Chicago Catholic League Football
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Professional players and enough college stars to stock a good-sized
conference are all part of the rich history of Chicago Catholic League football.
So are the dozens of coaches who devoted their professional lives to teaching youngsters the right way to play the game, on and off the field. Men like Tony Lawless, Jim Arneberg, Tom Winiecki, Lou Guida, Pat Cronin, Frank Maloney, Bob Naughton, Bob Foster, John Hoerster, Tom Mitchell and Frank Lenti, to name a few.
So, too, are the thousands of youngsters who may have lacked the size or the skill to play football beyond high school, but channeled the lessons they learned on Catholic League playing fields toward success in all walks of their personal and professional lives. The Catholic League might not produce the same sheer volume of talent as, say, the football hotbeds of Florida, Texas or Western Pennsylvania. But any college coach who signs a CCL player or any employer who hires one can
be confident he’s getting a determined achiever who will work hard and finish the job while competing with honesty and integrity.
It’s the Catholic League Way, and it helped Donovan McNabb (Mt. Carmel ‘94) enjoy a standout career as an NFL quarterback, reaching Super Bowl XXXIX with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005. It helped Bill Callahan (Mendel ‘74) reach the top rung of the coaching profession when he led the Oakland Raiders against the Tampa Bay Bucs in Super Bowl XXXVIII one year earlier. It helped Johnny Lattner (Fenwick ‘50) win the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame in ‘53.
Catholic Leaguers were a Super Bowl presence long before Callahan made his mark with Raiders. Fellow St. Mel graduates Tom Bettis (‘51) and Tom Keating ‘60) were participants in Super Bowls I and II, Bettis on the winning side with the Green Bay Packers after he’d played college ball at Purdue and Keating on losing side with the Raiders after an All-America career at Michigan.
Tim Foley (‘66) was a quarterback at Loyola Academy, a safety at Purdue (‘70) and a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Miami Dolphins in VII and VIII. David Diehl (Brother Rice ‘97, Illinois ‘01) can match him, having earned two rings as an offensive tackle with the New York Giants in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.
Had the the Super Bowl been around in 1963, Mike Rabold (Fenwick
‘55, Indiana ‘59) would have won a ring as a guard for the NFL champion Bears.
Like Tim Foley, Cas Banaszek mastered position switches, playing quarterback at Gordon Tech (‘63), tight end at Northwestern ‘67) and offensive tackle for a decade with the San Francisco 49ers. Linebacker Gregg Bingham followed him from Gordon (‘69) to the Big Ten (Purdue ‘73) to the NFL (Houston Oilers). Guard Ed Burke (Mendel ‘59) was also an Oiler, having first been part of a pipeline from the Monarchs’ Roseland campus to Notre Dame, along with end Tom Goberville (‘60) and quarterback Dennis Szot ‘60.
Several Catholic Leaguers had a hand in Ara Parseghian’s resurrection of the Notre Dame program, including Tony Carey (Mt. Carmel ‘61), Nick Rassas (Loyola ‘62), Joe Farrell (Mendel ‘60), John Meyer (Brother Rice ‘60) and Jay Standring (Leo ’66). Later, Mark Zavagnin (St. Rita ‘79) and Tony Furjanic (Mt. Carmel ‘82) played for Gerry Faust’s Irish, and St. Laurence ‘86 classmates Tim Grunhard and Stan Smagala were teammates on Lou Holtz’s 1988 national champions.
Football was not one of the original offerings when the Catholic League was organized in 1912.It was added the following year, and the high energy
immigrant kids who formed the majority of the student body at most Catholic schools took to it with such vigor that football almost immediately became the CCL’s signature sport. The area surrounding what is now downtown remained Chicago’s most populous as the city rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871, so the close-in
schools had the most football aspirants to choose from.
DePaul Academy won the first five Catholic League championships and six of the first seven.
St. Ignatius interrupted the DePaul streak in 1918 and won again in 1920.
The ‘20s saw the South Side schools assert themselves DeLaSalle won two titles and shared two more with St. Rita and Loyola Academy. And in 1927, a football Goliath began stirring when Mt. Carmel won for the first time.
Catholic League football predates the Bears, and throughout the ‘30s, one could make the case that it was more popular. Mayor Ed Kelly promoted a game pitting the Catholic League champs against the Public League champs, a “Prep Bowl” city championship that drew record crowds to Soldier Field and raised millions of dollars for youth-related city charities.
Unofficial city championship games had been played after the ‘27, ‘28 and ‘31 seasons, but the idea appeared dormant when Public champ Morgan Park declined to play in ‘32, saying the season was already too long. With Kelly’s impetus, the game was resurrected as an official city promotion in 1933, with Soldier Field as the venue. Mt. Carmel defeated Harrison in the first Prep Bowl, but Lindblom (twice) and Austin gave the Public League a three game winning streak before increasingly large crowds.
The zenith of fan interest occurred in 1937, when a throng estimated at 120,000 people overflowed Soldier Field to see Austin legend Bill DeCorrevont run wild in a 26-0 thumping of previously unbeaten Leo, handing the Lions their third straight Prep Bowl defeat.
They would make amends four years later by becoming the first Catholic League champ to win back-to-back city titles, beating Tilden in 1941& 42.
The ‘41 game drew a crowd of 95,000, second only to the 1937 game in Prep Bowl annals. Jim Arneberg was a standout lineman for those Leo teams; when he coached the Lions to a 12-0 victory over neighborhood rival Calumet in 1956, he
became the first man to play and coach in the Prep Bowl.
Two of the most distinguished CCL players of the era never got to the Prep Bowl. George Connor, De La Salle ‘41, began his college career at Holy Cross and finished it at Notre Dame after military service with U.S. Navy in World War II. An AllAmerica tackle under coach Frank Leahy and winner of the first Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman, Connor never played in a losing game at Notre Dame as the Irish went 17-0-1 in 1946-47. He later invented the position of middle linebacker as a pro star with the Bears and was elected to both the college and pro
football halls of fame.
A ruptured ear drum kept Elmer Angsman out of the service after he graduated from Mt. Carmel in 1943. Angsman, a shifty halfback, preceded Conner as a star at Notre Dame and became a hometown hero with the Chicago Cardinals, running for 159 yards and two touchdowns in an NFL title game victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947.
The Catholic League had always been a reliable source of talent for Notre Dame, and the savvy began flowing the other way in 1949 when former Irish running back Terry Brennan took over as Mt. Carmel coach. Brennan, a running back under Leahy, directed the Caravan to three straight Prep Bowl titles, matching a record set by Fenger from 1938-40.
St. George extended the CCL streak to four by beating Austin in 1953. Mendel, founded in 1951, made its Prep Bowl debut just six years later and beat Calumet 6-0
in one of the most memorable games of the series, scoring the game’s lone touchdown on a Hail Mary pass on the final play.
The ‘60s were a turbulent time for American society, but the decade found the Catholic League at the peak of its power in reeling off 10 straight Prep Bowl wins and outscoring its Public League opponents by a combined 314-86.
Mt. Carmel started it in 1960, using the brother tandem of Coach Tom and quarterback Tony Carey to handle Taft 27-8.The only close game of the decade followed in ‘61, Weber edging Lane Tech 14-12 on a muffed punt snap in the final minute.
The Red Horde repeated as city champs in ‘64, riding future Northwestern star Rich “Chico” Kurzawski to a 34-13 victory over Chicago Vocational.
The ‘62 and ‘63 Prep Bowls featured two of the most dominant performances in series history. Fenwick’s Jim DiLullo ran for 224 yards and scored five touchdowns on just 12 carries as the Friars routed Schurz 40-0 in the ‘62 game to cap a 10-0
season in which they outscored their opponents 317-32. John Jardine was 51-6-1 in six seasons as Fenwick’s coach, a worthy successor to the great Tony Lawless.
Coach Ed Buckley’s 1963 St. Rita team is commonly regarded as one of the Catholic League’s finest, and the Mustangs did nothing to dispel that notion in the Prep Bowl, blasting Chicago Vocational 42-7 behind quarterback Jim Klutcharch, running backs John Byrne, Casey Mitchell and Roger Niemiec and a fast, ferocious defense.
Loyola was down to a thirdstring quarterback and a sophomore running back for the Catholic League championship game in 1965, but Ken Krakovich and Jack Spellman were up to the challenge. Taking over for injured QB Tim Foley and AllState running Randy Marks, Krakovich and Spellman helped the Ramblers get past Leo for the CCL championship, and followed with a 33-13 clipping of Chicago Vocational in the Prep Bowl. To prove it was no fluke, the Ramblers repeated as city champs in ‘66, beating CVS 20-14.
Mount Carmel closed out the Frank Maloney era with a 37-0 blanking of Dunbar in the 1967 Prep Bowl, after which Mendel reprised its 1957 title by pounding CVS 41-19 in the ‘68 game. Loyola closed out the Catholic League’s decade of dominance with its third Prep Bowl title, earned with a 26-0 win over Lane Tech.
The balance of power shifted southward in the ‘70s, as St. Rita and St. Laurence rolled out dominant teams. With Billy Marek running behind future Wisconsin teammate and Chicago Bear Dennis Lick, the Mustangs claimed back-to-back
CCL championships and Prep Bowl titles for Coach Pat Cronin in 1970 & 71,
St. Laurence went them one better, winning three straight from 1972-74
under Coach Tom Kavanaugh, a former Irish Christian brother who built a powerhouse program at Laurence, going 87-17-4 in eight seasons after serving as Leo’s athletic director.
That 1974 season marked the debut of IHSA state football playoffs, and the Catholic League was required to join the IHSA if it wanted in on them. A desire to enhance its reputation as a toptier football conference was one factor in the decision to do so, and it’s hard to quarrel with the results.
Since the state football playoffs began, the Catholic League has produced 25 champions in five divisions and 10 runnersup in four divisions - a total of 35 state finalists in 39 years.
The CCL claimed multiple champions in four of those years and had both titlegame
participants in the same division twice. Despite complicated “multiplier rules” that force single gender schools not governed by district boundaries to compete in divisions well beyond their actual enrollment, Catholic League schools have claimed more state titles than any other conference, by a wide margin.
Mt. Carmel is the pacesetter with 12, the first under Coach Bill Barz in 1980 and the next 11, including the 2013 7A title, under Frank Lenti, a 1969 Mt. Carmel graduate and the Caravan’s coach since 1984. Lenti’s 339 football victories are a record for the state of Illinois, as are his 11 titles.
With a consistent enrollment of approximately 750 students, the Caravan dominated Class 5A for the first 30 years of state playoffs, winning eight of its titles in that division. Mt. Carmel found itself in 6A after the playoffs were expanded to eight divisions in 2001 and added title No. 10 in 2002, hammering Bloomington 31-0
in the title game.
Providence’s 42-0 dispatching of Pontiac in the 5A title game gave the Catholic League two state champions that season.
The Caravan went without a state crown from 2002 to 2012, settling for runnerup
finishes in Class 7A in 2005 and 8A in 2006 during the longest title drought of Lenti’s remarkable career.
Back in the 8A playoffs in 2012, Mt. Carmel rolled through them and dumped Glenbard North 28-12 in the title game, becoming the first Catholic League team to claim an 8A title … as if it needed another honor.
Just in case, the Caravan added title No. 12 in 2013, blanking Lake Zurich
30-0 in the 7A title game.
Mt. Carmel seems to have supplanted Joliet Catholic as the state’s dominant program, forming a dynasty in the wake of the only down period in the school’s illustrious football history.
After Frank Maloney departed for a job at Michigan following a Prep Bowl title in 1967, the Caravan gradually slipped into also-ran status in the Catholic League in the 1970s. Barz, a fullback at Notre Dame under Ara Parseghian, began the turnaround when he took over as coach in 1977. Lenti succeeded Barz after two years as a Caravan assistant, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Lenti is always quick to share credit with his staff of longtime assistants and a succession of exceptional players, including a half-dozen future pros: Simeon Rice, Donovan McNabb, Chris Calloway, Frank Cornish, Matt Cushing and Steve Lawson.
A list of exCarmel college stars is probably too expansive to mention here, but it includes Tony Mazurkiewicz, cocaptain of Lenti’s ‘91 state champions, who went on to play linebacker at Yale.
Pro football wasn’t his calling, but something more meaningful was. Rev. Tony Mazurkiewicz, O.Carm, is now a Carmelite priest and Lenti’s boss as President of Mt. Carmel High School.
Providence is No. 2 among Catholic League teams in producing football state champions, a remarkable feat considering the Celtics’ CCL membership began in 1996. Five of its nine titles have come since then, two in 4A, one in 5A and two in 6A.
Matt Senffner was one of the men Lenti surpassed en route to claiming the state record for coaching victories; over 38 years at the New Lenox school, Senffner compiled a record of 300-114-1, a .723 winning percentage. Included was a 50-game winning streak from 1994-97, while the Celtics were collecting four consecutive state titles in Class 4A.
Future Notre Dame linebacker Pete Bercich, who played for the Minnesota Vikings, and Iowa standout Eric Steinbach, an NFL offensive lineman with Cincinnati and Cleveland, were two of Senffner’s top players.
St. Rita is the only other multiple title winner among the Catholic League’s other five state champions. Coach Pat Cronin’s Mustangs defeated Buffalo Grove for the 5A
title in 1978, giving the CCL repeat winners in what was then the largest playoff class.
Kavanagh’s St. Laurence Vikings had beaten Glenbard West 22-21 in overtime one year earlier, becoming the Catholic League’s first state titlist. St. Laurence made a second 5A title game appearance in 1979, falling 20-14 to East St. Louis Lincoln.
Like the Vikings, Loyola Academy is 1-1 in titlegame appearances, edging Downers
Grove South 70 for the 6A title in 1993 after losing to Naperville North 21-11 in 6A
one year earlier.
Todd Kuska, a former St. Rita captain who played on backtoback Catholic League
championship teams, was the Mustangs’ coach when they added a second title in Class 7A in 2007, downing Lake Zurich 35-21.
Gordon Tech claimed a state championship in its only title game appearance, edging Reavis 6-0 for the 6A crown in 1980. It was a sweet moment for Coach Tom Winiecki, who coached for 31 years at Gordon Tech after starring for Leo’s 1956 Prep Bowl champions and playing on the offensive line at Michigan State.
The Catholic League lost a true champion and one of its most popular, loyal and respected figures in January of 2013 when Tom Mitchell died at 72. The longtime Brother Rice coach was 170-95-1 in 26 years at the school, a winning percentage of .641.
The Crusaders won a state title in Class 6A in 1981, finished second to East St. Louis Lincoln in 6A in 1985 and claimed Prep Bowl titles in 1976, 1980 and 1982.
Mitchell produced his share of college-bound athletes, including a couple of future pros. But he was best known for the impact he had on his players’ lives on and off the field. “Coach had the ability and the desire to teach, coach and mentor us,” said Mark Donahue, Brother Rice ‘74, an All American tackle at Michigan who played professionally with the Cincinnati Bengals. “What a special man. I’m deeply grateful to have had Tom Mitchell as my coach."