use some rest."
"You know, Slip, they're saying if you don't beat Fordham, you're through."
The needling seemed to ignite some of the old fire inside. "So that's what they're saying, are they?" Madigan retorted. "O.K., Art, I've got a proposition for you."
"Of course you do."
"No, seriously, since you're obviously a genuine football expert, I'll tell you what I'm going to do. After Fordham, and after our little side trip to Mexico City, we've got one game left, with Loyola in Los Angeles."