Saturday, November 27, 1999

Sports

Decades of W's
Thanks to its remarkable record for consistency since 1924, Gonzaga Prep has established a football dynasty that seems beyond compare

By Dan Weaver
Staff writer

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Photo illustration - Kristy MacDonald, Molly Quinn, Bridget Sawicki and Daniel Wiegand
Generations of players from the same family -- such as Brian, Tim, Matthew, Mike and Kevin Cronin -- have played a key role in Gonzaga Prep's eight decades of football success.

Mike Cronin was a grade-schooler struck by the football brilliance of Tony Canadeo, Max Krause and the Hare brothers, Cecil and Ray, when at the dawning of the 1940s he was sneaking into Gonzaga University Stadium.

Two decades later, Cronin's son, Tim, was hanging over the rail at Albi Stadium, absorbing the best of 1960s high school football.

Gonzaga Prep football.

To Tim Cronin and a generation of parochial schoolers, the enduring image is Ted Gerela, dancing out of a tackle, losing a shoe, and going on without it for 59 yards and a touchdown.

For Tim Cronin, going to Gonzaga Prep was preordained. But wanting to go there was a destiny affirmed on autumn nights at Albi, where Gonzaga ruled, or threatened to.

There are slips in the record book, certainly. The Bullpups didn't always win, nor do they today. But for seven decades of the waning millennium, no Inland Northwest sports institution matches the 20th-century Bullpups for the excellence we measure with a W.

To make it happen, generations of willing athletes, many out of the

same families -- Scarpellis and Connors and DeFelices and Cronins -- came together under the reign of innovative coaches.

John "Puggy" Hunton.

Bill Frazier.

Don Anderson.

The Cronins are a Gonzaga Prep family rooted in the sports and educational traditions of the private school that throughout the region inspires the highest admiration and the deepest dislike.

Three crops of football-playing Cronins are bonded in stories, told and retold and passed around by grandfathers and fathers, sons and brothers, uncles and cousins.

Nine Cronins from this branch of the family sailed through the program. Mike and his brother, the late Frank Cronin, a Jesuit priest, were the first.

Tim (a 1970 grad) was next, followed by his brother Steve. Two cousins, Pat and Mike Cronin, were players. Tim's three sons -- Brian (class of '94), Kevin ('98) and Matthew (2000) carried on.

A 10th, Steve's son Dan, an eighth-grader at All-Saints, will be the next Cronin of Gonzaga.

"And that's not counting the in-laws," Tim Cronin points out. "My sisters are married to guys who played for Prep."

The lore is rooted in 1945.

"We were playing Lewis and Clark at Gonzaga Stadium. Frazier was in the hospital with pneumonia. We were playing the game for the coach.

"Frazier was quite an innovator, the first coach here to put in the T formation. We started with the T when I was a junior, in 1944. It was patterned after Frankie Albert's offense at Stanford.

"The next year, Bill added the flankerback position and I became the flanker. We were down six points to Lewis and Clark and I catch a pass in the end zone in the last minute and we win it.

"After the game, four or five of us go up to the hospital to commiserate with the coach. He's not very coherent with tubes and oxygen and stuff running in and out, but he'd listened to the game, I guess, and we were congratulating each other.

"As we left the room one of the smart-alecks among us said, `This is the time we can ease him out of coaching. Mike, you leave the room last. Why don't you just put your foot on the oxygen tube?"'

_ Mike Cronin

The love-hate relationship with the coach, expressed so perfectly with dark humor, ended perfectly. Bill Frazier, his convalescence no doubt hastened by his team's decision not to interrupt his flow of oxygen, climbed out of bed and the Bullpups did go on to win a City League championship.

Matthew Cronin, Mike's grandson, Tim's son and the youngest of the Cronin line to invest his youth in Gonzaga football, smiles while a black-and-white photograph of his grandfather is passed around a long rectangular table at Tim and Steve Cronin's downtown law offices.

Striking a Heisman pose with the wooden seats of old Gonzaga Stadium in the background, Mike Cronin looks out from under a leather helmet with a confident, almost cocky expression. Cumbersome kneepads compete for the eye with the prehistoric helmet. The look says it all. Look, I'm a winner. Life is good. This may be as good as it ever gets.

Matthew, the high school senior, is respectfully silent, genuinely caught up in the stories making the rounds, as if hearing them for the first time.

"We played Central Valley in November. We did win, slushing through the snow. They were still using the Statue of Liberty play, where the back takes the ball off the quarterback's hand. I scored on that crazy play.

"Everybody was wet and cold. (Don) Niehaus, our center, who was one of the better players to ever play in this league. He went on to the Sugar Bowl with Santa Clara. He had a pair of old cotton gloves to keep his hands warm.

"We're coming off the field late in the game when Coach Frazier sees the gloves. `What's the matter, Niehaus, don't you like to play in the cold? Go sit in the bus for the rest of the game.'

"So, our best player and one of the best linemen in the city was humiliated by having to go sit in the bus, where the heater was running, because he wasn't tough enough to be freezing his hands off like everybody else.

"Of course, the game had been won by that time, anyhow."

_ Mike Cronin

Matthew Cronin's recollections start with the '87 Kingbowl, with Gonzaga losing by a touchdown to the strong arm of a future NFL quarterback named Billy Joe Hobert. The distinctive logo -- a Viking plastered on the sides of the Puyallup helmets -- dwells in his memory, as do Gonzaga's stars of the day.

"That was (Rob) Bonneau's year," Matthew says. "And who was the quarterback? Graham Pederson? That's the earliest I remember."

Until Matthew's season ended prematurely at Central Valley with a freak knee injury -- he came down wrong and tore the anterior cruciate ligament _ the Cronins this fall had a Bullpup on the field, an assistant on the sidelines (Brian) and rows of family and extended family in the stands.

Familial dedication is at the foundation of Gonzaga's success. So is the parochial school system, where youngsters suit up and play at an early age. That edge has been blunted, however, with the advent of Grid Kids and Spokane Youth Sports football, which introduce public school players to the demands and delights of tackle football through grade school and junior high.

The shock of a coach screaming into an earhole in the middle of a long, hot practice is absorbed long before a player enters any high school in the region.

But no school benefits from continuity as does Gonzaga. Mike and Tim Cronin -- to cite only one example -- not only played at Gonzaga, they played for the same coach, Frazier.

"When I played, Frazier was probably 60, and he was still demonstrating. One of my best friends was having trouble with our biggest guy, who was 250. Frazier got down, picked up this 250-pound guy and ran 10 yards with him and set him down.

"The message was pretty clear. If I can handle it, an old man, what's wrong with you? He didn't let up."

-- Tim Cronin

Mike Cronin went through the same experience a generation earlier.

"Frazier may have weighed 150, but he'd take on the biggest guys -- show you how to tackle by doing it himself," Mike Cronin said. "It's a wonder he never got killed.

"There were times, of course, when people wished he had."

As central as Bill Frazier is to the story of Gonzaga high school football, the Cronins agree that the place would be special even without him.

The second of Mike Cronin's sons, Steve, followed Tim to Prep, where he became Don Anderson's first quarterback. Although Steve Cronin didn't play on Frazier's last team -- he was a sophomore at the time -- he was aware of the Frazier legend, and the pressure on Frazier's replacement.

"There was a big difference in style," Steve Cronin said. "Don brought in the option offense. We played the Houston veer. It was pretty much new to the league at that time.

"It took a while for people to get used to it. We were a little sluggish that first year, 'til we got it going. But once he got it going it was a juggernaut."

Today's game is a stage for ever-bigger linemen and ever-faster backs -- big bodies hurtling into bigger bodies. From footwear to mouthguards, the game has evolved from the mid-1940s version that Mike Cronin played.

But today's rules are relatively benign. The patriarchs, Mike and his son Tim, played in an era of head slaps, leg whips, chop blocks, crackbacks and cross-body blocks.

"Very seldom did they call an illegal block, close to the line of scrimmage," Mike Cronin said. "Everything was played on grass. There were very few injuries. Bigger bodies hitting bigger bodies is one thing, but I'm no fan of artificial turf. No question it adds to injuries, knee injuries in particular.

"I don't ever remember a knee injury in the years I played varsity ball. Tackling was different -- you tackled with your shoulders, although Frazier wanted you to go face-to-face when you blocked. He'd look at the backs at practice after a game.

"If your face wasn't roughed up, he'd think you hadn't done much of a job blocking."

What makes the stories go down easily with grandsons is the old guard's respect for today's sacrifices.

"They say it was harder," Matthew says. "They talk about hitting harder, and nobody getting hurt, about toughening up, playing on dirt. . . ."

"Hey, we had to run uphill both ways," his dad breaks in, laughing softly.

But there's no intramural debate here. The family knows that none of the Cronins endured the painful side of the no-pain-no-gain ratio as Matthew did.

He blew a knee as a seventh-grader, missed two years with surgery and rehabilitation.

Just getting in was the end of a long road back. It came against Bellarmine. The Bullpups' starting safety went down and in came Matthew, a sophomore.

In the huddle, his brother Kevin, a senior, sensed his little brother's thrill of arrival.

"He told me, `This is what you've been waiting for. Go for it,"' Matthew said.

"I kid Matthew about how hard we worked under Frazier, but in actuality he worked harder than any of us did a generation ago," Tim Cronin said. "Maybe not all kids are as tough, but the ones who want to play are."

Curiously, in the middle of a century of evolution, Cronin stock remains pretty much of the same mold.

"I was probably the smallest guy on defense," Matthew said. "I weighed what Grandpa did -- 155."

Matthew was a throwback, a two-way player despite his size at safety and wide receiver. The knee he had repaired is still strong. When the other one buckled on him in October, at CV, he was powerless to do anything about the team's slide.

His role was a short one in a long season. But Matthew Cronin did his best to take as much out of the game as he put into it.

"I'd do it again. I'm lucky, in a way. I've gone through all their scrapbooks -- my grandfather's, my dad's, my brothers'. I've listened to their stories.

"It's not just about football. The whole thing, the school, is such a major part of our family. My dad, being on the board of directors. Things like that.

"I'd give anything to be able to play. The playing time I got was worth it. The relationships. The memories. Being a part of the tradition.

"That night I got in against Bellarmine, and Kevin was in the huddle, looking at me saying `This is your time.' I almost cried."

_ Matthew Cronin

Gonzaga beat Bellarmine that night, another win that probably wasn't as easy as the Bullpups made it look. It would be nice to say that Matthew Cronin starred, but a few plays later the starter was back and he was out.

Out, with a lifetime memory.

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Also in this series
  • Back to cover
  • Decades of W's
  • Dynasties
  • From Year One