By Steve Svetovich
Thoughts of a September football bring back memories of the late Jim Crowley who was the last surviving member of “The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.”
Crowley died at 83 Jan. 15, 1986 at Holy Family Residence in Scranton where he lived in the latter part of his life. He spent a good part of his final years living in the Green Ridge section of Scranton. His funeral was held at Saint Clare’s Church in Green Ridge.
It was famed sportswriter Grantland Rice who penned “The Four Horsemen” name on the four members of the Notre Dame backfield in the early 1920s. The picture of the four players, including Crowley, sitting on horses is legendary and was on the wall of Terry’s Diner in Moosic for decades.
Crowley was born in Chicago 115 years ago this September 10.
He played at Notre Dame from 1922 through 1924, suited up for three games of professional football and then coached at Michigan State from 1929 to 1933 and Fordham University from 1933 to 1941. At Fordham, he coached “The Seven Blocks of Granite,” a group that included Vince Lombardi who later became a legend himself as coach of the Green Bay Packers.
This scribe had the privilege of meeting the Notre Dame legend in the early 1980s. Crowley was a patient at Mercy Hospital, Scranton, and this scribe was working in the Central Supply Unit. A co-worker, Bill Hoppel, met him first and introduced me to him.
A friendship ensued and there were other frequent visits. Eventually, Crowley agreed to do a taped interview.
Here are some excerpts from the taped interview with the witty Crowley:
“We got the name, ‘The Four Horsemen,’ in the fall of 1924 when we defeated Army, 13-7. Grantland Rice, the Dean of sports writers at the time, gave us the name in his write up of the game. When we got back to South Bend, a very enterprising reporter, George Strickler, had four horses brought out to the campus and had us stride them. They took our picture and that picture went all over the country. Between the combination of the two, we became known as ‘The Four Horsemen.’ That was it.”
The late Grantland Rice, who lived next door to Crowley in New York when the Notre Dame legend coached at Fordham, wrote: “Outlined against the blue-gray October sky, The Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction, and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldraher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone which another Fighting Irish team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon.”
Knute Rockne’s undefeated 1924 Notre Dame team went on to win the national championship and defeated Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Rockne died in a plane crash in March of 1931.
“Rockne was a great man,” Crowley said. “He would have been a success at anything. He was a brilliant individual, great coach and dynamic character. He was a strict disciplinarian, but at the same time had a great sense of humor.”
Crowley had great memories of coaching Lombardi at Fordham.
“Lombardi was a good, steady player, not a great star. He played with the ‘Seven Blocks of Granite.’ He had to be good to play in that group. I didn’t think he would get into coaching at the time, but he did and became a great one.”
Crowley, known as Sleepy Jim, said he went from playing a few pro games into coaching to make more money. “It wasn’t lucrative to be a pro player then. You could make more money in coaching.”
Crowley compiled a 58-13-7 coaching record at Fordham. His .783 winning percentage is fourth on the all-time list. He led Fordham to a 2-0 win over Missouri in the 1942 Sugar Bowl. The game was played during a fierce electrical storm. The win made Fordham national champions.
Crowley coached Fordham in the first televised football game in 1939.
Crowley recalled being at a New York Giants football game with Milton Berle when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. “I was there with Ted Collins, who was Kate Smith’s manager. Milton came over between halves to sit with us. Milton was with his mother. He often had his mother with him. He had a transistor radio which blared out that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. We continued watching the game. There was nothing we could do at that point.”
In March 1942, Crowley was commissioned as a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve. He served on the staff of Admiral William H. Halsey and was in charge of welfare and recreation in the South Pacific.
After his Naval duty concluded, he became commissioner of the All-American Football Conference.
He then became head coach, general manager and executive Vice President of the Chicago Rockets.
In 1951, he entered the insurance business in Wilkes-Barre, but moved to Scranton in 1953 and remained in insurance. He also became station manager of television station WTVU.
In 1954, he did color commentary for NBC covering Canadian football.
He was chairman of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission from 1955 through 1963.
Crowley knew plenty of celebrities in his day.
“Babe Ruth was on the same speaking circuit as me in the 1920s and early 1930s. It is true that he liked to eat a lot of hot dogs. He had a huge, gregarious personality. He was bigger than life.
“Bob Hope used to come to my New York apartment. He used to sit on a steamer trunk and drink scotch. He wanted to be seen with us, so he could become known. He wasn’t known yet and was trying to make it big.”
Tom Fox, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, at a gathering after Crowley’s funeral said, “He was a man who shared himself, a great speaker. Jim Crowley was so down to earth, he was dead level to the ground.”