Neither school has entirely abandoned its storied football past. Eighty-year-old Jim Jennings, a retired lawyer, is the resident Little Big Game archivist in the Santa Clara athletic department, and St. Mary's assistant coach Jim McDonald, who teaches a course in sports history at the college, has an office fairly bulging with Gael memorabilia, including Squirmin' Herman's last helmet. And there are those who say the most famous and outrageous football figure at either school, Madigan, is still very much around the campus, in one form or another.
Madigan, who played under Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, had all of that legendary coach's tactical genius and oratorical power, and he was even more of a showman. He dressed his teams in gaudy silk pants, transported them cross-country aboard a train, known as the St. Mary's Special, to play Fordham and persuaded his fellow Catholic independents in the Bay Area to play on Sundays, the working stiff's day off. The train trips to New York—13 in all—were two-week grand tours that included side trips to such tourist attractions as the White House. On one such junket to the Grand Canyon in the late 1930s, Madigan, who had heard quite enough about Bronco Casanova's historic punt, had his punter, Jerry Dowd, line up, take a snap and boot one into the void. Then, when someone would mention Casanova's feat, Madigan would boast that his man had kicked the ball a mile farther. Madigan had only two losing seasons from '21 until '40, when he was fired, supposedly for allowing the athletic tail to wag the academic dog, but mostly because his salary—10% of the gate receipts—was deemed too high. Over one span he was undefeated in 12 straight Little Big Games, counting a tie in 1933, losing finally to Shaw's Sugar Bowlers in '36. His '26 and '29 teams were undefeated, but both tied once, the '29 team allowing only one touchdown in nine games. Madigan was, for the better part of two exciting decades, a beloved figure, ever pacing the sideline in his trademark trench coat and his floppy hat.
Madigan died in 1966, but his legend is still alive at St. Mary's. The legend—and just possibly something more. Steve Jacoby, now the Gaels' defensive line coach, was a player five years ago when he first saw Slip—where else but in the Madigan Gymnasium. "It was after a game, and I was so tired that I dragged a mat out onto the basketball floor and took a nap," Jacoby recalls. "After an hour or so, I was awakened by the sound of footsteps. It was dark but I could clearly see a man pacing back and forth at the top of the stairs. He had on a trench coat and an old-fashioned hat. I couldn't move, I was so scared. Then, as he passed by a window, he was gone. I ran up to where he had been, but I could find no trace of him. I went home and told my roommate what I'd seen, and he said, 'Oh, that was just the ghost of Slip Madigan.' I haven't actually seen him since, but when I'm working late at night in the gym, I can still hear him pacing back and forth."
Jacoby has been too embarrassed to do much talking about these eerie encounters, but he did confide in Braff and offensive tackle Bil Gang before this year's Little Big Game. They believed him. In fact, they're convinced that old Slip still keeps an eye on the team and that he must have known that going into this year's Santa Clara game, the Gaels had a chance to fulfill his lifelong ambition of an undefeated, untied season. "I know Slip was there on the sidelines," Gang said, quietly separating himself from the victory celebration that day. "I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't call that last play himself."
And why not? Where there's tradition, there are ghosts. As the old man so often advised the living, "The fighting heart is made to win."