"There was a widespread perception that Seattle U. was a basketball school. That image is fading, and I think people are getting a truer image now than when 99% of what one read about Seattle U. was on the sports pages."
Monsignor John Tracy Ellis sits in his apartment at the Catholic University of America in Washington under an autographed portrait of the Pope. He is a gentle little man who, on Sept. 25, reached his golden anniversary as a teacher. Still, for all his achievements, he remains most famous for a speech he delivered some 30 years ago, which rattled the cage of Catholic education as never before. Essentially, Ellis not only declared that the Church's educational presence in America wasn't very distinguished, but (what hurt even more) he charged that these failings were largely internal. Catholics could no longer go on blaming their early immigrant status and the lingering prejudice on the part of Protestants for their current academic shortcomings.
"Intellectualism is still the weakest aspect of the American Catholic community," Ellis says. "And nobody denies that, either. And we don't have any more excuses. This country is teeming with Catholic millionaires now. I've seen figures that only the Jews are richer than the Catholics are now." He chuckled. "Why, we've even passed the Episcopalians. We're wealthy. Unfortunately, thinking is not really important among Catholics.
"And our Catholic identity—it's almost accidental in most universities now. Our universities are more and more secularized. We suffer from a herd instinct. Why are we into business administration and engineering when so many other institutions can offer those courses—and do it better than we? We were better off when we concentrated on the humanities and liberal arts.
"I know, I know. It's an effort to remain solvent. But it's not just looking for tuition. You must fight society. When most Catholic colleges began, the United States was operating on the Protestant ethic—and that is a very moral system. But today, morality is unfashionable. And we certainly see that in athletics, don't we?" Ellis sighed. "It's wrong in America now to say that anything is a sin. What was once morally wrong is today merely unfair."
Sports was always safe territory for Catholics—especially at a time when the intellectual or social pursuits of Protestant colleges were seen as too liberal, even libertine. At first, too, many Catholic colleges were barely more than extended high schools. Whereas Harvard and most of the other early Protestant-oriented colleges had been started in order to educate the clergy and thereby keep its religious leaders on top, Catholic colleges only presumed to play catch-up ball. Academic inquiry was rare and, as Edward Henry, the former lay president of St. Michael's College in Vermont puts it, the modest purpose of higher Catholic education was only "to serve the children and grandchildren of relatively unlettered and religiously docile immigrants." Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Testem Benevolentiae, which excoriated boat-rocking "Americanism" in 1899, pricked the searching intellectual confidence that was bubbling in some Catholic colleges. While Britain produced id. imaginative Catholic writers before World War II on the order of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, the vastly larger American Catholic community threw up little more than Joyce Kilmer.
Ah then, but trees—like tackles and rebounds—could offer a comfortable retreat from a complicated world. Besides, suspicion of the mind was matched by fear of the libido. Athletics was the perfect alternative—to keep wandering eyes from patent-leather shoes, to keep wandering tongues and fingers to themselves, to keep, perhaps, hair from sprouting on indulgent palms. Compared with free thinking and loose living, fun and games was one area in which Catholic education could compete straight-up with anybody. Bob Capone, the alumni director at Villanova—he had been a football player there, graduating in 1962—recalls the old days: "It was a different time, when just about every boy played a contact sport." It is surely no coincidence that the first Catholic college to be awarded a Phi Beta Kappa chapter (in 1938) did not have a football or basketball team; it was the College of St. Catherine, a women's school in St. Paul.
The Catholic colleges were small and unprepossessing and (of course) single-sex. The Catholic presence was always clear because most of the teachers were priests—"the living endowment," it was called, which was apt enough, because there was precious little of the other kind. Few of the alumni, struggling to work their way up the American ladder, could contribute great gifts.
While Georgetown, founded in 1789 by the Jesuits, was one of the first two dozen American universities, the Catholic college did not really begin to flourish until the 1840s, as the great immigrant waves from Ireland and Germany rolled in. Both Villanova and Notre Dame were founded in 1842, and soon to follow were such schools as St. Joseph's and La Salle in Philadelphia; Manhattan and St. Francis in New York and Brooklyn; Seton Hall in New Jersey; Loyola in Baltimore: Niagara and St. Bonaventure in the Buffalo area; Boston College; and Dayton. The Jesuits, of course, set the pace, but almost every order wanted a flagship, and one can almost chart the flow west of the American immigration by the founding dates of new Catholic colleges across the country. Barely had the 49ers picked their first nuggets than both Santa Clara and USF opened their doors—more than a decade before the state gave its citizens the University of California.
Most of the Roman Catholic schools were in the cities, where the immigrants were, where the parishes were—a fact that would eventually have a great deal to do with the demise of Catholic football a century later. Many of the downtown schools had no campuses to speak of, and certainly no rustic ivied walkways and Gothic dormitories. Father John Lo Schiavo, the president of USF, recalls that when he was a student there after the war, when the place was jammed with all the boys back from the fighting, by the time the 2 p.m. chapel bells chimed, the Hilltop was all but deserted, as the students took streetcars home or to work. In 1951, immediately after it fielded a football juggernaut the envy of Frank Leahy or Earl Blaik, USF gave up football. It was two-platoon, all these hordes of boys to outfit. They had no proper place to play on campus. And there was this new thing in town called the 49ers.