UNDEFEATED!!! How that word caresses the tongue and gives joy to the soul!”
— St. John’s yearbook, “TAPS.”
Sixty years ago this week, the rookie coach led his St. John’s High School football team into the school chapel for a morning prayer. Then he drove the team bus from the campus on Vermont Ave. NW over to U.S. Route 1 for the hour-long trip to Baltimore — the only possible way to go because the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Interstate 95 did not exist.
The date was Sept. 27, 1947, and scrawny, 26-year-old Joe Gallagher was about to start one of the most remarkable high school coaching careers ever. The St. John’s Kaydets, as they were known then, were underdogs to a strong Calvert Hall team featuring future New York Giants general manager George Young at tackle and future Giants star Tom Scott at end.
St. John’s won the game 12-7, dominating play throughout. The Kaydets also captured their next eight games, completing the school’s first undefeated, untied season with a 12-6 victory over rival Gonzaga before more than 10,000 at Griffith Stadium on Nov. 30.
Things were different in those days, journalistically as well as otherwise. The next morning, the old Washington Times-Herald gave the Kaydets equal billing with the Redskins, its lead sports headline proclaiming, “SKINS WIN; ST. JOHN’S BEATS GONZAGA.”
That season was the start of something very big for Gallagher, a history and P.E. teacher at St. John’s who was paid all of $300 for also coaching football.
When he turned over that football job to former player Doonie Waldron in 1968 after 21 seasons, Gallagher’s record was 171-32-10 — a winning percentage of .826 that will do until another Knute Rockne or Don Shula comes along. And when he retired as basketball coach in 1991 after 44 seasons, his record on the court was 864-298.
All told, his football and basketball teams had a winning percentage of .756 and captured 22 Catholic League or Metropolitan Washington Athletic Conference championships. What’s more, Gallagher coached the right way — stressing academics and morality while eschewing profanities (although his sideline “suggestions” to game officials often were offered in loud voice and high dudgeon).
Over the decades, the area’s Catholic schools have produced such outstanding coaches as Archbishop Carroll’s Maus Collins in football and Bob Dwyer in basketball and DeMatha’s Morgan Wootten in both sports, among many others. But nobody ever started faster than Gallagher. During the 1947-48 school year, his football and basketball teams were a snappy 28-1. And it all started that distant fall day in Baltimore.
After leaving the Marine Corps in 1945, Gallagher labored briefly in the federal government for six months before quitting. “Then Gene Augusterfer, the coach at St. John’s, offered me a job as an assistant and said he would be going to Catholic University in 1947 and I would become head coach,” Gallagher said over lunch last week.
Joe might have been young in ‘47, but he was hardly naive. With very little money to offer, he put together a superb staff including Pro Football Hall of Famer Tuffy Leemans and another former New York Giant, Ray Hanken. He also attended a clinic given by Philadelphia Eagles coach Greasy Neale on the relatively new T-formation offense used at the time by very few schoolboy teams. This turned out to be a brilliant move.
“Before the game at Calvert Hall, I was so nervous, but I was OK after it started,” Gallagher said. “I knew we had a good team because we had a lot of seniors, and I thought we could beat them.”
In the locker room at Calvert Hall, Gallagher had no fiery pregame remarks, junior guard Joe Cardaci recalled.
“Joe was so young, he was like an older brother to us, and we all looked up to him,” said Cardaci, later an assistant coach at St. John’s and head coach at Good Counsel. “We had a losing record the season before — 4-5, I believe — and he shifted a lot of players into new positions, including me. I had been a halfback, but Joe put me in the line, and I became a first-team All-Met selection as a 15-year-old.”
Cardaci was one of two All-Met players from St. John’s in 1947. The other was quarterback Jack George, one of the finest all-around athletes ever produced in the District. (He also played safety and kicked extra points; upon turning in his football gear, he became an All-Met player for Gallagher’s basketball team and signed a pro baseball contract after college.)
Complete records are not available, but George threw for more than 20 touchdowns and tons of yardage. Meanwhile, halfback Bob Poch ran the football effectively, and the line beat up on most opponents as the Kaydets vanquished Calvert Hall, Charlotte Hall Military Academy , Montgomery Blair, Western, Chamberlain Vocational, Georgetown Prep, Central, Anacostia and Gonzaga. Most of the games were close, but St. John’s had what it took under pressure. Of its nine victories, five were by a total of 27 points.
It was all so long ago — and so wonderful. In those simpler, friendlier times, most area motorists were happy to give rides to hitchhiking St. John’s students in their distinctive gray, uniforms — except perhaps those with actual or emotional ties to Gonzaga.
The following season, sad to tell, the seniors and the magic were gone. St. John’s plummeted to 1-5-3 in 1948, but that was merely a momentary lull in the long parade of successful teams turned out by Gallagher.
“That first year, 1947, was the best football team I ever had,” Joe Gallagher said six decades later.
And it might have had the best coach, too.