When Jim Crowley was a young boy, he and his family moved from Chicago to Denver so that his father could be treated for tuberculosis, then known as consumption. But the treatments didn’t prevent Jeremiah Crowley’s death. Agnes Crowley took her two young sons and moved back to her hometown of Green Bay, Wis.
There, however, Jim Crowley did not lack for father figures. Part of his grandmother’s household was his Uncle Jack Sweeney, who became Green Bay’s fire chief. He was called
“Wisconsin’s strongest man” after he rescued a motorist by lifting the car that had flipped over and pinned him down.
At Green Bay East High School, young Jim fell under the tutelage of another larger-than-life figure, a local fellow named Earl “Curly” Lambeau, the school’s football coach. Lambeau had gone off in 1918 to play fullback for Notre Dame in Knute Rockne’s first year as head coach, alongside backfield mate George Gipp. Returning to Green Bay, Lambeau was involved in the local eleven which was supported by the Indian Packing Co. and became the Green Bay Packers.
At Notre Dame, Crowley (second from right in the famous photo) would play for the ultimate father figure – Rockne himself. The two had a banter unusual for coach and player. “Crowley, you look like a tester at an alarm-clock factory,” Rockne quipped, giving the star his “Sleepy Jim” nickname. Of course, once the ball was snapped, Crowley sprang to life, and became a versatile, vital piece of the backfield that became the famous Four Horsemen.
In 1924, they rolled to a perfect 10-0 season, finishing with a 27-10 victory over Pop Warner’s Stanford team in the Rose Bowl, securing Notre Dame’s first consensus national championship.
Crowley then played briefly for the Packers and a couple of other early pro teams, but like so many of Rockne’s players, his future was in coaching.
He guided Michigan Agricultural in 1929-32, then hit the big-time in New York City as head coach at Fordham (1933-41), where he led the Rams to consistent Top 20 rankings and trips to the Cotton and Sugar bowls. At Fordham, he coached the “Seven Blocks of Granite” which included one Vincent T. Lombardi. Crowley’s football life thus intersected with three of the greatest names in the sport’s history – Lambeau, Rockne and Lombardi.
In 1944, Crowley became the first commissioner of a new professional football league, the All-America Football Conference. The league kicked off in 1946 and quickly became a formidable rival to the National Football League, whose commissioner at the time was Crowley’s friend and fellow Horseman Elmer Layden. Crowley would also coach a team in the new league, the Chicago Rockets.
After coaching, Crowley moved to Scranton, Pa., where he was involved in TV sports and was named chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. He lived out his years in Scranton, and was the longest-living of the Four Horsemen, dying in 1986 at age 83.
Just last month, Scranton honored its adopted son with a monument at a park that had previously been named for Crowley. At the unveiling, bands and bagpipes played, and speeches were made. His family is justifiably proud of the honor that will tell Crowley’s story to park visitors for years to come.
“Growing up, he was just Gramps to us,” said grandson Jim Crowley III. “He didn’t make a big deal of his accomplishments.
"We had a lot of friends here for 33 years who were gracious because of his position, his stature in life," Crowley III said. "He was more interested in having a beer at (a local establishment) and hearing about your life, rather than talking about his life.”