“Keith, this is Joe Wolf at St. Joe’s,” said the longtime athletic director on Kenmore Avenue. He had called to impress upon me how big the St. Joe’s-Canisius football game is. “There will be so many people there, there will be cars parked on top of each other.”
The 81st edition of the teams’ rivalry is Saturday afternoon at 1, and considering all of the elements of this year’s showdown, I think I might actually see that.
The Canisius-St. Joe’s game is huge every year. On Saturday, it’s much bigger than usual.
In my time on the beat – which goes back to 1999 – there has been no bigger game between the rivals.
Half of it relates to scheduling. Many times in recent years the teams have met earlier in the season, but this year the matchup is in the teams’ regular season finale.
The other half is what the teams have done with their schedules. When recent meetings have been later on in the year, either one team or the other was not having a great year. This rivalry is so great that it earns the tag of “you can throw out the records.” But this year, the records are much too nice to do that.
Canisius is 8-0, including 4-0 in the Monsignor Martin Association, and is in its third week as the No. 1 large school in Western New York in The News poll. St. Joe’s is 7-1, 3-1 in league play, and is ranked sixth. Both teams became the first Monsignor Martin teams to beat Rochester power Aquinas since 2005. The lone loss for St. Joe’s came at Bishop Timon-St. Jude two weeks ago (17-14), where Canisius won last week (26-14).
On the line is an undefeated regular season for Canisius, along with the Monsignor Martin regular season championship.
Which prompted the question, when is the last time that the big game was, well, so big?
I got the answers by emailing Canisius assistant coach/research maven Bryce Hopkins and by calling – who else? – Wolf, who was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame this year after a storied 42-year career as St. Joe’s athletic director.
Hopkins came up with a list of games in the series in which the teams’ records were as good as this year’s. The most recent game is back in 1980, when both teams were 6-0. In what would be Tucker Reddington’s last rivalry game, his St. Joe’s team that had allowed only 11 points on the season going into the game lost, 42-8, to Canisius (Cardinal O’Hara beat Canisius the next week to finish 9-0).
Next up on the list is a game Wolf remembers – as he does many games – vividly. In 1973, St. Joe’s was 5-0 and Canisius was 6-0. Canisius won, 36-12, in a game that featured future NFL players in Billy Hurley (St. Joe’s) and Phil McConkey (Canisius).
“In 1973, we were No. 1 in the state and Canisius was No. 2 … it was standing-room-only, five-six deep around the track on a rainy day,” recalled Wolf, who noted that all-time great Phil Scaffidi was Joe’s quarterback that day. “On the first play of the game, they ran an inside reverse from McConkey to Bill Koessler for about 75 yards. It was a long one. There were about six to eight Division I kids on our team, and Canisius was the same way. There was a ton of talent on the field, and there was a lot riding on it.”
In 1972, Canisius was 4-0, St. Joe’s was 4-1 in what would be the final rivalry game for Canisius coach Johnny Barnes. The Crusaders won, 8-7, and would finished undefeated at 8-0. That was not the last time Canisius finished a season undefeated; the Crusaders did so in 1975 (8-0) and ’76 (7-0-1), which were part of the schools’ 42-0-1 unbeaten streak from 1972 to ’77.
In 1968, the final game of the season has Canisius (6-1) meeting undefeated St. Joe’s (7-0). Canisius won, 14-6, ending a 20-game win streak by St. Joe’s. In 1967, both teams were 7-0, with St. Joe’s winning, 7-0, In 1963, Canisius was 7-0 and St. Joe’s was 6-1, with Canisius winning, 19-18, to finish 8-0.
The 1948 season saw the teams’ rivalry renewed after a 17-year drought (the rivalry, which started in 1921, was discontinued in 1931 after it had become “too overheated” as Wolf described). The restart of the rivalry was prompted by the advent of the Western New York Catholic League. In Week Seven, Canisius was 4-1 and St. Joe’s was 6-0. Canisius became the first team to score on St. Joe’s all season in a 14-9 victory; both teams would finish 6-1 in the league.
The series has been notably streaky through its history. Canisius won the first seven after the series restarted, a run that ended with a St. Joe’s 12-7 win in 1955 before a series record crowd at Civic Stadium of 28,009 – which included Wolf, then a junior at Joe’s.
That win was the first of six straight for St. Joe’s. There was some back-and-forth before Canisius went 10-0-1 from 1968 to 1977. In 1983, St. Joe’s started a 17-game win streak and ultimately a 25-2 run that helped push St. Joe’s to a big series lead (47-30-3).
The 17-game run ended in 1999 as Canisius beat a St. Joe’s team that included Sandro D’Angelis. Wolf recalled D’Angelis visiting his office several years later. “He became the first St. Joe’s player to win the Connolly Cup and The Buffalo News Player of the Year, but when he came back, he said the first thing they said to him when he walked in was: ‘You were on the team that lost to Canisius.’ ”
Canisius won five straight from 2007 to 2009. Teams quarterbacked by Chad Kelly won four straight for St. Joe’s over the last two years, including last season’s epic 48-47 semifinal at Ralph Wilson Stadium, won on a Kelly two-point conversion pass with 18 seconds left.
St. Joe’s athletic director Pete Schneider recalled the pair of meetings the school hosted in 2010, one late in the year, and a semifinal a few weeks later. “We had roughly the same crowds for those, about 4,500 each, which is what about the facility will hold,” he said. “That’s why we’re pushing the presale. If we sell out, unfortunately we may have to turn people away.”
Tickets ($4) are available at both schools, and they are going fast. As of Tuesday evening, Canisius had already sold close to 1,000.
The gates will open at 11:30 a.m. for the public, and at 12:30 p.m. for current students from both schools, who are admitted free with their student identification. Student sections in the bleachers will be blocked off.
I live a little more than a half-mile away, and I usually drive. Not Saturday, not with cars parked on top of each other. I’m walking. See you there.
Around the halls
• Go to the Prep Talk blog for many more details from Hopkins regarding the history of the biggest games of the Canisius-St. Joe’s rivalry.