History & Tradition: 1929

The Little Giant

A coaching legend across two campuses

In three decades of coaching, Hall of Famer Lou Little coached at only two schools. But there was always more to Lou Little than just a coach.

For one thing, he wasn't really the patrician sounding "Louis Lawrence Little", but Luigi Piccolo, an Italian immigrant who grew up in Boston at the turn of the century. After high school and a post-graduate stop at Worcester (MA) Academy, Piccolo arrived at Pennsylvania in 1916 after a year playing at Vermont. After his first year at Penn, the 25 year old earned All-America honors at tackle.

The World War sent may college players into the service, and Piccolo was no exception. Having adopted the Americanized version of an old schoolyard nickname, "Little Luigi", he was anything but--at 6-0, 205 pounds, Little enlisted in the American Expeditionary Force, rising to the rank of captain and seeing action in the Argonne offensive. He returned to Penn in 1919 and played a final year of college before moving into the newly created National Football League, where he played two seasons for the Buffalo All-Americans while also playing for an independent team in Philadelphia. But there was no money in professional football, so Little took another career turn: coaching.

How Little got to Georgetown is unclear. It's likely he came into contact with Al Exendine, the successful Georgetown coach to whom football was a seasonal pursuit--an attorney for Indian affairs by trade, Exendine commuted between Washington and Tulsa in the off-season, and made more money in law than he ever did in coaching at Georgetown.

Little's arrival at Georgetown turned an important page in Georgetown athletics. In the previous forty or so years of organized athletic competition, management of the teams was a student-run enterprise, with coaches hired on a part time basis. The student managers would set the schedules, manage the finances and report to the Jesuit moderators as to the success or failure of their efforts. Little's arrival would be different, as he was not only named head coach but athletic director across all seven Georgetown sports teams.

The contributions to Georgetown football were significant on and off the field. He accelerated the recruitment of athletes begun in the Exendine years, reaching out to large midwest cities such as Chicago and Detroit to bring in talent not in the range of the larger Eastern schools. More games were moved off-campus to Griffith Stadium to boost revenues, and the team began to build upon the national reputation garnered under Exendine. Following a 4-4 season in 1924, Georgetown would win 32 of its next 38 over the next four seasons, with a mix of talent that was the envy of Eastern football. He lobbied repeatedly, albeit unsuccessfully, to schedule a series with Notre Dame which would further elevate Georgetown as a major program. Knute Rockne admitted as much that Notre Dame wasn't interested in promoting rivalries that would elevate other Catholic schools nationally, and opted to begin series with Navy and Southern California instead; each remains among the most popular rivalries on the Notre Dame calendar.

A run of future stars, from Connaughton and Plansky to McGrath and Mooney were dominant as Georgetown could hold its own with the best of them. Little's effective use of assistant coaches and the game plans he studied under coach Robert Folwell at Penn (a coach who would later become the first coach of the NFL's New York Giants) led Georgetown to new heights in the sport.

With success came pressure and scrutiny. Following the 1926 season, Georgetown sensed that Little was in demand from some of the larger colleges. As a school which relied on Jesuits to staff most of the teaching positions at the college, the budget did not allow for a competitive salary for coaches. An arrangement was made whereby Little would receive 10 percent of the Georgetown gate in addition to his salary. It was a timely move, as the 1927 team would to 8-1 with an undefeated 6-0 record at Griffith Stadium.

Little was involved with another story circling college football. The Carnegie Foundation was doing an investigation into college football, questioning if colleges were offering scholarships to athletes, a common practice but not one publicly disclosed by schools. Georgetown's scholarship support was closer to what would today be called "work-study) (e.g., a job at the campus dining hall to pay for his education) but financial aid it was.

The national report, issued in 1929, named a number of schools as offering scholarships, including Georgetown and four schools that would later join the Ivy League. Little was furious that Georgetown was in such company, having been assured by the investigator that Georgetown did not qualify as such. "There is no such thing as an athletic scholarship at Georgetown," Little said, "and there is no reason for classifying us in the group which subsidizes teams." yet there was evidence that as late as may of that year, Little requested to Georgetown president Rev. Coleman Nevils S.J. a count of 100 men representing "the number of men that we may have here next year on scholarship for athletics."

In the end, it wasn't Little's reputation that soured, but the issue of money. Following the 1928 season, Little claimed that the Jesuits were undercounting the gate at Griffith Stadium and thus short-changing his 10% share of the revenues. By the time of his contract renewal after the 1929 season, it was an issue that had not been resolved. Sensing an opening, Penn offered $15,000 a year, or nearly double Little's Georgetown base. Columbia, which had seen Little's Georgetown teams gain attention in New York in wins over NYU and Fordham, upped the offer to $18,000 a year. Nevils, who had inherited the 10 percent bonus offered from his predecessor, opted not to pursue him further.

Little arrived as a hero to Morningside Heights following the resignation of Charlie Crowley, and dared the school to be great. Arriving in a Cadillac along Broadway, he exhorted the faithful: "I did not come to Columbia to fail!" True to form, he turned Columbia into a national power, capped by the 7-0 upset of Stanford in the 1934 Rose Bowl that captured the hearts of the city. In the midst of the Great Depression, Columbia was the city's most popular football team. Author and Columbia historian Robert McGaughey wrote as follows:

"A strong athletic program was, however, seen as a means by which Columbia contributed to the life of the city. In an age before television...and before professional football acquired its post-World war II popularity, a Columbia football game could be the hottest ticket in town. One did not have to go to Columbia to root for its teams; if they were winning, being a New Yorker was enough....

The rhetorical question in the Columbia fight song, "Who owns New York?" has nothing to do with institutional finances and everything to do with local bragging rights conferred on those identified with the city's winning teams. While perhaps not on the size of Notre Dame's "subway alumni", Columbia's nonmatriculating football fans in the 1920's, 1930's and 1940's represented an important public constituency. "

As Columbia football faded from the sports pages, Little was seen as the father figure of its golden age. He was a frequent guest in Manhattan nightlife, a popular after-dinner speaker, and was even a character in a Jack Kerouac novel, titled "Maggie Cassidy". The author, who played football under Little but who was benched in his sophomore season, parodied the coach in a fictional autobiography, complaining about coach "Lu Libble". But fans cared more about Columbia stars like Sid Luckman and Cliff Montgomery, and less about a second stringer turned Beat poet.

In time, the Little legacy became larger than the man itself.

An apocryphal story about Little, often cited in football literature and popular boys magazines over the years, has no basis in fact but Little did nothing to discourage it, as this excerpt from Bobby Bowden's autobiography illustrates:

"One of the devotionals I often liked to tell our players was a story I heard many years ago. It was about Lou Little, who was a famous football coach at Columbia University in New York from 1930 to 1956. He led Columbia to a victory in the 1934 Rose Bowl over Stanford University and coached the famous novelist Jack Kerouac and Sid Luckman, who was a great T-formation quarterback for the Chicago Bears during the 1940s.

Little also coached at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., from 1924 to 1929. There, he coached a defensive tackle who probably weighed two hundred pounds, which was very big back in those days. Little worked with the boy every day, but the young man just did not get any better. But the boy was persistent, worked hard, and had a great attitude. In fact, the boy never missed a practice in his four seasons on the team. Three or four days before the boy's final game at Georgetown, Little received a telegram that informed him the boy's father had died. Little had seen the boy walking with his father. "Son, I am sorry," Little told him. "But your father passed away. Go home and take care of your family. We'll try to win this game for you."

That Saturday, Little walked into his team's locker room and was surprised to see the boy standing there. "Coach, you have to start me," the boy said.

"Son, you have never been a starter," Little told him. "This is the championship game. I cannot take that kind of risk today."

"Coach, I have to do this for my father," the boy pleaded. "Just put me in for the first play and then you can take me out of the game."

Little was overcome with sympathy. How could he not grant the boy his wish? So he put the boy in the starting lineup, and the boy ran down the field to cover the game's opening kickoff. He tackled the player returning the kick so hard he nearly knocked him into the first row of seats. The boy jumped up and ran to the sideline just like he promised his coach he would do, but Little motioned to him to stay in the game.

During the rest of the afternoon, the boy played like he was possessed. He led Georgetown's team in tackles and delivered big hit after big hit. Georgetown won the game and claimed a conference championship.

Little pulled the boy aside during the team's celebration in its locker room. "Son, what in the world got into you today?" Little asked him. "You've never played like that before. You've never shown that much desire in four years."

"Coach, you know my father died," the boy said. "You know my father was blind. Today was the first time he could see me play."

I met Little at a coaches' convention in Washington, D.C., during the late 1960s. I asked him if that story was true, and he told me it was. After watching Warrick Dunn play at Florida State for four seasons, I can only imagine he played as hard and with as much passion as that boy at Georgetown University for the same reason. Warrick had someone watching over him, too."

 

Lou Little coached 27 seasons at Columbia, and while he ended his coaching tenure under .500 and with five consecutive losing seasons, his departure was hastened not by record but retirement--by 1956, he had approached the mandatory age for coaches at the school. He announced his retirement effective at season's end. He won his final game at Baker Field over Cornell and was carried off the field. He likewise won at Rutgers in the season finale, but only one other win therein for the season. That Little's final three seasons feted a cumulative record of just 5-22-0 meaned nothing to his fans, among them the coaching fraternity. Despite a 3-6-0 record in 1956, Little was placed third in the Coach of the Year ballot, ahead of Oklahoms's Bud Wilkinson, who palced fourth. It was a show of respect for the man and the teams he built, and perhaps a nod to the challenge of winning at Morningside Heights. In the 60 years since Little retired, Columbia has posted just five winning seasons.

If there were relations between Georgetown and Little after 1930, press accounts are nonexistent. The two schools never met in football, and Little never appeared at an event sponsored by the University. When Rev. Jeremiah Minihan (C'25) was elevated to assistant bishop of Boston in 1954, a large number of Little's former players traveled to the ceremonies, but not the coach. Little never returned to the Hilltop for his Athletic Hall of Fame award or any other passing recognition.

In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower dedicated the Walsh Building on Georgetown's campus. In his speech, he cited Little as a close friend dating back to when then-Maj. Eisenhower coached a service team against Georgetown in 1924. In fact, it was Eisenhower, who served as president of Columbia following World War II, who convinced Little into staying at Columbia, following an offer to move to Yale.

The story of football at Columbia and Georgetown each pass through the tutelage of Lou Little, who died in 1979 at the age of 85. Though each school has seen better days in the sport, his was an era when each school was at the top of its game.