FFI Cover Story: The Mungermen

PHILADELPHIA - This week's cover story in Franklin Field Illustrated featured the Mungermen. Written by Dave Zeitlin C'03.

Fifteen years after graduating from Penn, Ernie Prudente Ed’51 sat in a car with five of his former college football teammates, all of whom were Wharton grads. Suddenly, the conversation turned to everyone’s jobs and how well they were doing in the business world.

“Jeez, next to you guys, I’m making peanuts,” Prudente, a longtime coach, remembered saying.

One of them then turned to him.

“Ernie,” he responded, “when we’re all dead and gone, you’re gonna be eating those peanuts, shells and all.”

To this day, Prudente has never forgotten that, especially when he steps inside Franklin Field, where he forged so many incredible memories with those men.

“So when I go to a game, I buy a bag of peanuts, I eat three or four shells, and I think of my old buddies that aren’t around anymore,” he said wistfully. “Isn’t that something?”

Sadly, the 88-year-old Prudente has had to say goodbye to many of his old football teammates, a proud group known as the “Mungermen” because they played under famed head coach George Munger Ed’33.

And even though the group is shrinking, the Mungermen still return to Penn for reunions every year to watch the current team and share stories from the 1940s and early 1950s­—when the Quakers were one of the nation’s most celebrated football programs—and 80,000 spectators regularly packed Franklin Field to watch them play.

“It was just magical, you know,” said Edward McGinley W’50, a guard in the late 40s. “When you walked in the stadium, they had a newspaper boy selling papers outside the stadium with your name and picture on the front page.

“The guy used to say, ‘Get your Bulletin lineup,’” McGinley adds, mimicking the newspaper boy’s singsong voice. “It was magical. It was amazing.”

Like so many kids growing up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the first half of the 20th century, McGinley always wanted to suit up for the Quakers. In his case, the gravitational pull to Franklin Field was even stronger because his father, Edward F. McGinley Jr., was an All-American tackle for the Quakers in the 1920s. In fact, the elder McGinley sent a telegram to the Penn admissions director -- a former football teammate -- when his son was born, to reserve a spot for him in the Class of 1949.

“It was preordained, if you will,” McGinley said. “For years, I kept that telegram.”
The family connection went even deeper when, during the 1949 season, McGinley played alongside his brother Gerry, a 1952 Wharton graduate who passed away earlier this year.

“At practice, the [line] coach, Rae Crowther, used to pit me against him,” McGinley recalled. “That was tough because neither one of us was going to lose and, of course, we would beat the hell out of each other. But we became very close friends in that era—and for the rest of our lives.”

McGinley, by his own admission, wasn’t a star player for the Quakers, going as far as to say he was “relatively irrelevant” when it came time for Munger to choose his lineups. But considering he was on some of the same teams as renowned superstars like Chuck Bednarik Ed’49 and Francis “Reds” Bagnell C’51, there was certainly no shame in sitting on the bench.

Those two, like many others who donned the Red and Blue, were not only supremely talented athletes for their time, but they also worked tirelessly to improve. Bagnell, a diminutive tailback, is perhaps best known for accounting for 490 total yards of total offense and completing 14 consecutive passes in a 1950 win over Dartmouth. But for his good friend Prudente, another game comes to mind when he thinks about Bagnell (who died in 1995).

“Before the Cornell game one year, we were running laps and he told me he was down to 165 pounds,” Prudente said. “He said he couldn’t eat. I said, ‘What do you mean you can’t eat?’ He said, ‘I’m so tired after practice, my jaws don’t work.’

“That’s how hard that guy worked. People don’t understand how hard people in those days worked for the football team.”

Much of that hard work and devotion stemmed from the leadership of Munger, who compiled an 82-41-10 record as Penn’s head coach from 1938 to 1953, leading the Quakers into the final AP Top 25 poll six times in the 1940s.

But he didn’t accomplish those legendary feats in the same way as many of today’s football’s coaches. He was a gentleman who made sure his players always got dressed up in a coat and tie (for those who couldn’t afford it, he’d take them to a department store to buy them one), didn’t drink alcohol and never cursed.

“Nobody ever said a foul word,” Prudente said. “If someone cursed—and I never heard anybody—he would say, ‘You’re an Ivy Leaguer. You don’t use that kind of language around here. Go take a lap.’ But the thing was, for some unknown reason, we were fierce competitors. I mean, we were fierce.”

Perhaps the players were able to turn on a switch on the field because they knew how much their coach cared about them off the field. Munger, after all, got his team ice cream cake every Tuesday after a win. He told Prudente that Penn would cover the cost of an extra semester in graduate school, even after his football career was over. And he was as creative as he was compassionate, too.

Once, when a Jewish player told him he couldn’t suit up on Yom Kippur, Munger called as many Rabbis as he could find until one told him that it was OK for him to play. Another time, before a 1950 game on the West Coast against a dominant California team.

Prudente said the head coach fainted because he was worried about how hard the Cal players were hitting. (Munger eventually came to but that didn’t stop Prudente from getting pummeled by All-America linebacker Les Richter even after making what he thought was a “perfect” block. “I can still feel his legs in my rib cage,” he laughed.)
“Munger was more than just a coach; he was a really good man,” Prudente said. “He always took care of his boys.”

Those relationships extended beyond college, too. Later in his life, by pure chance, McGinley lived right next door to Munger in the Villanova area. And one day, after seeing him walk past his house from his deck, McGinley decided to approach his old coach and apologize for not making more of an impact on the field. He still vividly remembers Munger’s response.

“He said, ‘Edward, you’re a late bloomer. I can see what you’re doing now,’” McGinley said. “We had started our own firm on Wall Street and by that time I was commuting from Villanova to Wall Street. I said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I would have enjoyed being more help to you.’ He said, ‘No problem, we had plenty of help. I appreciated all your efforts.’”

Munger passed away in 1994, about 20 years after that conversation. But it’s through alums like McGinley and Prudente that his memory carries on—and it’s why the Mungermen reunions remain so important.

Sure, it’s not always the easiest thing for the alums of Penn’s football heyday to make it back to Franklin Field. It’s also a much different game than the simple one they remember, when players played the whole game on both sides of the field, each team had only about four coaches, and hardly anyone ever kicked a field goal.

But, of course, nothing will ever change what it means for them to be a Penn Quaker, then and now.

“The thing really was to play for Penn, it was just a tremendous honor,” Prudente said. “It was amazing to be on the field and play with those guys and do what we did.”

So, just as he does every year, Prudente will take the train to Franklin Field for as many games as he’s able, use his cane to walk inside the stadium where the magic happened, take his seat near the 50-yard-line and eat a bunch of peanuts. Shells and all."

#FightOnPenn

Pick up a copy of FFI. Honoring our #Mungermen. More than 60 yrs later, still reuniting annually at Franklin Field. pic.twitter.com/ONKIRIzB5b

— PENN Football (@PENNfb) October 3, 2015

Download: 1F- Dartmouth 2015.pdf