50 years ago, fire B.C. lacked on field raged off it tragically just hours later

John Steadman

November 13, 1992|By John Steadman

Football has never known a more stunning upset but, compared to the immensity of the tragedy that occurred only five hours later, it was reduced to a mere footnote, a point of regrettable reference. Instead of the loss of a game, 492 men and women lost their lives in what stands as one of the most horrifying human disasters in the history of America.

The two events had nothing to do with each other and yet, in a strange way, there was an ominous connection. The losing team, Boston College, was to attend a victory party in the Coconut Grove, the same nightclub that went up in flames. But the players couldn't bring themselves to find reason to celebrate after such a resounding defeat.

It was 50 years ago and the scoreboard in Fenway Park read: Holy Cross 55, Boston College 12. Ranked No. 1 and playing its last game against a rival that already had been beaten by four opponents, Boston College was totally embarrassed. It's probably the only time a top-rated team in its season finale ever lost by such a resounding margin.

A Boston sportswriter, Dave "The Colonel" Egan of the Record American, had written that B.C., instead of taking on Holy Cross, should have been meeting the Chicago Bears, rulers of the NFL, so a true champion could be determined.

The Sugar Bowl had extended an invitation and all B.C. had to do was get past Holy Cross, its intra-state and Jesuit college foe. Two players -- George Connor, a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame, and Mike Holovak, general manager of the Houston Oilers -- let their minds trail back to a half-century ago to review what happened.

"Simply put, everything went right for us and nothing worked for them," said Connor, then a 17-year-old Holy Cross guard who played 60 minutes. "We were crossing the goal line so fast a lot HTC of us couldn't add up the score. I was playing the strong-side guard and trapped Gil Bouley all day.

"Bouley was screaming to get out of a six-man line but they never did. As best I recall, Denny Myers, the B.C. coach, was in the press box and sending instructions by spotter telephone. He probably never got Bouley's message. I can tell you Gil made me pay for that day many times later

when he was with the Los Angeles Rams and I was a Chicago Bear."

What factors went into an upset of such monumental proportions?

"Now I'm going to tell you something I've never mentioned before," explained Connor. "Hugh Devore, one of our assistant coaches, was a Notre Dame man and a friend of Hunk Anderson, another Notre Damer, who was an assistant with the Bears under George Halas. The T-formation was new and the Bears had experience using it and also defending against it.

"Hunk gave Hughie the formula and we used it. The only thing we did differently on offense was to flank the fullback. We had great assistant coaches. 'Ank' Scanlan was our head coach and he commuted from Philadelphia, where he had a business, to Worcester, Mass., for most of our practices but not all of them. The assistants took up the slack, men like Devore, Lud Wray and Sheldon Beise. But our great victory quickly lost its impact when we heard about the fire."

Holovak, speaking from the B.C. perspective, said he walked to the Coconut Grove after word spread that it was ablaze. "I attended a small gathering held by Mayor Maurice Tobin. It was a cold night and a horrible experience. Our equipment manager and his wife were there and lost their lives. It's something I've never forgotten. Things like that never leave you."

What about the team party that had been called off? And why the Coconut Grove?

"We had a lineman named Rocco Canale, weighed about 255 or 260," explained Holovak. "He had a good voice and liked to sing. Some friends had taken him to the Coconut Grove a couple weeks before. He made such a hit with the owner and the band they invited him to bring the whole B.C. squad there after the Holy Cross game. We would have been there except for how the game ended."

Holovak said in his opinion B.C. wasn't mentally prepared. "It was a case of a team that took for granted it was good and overconfidence brought us down. To tell you the truth, I believe even our coaches felt that way. I look back after all these years and can't forget what happened that afternoon and then the awful thing that took place that dreadful night."

The intensity of the fire in the Coconut Grove lasted about 12 minutes and was believed to have started when a young employee replaced a light bulb and, in so doing, lit a match that ignited an artificial palm tree. Approximately 1,000 guests were in the nightclub, located at 17 Piedmont St., in a facility licensed to accommodate no more than 460.

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