Oakland’s Newhouse pens book on St. Mary’s coach Slip Madigan
By Lou Fancher
It’s little surprise that former Oakland Tribune sportswriter and columnist Dave Newhouse’s new book, “The Incredible Slip Madigan,” originated from stacks of scrapbooks tucked away in a basement of a home in Oakland. After all, the longtime Oakland journalist has a knack for news scoops and favors stories about colorful, unsung heroes hidden — but deserving of attention — in the Bay Area’s rich sports history.
Seven inches thick, stuffed with newspaper clippings, photos and more, the big brick-like repositories in the home of Madigan that is now owned by his son, Ed Madigan, chronicle the exploits of the legendary coach. In the 1920s and ’30s, Madigan built a powerful football program at the tiny St. Mary’s College that in 1889 had moved from San Francisco to Oakland and after a devastating fire, re-established itself in Moraga in 1928.
A showman whose affability resulted in friendly associations with Hollywood and sports celebrities, American presidents, journalists, competing coaches and fans, Madigan was an innovator who introduced coast-to-coast travel (for games against Fordham University); college football on Sundays and at nighttime; and spectacle, like silk uniforms, private train cars and off-campus musicians recruited to fill out the marching band. Demonstrating skills beyond entertainment, Madigan’s business acumen had him receiving top salaries and a percentage of Gael ticket sales.
His team’s on-field talents brought upward of 60,000 people to games at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium, a Cotton Bowl victory at St. Mary’s’ one bowl appearance in 1938 and recognition from local press for creating a team heralded as “becoming the Notre Dame of the West.” After leaving football in 1940, Madigan established a successful career as a homebuilder, primarily in Contra Costa County. He died in 1966 at age 69. When an associate mentioned the virtual library of improbable football history stored in Ed Madigan’s basement to Newhouse, the 80-year-old writer sprang to life.
“There were cartoons from newspapers, articles covering whole seasons of games, feature stories about amazing athletes,” recalls Newhouse. In an interview, he insists Madigan deserves credit for building not just a football team but the college itself.
“The chapel was built with money he made in football. The receipts from the football endeavors physically built the college that’s there today. I saw that in articles in those scrapbooks. He was given a lot of credit then that has basically disappeared,” Newhouse said.
Most students on campus, Newhouse adds, if asked about Slip Madigan, would know only of the Madigan Gym. Nor would they know that at a school with only 300 students, Madigan fashioned a team that knocked off Stanford so badly they vowed never to play the Gaels again.
“Maybe Slip wouldn’t be in the top four of the Mount Rushmore of football coaches, but he’d be in the top 10,” says Newhouse.
Madigan as a coach was more fanciful in building the team’s profile than its playbook.
“If there was anyone like P.T. Barnum, it was him,” says Newhouse. “The press always liked him. He wasn’t irascible like Bobby Knight. He reminds me of Bill Walsh. Creative, good with quotes, successful in winning and developing a team.”
During a seven-month process that was largely research, Newhouse culled the scrapbooks — he calls the weighty books “tomes” — for facts and insights. Adding to Madigan’s story, the book weaves in historical facts of the time.
“As a writer, I thought I should let readers know about Hershey bars being introduced, aeronautical developments, things that show what America was like. Were they pertinent to his story? I got a kick out of finding out what was going on, and I thought readers would too. It was my writer’s responsibility to give the reader a foothold on how America was changing.”
The most fascinating changes from then to now — other than aspects of college athletic programs — involve sports reporting.
“There was no Bay Bridge, no Caldecott Tunnel: How did the writers do it? You had to take a ferry from San Francisco, get a car, drive out on a narrow road to reach Moraga.”
With no television and obviously no Internet, newspapers were vital. Madigan made himself available for reporters’ phone calls day or night. With five papers competing for stories, Madigan also hosted the press, paying for food and drinks on cross-country train trips that allowed sportswriters to travel with the team.
“Before that, those trips every year to play Fordham had never happened. I thought, ‘My God, I could have been on that train for two weeks, seen the country, watched a football player punt into the Grand Canyon, gone to the White House and met President Hoover,” says Newhouse. “What an experience.“
With three books currently under consideration by publishers, Newhouse is contemplating his next “big experience.” A recent trip to visit his ancestral homeland in Poland occupies his thoughts about writing a memoir. “It would be my life, not everybody else’s, which is what I’ve spent my life writing about.” At age 80, he says writing about things that are pertinent is a priority. “Writing has helped me deal with losing things and people. It’s kept me busy and healthy.”
Importantly, writing about Madigan has saved a remarkable story hidden in a basement from becoming forever lost.