James F. “Pop” McKale was born to William H. and Clara (Bateman) McKale on June 12, 1887 in Lansing, Mich.. His father was a contractor and his mother a housewife. He attended Lansing High School and then Albion College, in Albion, Mich., from which he graduated in 1910. While in college, he played football, baseball and was a long jumper who won state intercollegiate honors his junior year.
He came to Tucson in September 1911 and, for a few years, taught history and coached all athletics, including a three-man track team, at Tucson High School. He also was an umpire for Tucson city league baseball, with baseball clubs like the Southern Pacific Nine, the Brannens and the Groves, doing battle at the old Elysian Grove park, where Carrillo School sits at on South Main Avenue.
In 1914, he became athletic director at the University of Arizona, as well as the varsity basketball and football coach. The following year, he took on the role of varsity coach of baseball and track.
In 1915, he married Ada L. Sackett. They had three daughters: Elizabeth (1916), Ruth (1918) and Marian (1925).
Along with his many roles at the university, at least once he also acted as neighborhood watchman. The Star reported on June 19, 1936 that, after McKale spotted a prowler at 2:40 a.m., near his home at 801 E. Second St., he fired three shots at the man and took him into custody until the police arrived.
McKale coached Arizona football from 1914 to 1930, with a record of 80 wins, 32 losses and six ties. His winning percentage of .714 was one of the best in UA history. It was one of McKale’s tough football teams that brought the nickname of “Wildcats” to the university.
In 1914, the football team, which had little or no standing in intercollegiate football, played Occidental College in Los Angeles, and even though UA lost 14-0, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times was so impressed with the team’s determination to win that he wrote: “the Arizona men showed the fight of wildcats…”
McKale’s passion for baseball was even stronger. During his years of coaching from 1915 to 1949, he accumulated a record of 302 wins and 102 losses. He turned the reins over to one of his former players, Frank Sancet, the namesake for the UA’s Frank Sancet Field.
McKale also coached track from 1915 to 1920, basketball from 1914 to 1920 and was athletic director from 1914 to 1957.
Outside of sports, McKale’s primary interest was history, particularly the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In 1957, his work, “Abraham Lincoln: The Politician” was published by the University of Arizona Alumni Association.
McKale was known for his witty comments, affectionately called “McKale-isms.” For example, he always referred to USC as the “University of Southern Comfort,” or after watching his first lacrosse game, when he was asked to comment on how rough the game was, he said, “It’s about as safe as alligator wrestling.”
McKale died in 1967.
He was inducted into the Arizona Sportsmen Hall of Fame in 1959 and was named a charter member of the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame in 1976. He was added to the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
McKale Drive on the UA campus, sometimes misspelled McHale Drive, was changed to Enke Drive around 1990.
Note: J.F. McKale is the namesake of McKale Memorial Center. The (William G. and Dolores D.) Hillenbrand Aquatic Center, just east of McKale Memorial Center, was called McKale Pool, but in 1989, it was refurbished with the contributions made by local businessman William G. Hillenbrand.
Special thanks to Roger Myers and the staff at UA Special Collections
James Fred McKale biographical files (Tucson Citizen archives)
“McKale Passes Quarter Century Mark in Coaching Arizona Teams,” Arizona Daily Star, June 7, 1936
“Death Claims ‘Pop’ McKale,” Arizona Daily Star, June 2, 1967
“Prowler Is Captured by Coach J.F. McKale,” Arizona Daily Star, June 29, 1936
Orville “Speedy” McPherson, “McKale-isms,” Tucsotarian Newsletter, Feb. 8, 1967
Asa Bushnell, “Won-loss record aside, McKale touted Lincoln,” Tucson Citizen, Feb. 12, 1981
“McKale home to be leveled,” Tucson Citizen, Nov. 7, 1978
Hillenbrand Aquatic Center info: http://www.arizonawildcats.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=30700&ATCLID=208232666
Albion Athletics info: