How the fictitious ‘school’ came to be – even though it never was a real college.
By Mark Vruno
The more I learn about Maguire University, the more my stomach hurts from laughing. It is difficult not to laugh, or at least smile and smirk a little. I first caught wind of Maguire U last winter in the Faculty Cafeteria at Fenwick, sitting and chewing the proverbial fat with John Quinn ’76, Fenwick alumnus, longtime social studies teacher and Catholic League Hall of Fame basketball coach.
The conversation turned to the late, great John Lattner, who had passed away about a year earlier. Mr. Quinn was laughing, almost snorting, between bites: “Did you ever hear about Maguire University?” he chuckled, nearly choking. No, I had never heard of that school, I said, wondering what the heck was so funny. Little did I know!
It is good that Quinn is one of Fenwick’s unofficial school historians because, as it turns out, there is nothing official about Maguire U. The infamous university was “created” 55 years ago in a semi-respectable Madison Street establishment in nearby Forest Park called, what else: Maguire’s. With the annual March Madness basketball craze upon us, this is how the story goes …
The athletic recruiting game was quite different, for both Catholic high schools and major college sports programs, in the 1960s – three decades before the Internet was birthed and long before “social” media platforms such as Twitter reared their electronic heads. Back then, if a coach wanted an eighth-grader to play for him at a certain high school, it was in his best interest to find out where the kid’s old man hung out socially and maybe get invited to a confirmation or graduation party.
It wasn’t much different for college coaches recruiting Chicago-area talent, particularly for the football gridiron and hardwood basketball courts. They knew where to go to meet a concentration of high school coaches in the city: Maguire’s.
Every February Chicago Catholic League (CCL) football coaches congregate at the league’s annual clinic in Oak Park at Fenwick, where the powwow has been held every winter for the past 72 years. Older fans will recall that, in the 1960s and ’70s, Fenwick and the CCL were recruiting hotbeds for Big Ten football coaches, including University of Michigan legend Bo Schembechler. Some coaches also may recall that, a few years back, a keg could be found tapped in the school’s lower-level student “green” cafeteria, where the post-clinic fraternizing commenced. Nowadays the coaches toast their religion and each other on Madison Street in Forest Park, which is exactly where the college coaches knew where to find them back in the day.
Giving the tavern a school’s name originally was the brainchild of college recruiters in town to woo the coaches of prospects from Chicago. Telling their athletic directors, to whom they reported back at the real universities, that they were conducting business at “Maguire University” sounded more respectable than Maguire’s Pub. Hence, the pseudonym was born.
The Fenwick Connection
“Maguire U” in Chicago already existed in the minds of these college coaches but, in the early ’60s and over the course of the next several years, it would take on a life of its own. Some “blame” it on the success of Loyola University Chicago’s men’s basketball team, which won the collegiate national championship in 1963 and made a civil-rights statement in so doing. There was no television market-branding of “March Madness” yet, but basketball fever had hit hard in ChiTown.
Loyola’s head coach was George Ireland, under whom Fenwick head coach Bill Shay had been an assistant. Shay had recruited three of the players on that Ramblers’ championship team. He and then-Friars’ football coach Leonard “Lenny” Tyrrell, along with 13 others, made the trip to Louisville to see the championship game against the Cincinnati Bearcats. Traveling with Tyrrell for that inaugural trip was Hall-of-Fame Football Coach Pete Hester, a ’49 alumnus of Loyola Academy. They had so much fun that Hester, Tyrrell and some of their cohorts – truck driver Mel Connolly, Lattner and bar owner John Maguire among them — wanted to score tickets to go again the following year to Kansas City to see what would be legendary Coach John Wooden’s first of 10 national titles at UCLA, including an incredible run of seven in a row. Wouldn’t it be fun to go to the tournament every year, they thought?
Tyrrell later was inducted into the Chicago Catholic League (CCL) Hall of Fame, but that honor had nothing to do with what would become known nationally as Maguire U and everything to do with his gridiron coaching prowess. Tyrrell, Fenwick basketball coach Billy Shay and the other illustrious, industrious founders of Maguire University (MU) had two things in common: a love for amateur sports and, well, a love for camaraderie (accompanied by an adult beverage every now and again).
In 1972 former Loyola New Orleans hoops coach Bob Luksta returned to Chicago’s West Side after the legitimate college disbanded its athletics program amid financial concerns. (Now 90 years old and residing in Cicero, Luksta is an alumnus of St. Philip High School, which closed in 1970.) Soon after his return, someone showed up at Maguire’s Pub with an actual NCAA school application. As a joke, the guys began filling it out, effectively registering the university that wasn’t:
7215 W. Madison St., Forest Park, Ill.
Conference – Independent
Enrollment – 1,600
Colors – Green, white
Nickname – Jollymen
Stadium – Friar, 12,000
Fieldhouse – Lawless, 1800
President – Dr. Mel Connolly
Ath. Phone – 312-366-2823
Ath. Dir. – Phil Farrell
Ass’t. Ath. Dir. – Billy Smith
Ath. Bus. Mgr. – Ed Gleason
Sports Inf. – John Maguire
PE Dir. (m) – Jim Cullerton
PE Dir. (w) – Gert Ireland
Football – Len Tyrrell
Basketball – Bill Shay
Trainer – Tom Monforti
It gets better. “Other Maguire ‘regulars’ were listed for positions like athletic director, baseball and track coaches, and sports information director,” writes Meg Comer, who is the “school’s” Bursar and also is enshrined in MU’s Hall of Fame. “A Chicago police officer who worked at O’Hare was listed as a football assistant,” she continues, but no one could remember his last name, “… so they listed him as Sal De Copper.”
Established as an all-boys “institution,” in order to survive Maguire went co-ed like Fenwick, Holy Cross (now Guerin Prep) and a lot of other Catholic schools. After passing Title IX in 2003, women such as Ms. Comer were allowed into the university’s inner circle.
Giggle if you want, but the gag worked. “We wrote a check and mailed in the form, never figuring it’d appear,” Tyrrell told the Wall Street Journal reporter Frederick Klein in 1992. “When we heard it had, we went wild.” As Comer explained, “Maguire University was accepted into membership of the National Collegiate Athletic Association …” and was recognized as a Division I athletics program. They even received press contacts! The collective laughter still may be hovering over Forest Park. Comer noted, “… as such [it] was entitled to a block of [about 100] tickets for the Final Four and a listing in a book put out by the NCAA every year called The National Directory of College Athletics.”
Also known as the Blue Book, the annual publication included a listing for each school (similar to above) and was used by college coaches to help fill game schedules. Intentionally flying under the proverbial radar, Maguire University’s practical-joke listing in ’72 said the school’s virtual football program had an inconspicuous 6-4 record the previous season; its nonexistent basketball team went a respectable 15-10.
The NCAA wasn’t the only one to fall for the ruse: The U.S. Air Force Academy called “Chancellor Tyrrell” (the phone number was the bar’s!) to schedule a basketball game. At the ’73 Final Four in St. Louis, MU had a hospitality suite at the downtown hotel and a block of rooms. Pennants and T-shirts were printed that read, “Maguire University Final Five.”
“It didn’t hurt that the Maguires were good natured and generous tippers,” Comer added. The hoax grew more elaborate. “Maguire University sent out its scores over [news] wire services, nominated All-America candidates, and applied to have its band perform in parades around the country,” Alysse Minkoff later reported for ESPN.com. (Watch ESPN’s video link, below, featuring Chicago native Coach K. from Duke University: “Maguire U’s Race to March Madness.”)
“In 1974 Marquette, coached by Al McGuire [no relation; different spelling!], made the Final Four for the first time,” Comer recalled, “and the fun-loving McGuire, the son of a Queens [NY] tavern owner, became a regular visitor to the Maguire U hospitality suite. A confused local sportswriter asked Coach McGuire if there was a connection between him and Maguire University. ‘No, no, those guys are tougher than my guys. They play hurt,’ McGuire said, a reference to the Maguires’ ability to stay out late and bounce back the next day, hangover or not!”
Thanks to the coach, MU now had a slogan to match its Jollymen moniker: “We Play Hurt!” New T-shirts and pennants were printed, and the phone at Maguire’s back in Forest Park was ringing with more inquiries for the posers.
People would call the SID (Sports Information Director) and ask for MU basketball coach Shay, who was the real-time coach at Fenwick. “One day, [John] Maguire blurted, ‘I’m sorry, he’s only here on Friday nights.’ ‘Friday nights?’ said the caller. ‘What kind of a school is this?’ Good question,” Bill Granger wrote in his humorous 1991 Chicago Tribune account. “It was a school of hard knocks ….”
Reporter Bob Ellis of the Detroit Free Press wrote an ode to the fun-loving spirit of Maguire U in ’80. Another newspaper man, Chicago Today columnist Bill Jauss, thought the practical joke was funny, too. In 1973, he was the first to write about Maguire, but his column backfired when officials at the NCAA learned about what was going on in Chicago. Not amused, they “went ballistic,” said Jauss, who died at 81 in 2012.
MU’s short-lived athletics program (what athletics program?!) was contested by the NCAA, but almost everyone else, including famous college coaches, thought the charade was comical. In addition to Marquette’s Al McGuire, DePaul legend Ray Meyer (from Quigley Prep) and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (a Weber alumnus) would drop by the hospitality suite to say hello and, maybe, have a beer with the guys. Coach K, who recruited and coached Fenwick hoops legend Corey Maggette, even received an honorary degree from MU in “bracketology” after his Blue Devils won the 2010 crown.
The ‘Final Five’
The sham of Maguire U officially lasted two years, but MU’s supporters still gather annually for the hardwood rite of spring. Attempted blacklisting, legalese and cease-and-desist orders have not stopped or slowed down the resilient Jollymen, which is the mascot of Maguire U. Exposed they are, yet they and their predecessors have carried on — for decades.
Between 100 and 150 MU “alumni” have attended the NCAA’s “Big Dance” in Indianapolis (’80), Philadelphia (’81), New Orleans (’82) and Scottsdale, AZ (’17), to name a few. In 2012, 285 Jollymen (and women) returned to New Orleans for what they call the “Final Five.”
“We had a big traveling team that year,” reports current University President Art Duffy, Jr., an alumnus of Holy Cross High School (now Guerin Prep) in River Grove who is a newbie to Maguire. “I’ve only been in 22 years, since 1996,” he says. For years, longtime MU “Chancellor”-turned-“Athletic Director” Tyrrell had organized the annual trek to host cities. His right-hand man was Bob Nevers, a former liquor salesman who, together with his restaurateur father and Lattner, co-owned Johnny Lattner’s Steak House at Madison and Clark streets downtown. Tyrrell passed away three years ago at age 82.
In Indy in 1980 they had “47 rooms and a triple suite for … refreshments,” Tyrrell was quoted in the Free Press article. “There are high school coaches, judges, professional people – a mixture of guys like you can’t believe. In 17 years we’ve never had a scrap. Everybody’s just there for a good time.” The Honorable Daniel Kelly, a Fenwick ’71 alumnus and retired Circuit Court of Cook County judge, counts himself among the MU Jollymen. “Seven past-presidents of the New York Athletic Club have sat on our Board after ‘graduation,’” Duffy adds.
Ten years later, the city of Denver “was festooned with buttons proclaiming ‘Maguire University: The Final Five, 1990,’” wrote Granger, who also passed away in 2012. Real coaches were trying to buy the buttons at $25 a pop, waitresses reported. A pennant with the “school’s” infamous slogan decorated the back of the Denver Press Club for years. “If it’s not always the best party at the tournament, it’s usually the longest,” the great, late Lattner chortled in the WSJ article back in ’92. Eight years later, upon Hester’s death, longtime Chicago Sun-Times high-school sports reporter Taylor Bell related the funny story about when trophies were awarded “for the guys who stayed up the longest ….”
As the tourney’s popularity soared, securing their own tickets became more difficult over the decades, but that obstacle doesn’t deter the Maguire U faithful. Tickets or not, they come. For MU’s 40th anniversary in ’03, their T-shirts read, “Final Five Appearances – Maguire 40, Kansas 12, Syracuse 4, Marquette 3, Texas 3.” But the number actually was 41. “There was some miscalculation from the Department of Mathematics,” deadpanned Skip Dorn, a Maguire regular for more than 30 years. Math Dept. estimates put the number of MU alumni somewhere around 4,000 jolly souls. More than 200 people attended the 50th Final Five five years ago.
Many of them will be back again this Easter Weekend (March 29th-April 2nd) in and/or near the Alamodome in San Antonio, TX, “playing hurt,” as usual. (MU was represented there 20 years ago for the ’98 Final Four.) Home base for the 2018 reunion is the Drury Plaza Hotel on the Riverwalk. Some “freshmen” newcomers may be admitted this school year. Never losing sight of its light-hearted roots, MU’s Student Athlete Application for Admission reads, “Filling out application does not automatically admit you to Maguire University … buying Selection Committee drinks greatly increases chances.”
Meeting freshman-year requirements is not difficult, says Duffy, who took over in 2000 after Founder/President Tyrrell retired. “There are three rules for the hotel, otherwise you can’t come back for your sophomore year,” he jests:
- Finish your drink.
- No smoking.
- Show up for the group photo and team meeting/graduation.
“You can’t sit on Maguire’s Board until you’ve graduated,” continues Duffy, whose father proudly served as MU Equipment Manager. Art, Sr.’s 2015 obituary gave a nod to his “alma mater,” stating that he had been a union member of “Sheet Metal Workers Local 73 and a Jollyman of Maguire University.”
Planning already has begun for Minneapolis in 2019. Maguire’s in Forest Park closed in 1977, so “school” officials have been meeting in Lincoln Park at Kelly’s, which is run by retired Chicago Fire Department Captain John Kelly and his wife, Polly. “The Kellys have been a central force in Maguire University for years …,” Comer explained. The former fire-fighter doubles as MU’s Social Director these days. His business card reads, in part, “Maguire University, Athletic Department, Kelly Sports Center, Lakefront Campus.”
Maguire U also has a website presence, hosts an annual NCAA Bracket Challenge via https://www.pickhoops.com/maguireu (password: Jollymen) and even has its own aforementioned “Hall of Fame.” Or is it a Hall of Shame? Whatever it’s called, “honorees” proudly wear their school rings: a green stone bracketed by basketball nets.
Shake your head at the prank, if you must, but remember: The Jolleymen always will be undefeated – and they always have a good time!
While Maguire U is fake, its merchandising efforts are as real as it gets. In true Catholic-school fashion, profits from MU sales benefit charities in and around Chicagoland. At Christmas-time, clothes and cash donations go to the St. Vincent DePaul Shelter.
“We put on a ‘Burger Bash’ every year that has raised over $25,000 for ‘Operation Support Our Troops,’” Duffy says. MU also has donated more than $10,000 to Southern Illinois University’s BLACKOUT Cancer.
A competitive BBQ team called the Maguire University Culinary Institute has won various local and national competitions and returned this past September from the Houston area, “where it cooked for first responders and the Hurricane affected,” Duffy adds. Later in the month, the team deployed to Florida, in Irma’s wake.