By Jim Lefebvre
The eyes of the college football world will be on Philadelphia this Saturday, with ESPN’s GameDay originating from Independence Square, and No. 9 Notre Dame meeting No. 21 Temple on prime time from Lincoln Financial Field on ABC.
With its large Catholic population, Philly has always had its share of Notre Dame support. And that dates back to the days of Knute Rockne.
Roman Catholic High, located at Broad and Vine streets, just a few blocks from the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art, is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1890. It produced current Notre Dame star Will Fuller, but also has Notre Dame connections from much earlier times.
Rev. John F. O’Hara spent decades at Notre Dame, and as prefect of religion in the 1920s, saw the benefit of promoting a positive image of Notre Dame students (Rockne’s players) far and wide across the U.S. (We tell this story in detail in Loyal Sons.) O’Hara served as Notre Dame’s president from 1934-45, and was Archbishop of Philadelphia from 1951 until his death in 1958. He was the first member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross to become a Cardinal.
While Father O’Hara was early in his career at Notre Dame, the Irish had a quarterback named Stan Cofall in 1914-16, while Rockne was assistant coach to Jesse Harper. Cofall became football coach at Roman Catholic High, and in 1922, he coached his squad to an Eastern prep-school championship.
Cofall wrote Rockne, then the successful head coach of the Irish, about three superb players from his Roman Catholic team – quarterback Vince McNally, end Joe Maxwell and tackle Joe Boland. On a cold winter night in early 1923, with Rockne in New York City speaking at a banquet, Cofall drove his Model T with the three as passengers, to meet the great coach.
Boland, in his biography, recalled the impression made by “the flat-nosed, square-faced dynamic Norwegian who lived football, but who talked about education; the discipline of the Hoosier campus, and how valuable both would be to all of us in later life. It wouldn’t be easy, he said. We’d have to work for what we got. Jobs as dining-hall waiters would be ours, as long as we maintained a high level of scholastic achievement, steered clear of trouble, and did good work in the dining halls.
“It would be worth it, Rock explained, for nothing is gained in this life without sacrifice and work.”
The three needed little prodding, as they had lived with Coach Cofall’s glowing descriptions of campus and life as a Notre Dame student and football player. They became the first Philadelphia high school stars to head to Notre Dame to play football. And by 1924, they were members of the varsity that included the Four Horsemen and the Seven Mules.
On Jan. 1, 1925, the undefeated Fighting Irish played in the Rose Bowl against Stanford, coached by the legendary Pop Warner and featuring Ernie Nevers. Early in the game, Irish tackle Joe Bach was injured, and Rockne sent in Boland, who played the remaining 57 minutes. Boland and the rest of the Irish line took a terrible pounding from Nevers, but prevailed, 27-10, to wrap up a perfect season and ND’s first consensus national championship.
Boland went on to a career in coaching and broadcasting. From 1942 until his death in 1960, he had daily sports shows on South Bend’s WSBT radio (and later TV) and did play-by-play of Notre Dame and high school sports. He was instrumental in forming the Notre Dame radio network, which reached nearly 200 stations nationwide.
Vince McNally had a notable career as a sports executive, rising to the position of general manager of the Eagles, from 1949-64. In 1958, he hired veteran college coach Buck Shaw, another former Notre Dame player under Rockne, to be the Eagles head coach. McNally is credited with building the Eagles team which won the NFL championship in 1960, handing Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers what would be their only post-season loss. Shaw retired after that game, and the Eagles have not won a championship since then.
But this Saturday, there should be a championship-like buzz when the hometown favorite Owls and iconic vising Fighting Irish get together before a sold-out crowd. Rockne would love it.