College basketball has few stories better than Loyola Chicago’s miraculous run to the Final Four. Perhaps one of them came when the Ramblers did it the first time.
It was a sprint in 1963 that helped pave the road for integration in college sports, provided one of the NCAA tournament’s first buzzer beaters and was largely forgotten by casual fans until Loyola reached college basketball’s promised land again 55 years later.
This is the story of that run, one that should have embossed names such as Harkness, Rouse, Hunter, Miller, Egan and Ireland into the sport’s collective consciousness. The tale was revived by the success of Clayton Custer, Ben Richardson and Porter Moser — Loyola’s starting backcourt and coach — who, until this month, could walk around campus undisturbed. The 2018 Missouri Valley champions face Michigan in San Antonio on Saturday night, but their record doesn’t compare to that of Coach George Ireland’s Ramblers, who busted through the 1962-63 regular season with a 24-2 record and earned one of 25 bids to the NCAA tournament.
Ireland recruited an interracial team at Loyola but for years abided by college basketball’s unspoken agreement among coaches to limit the number of black players on the floor at once.
In 1963, Ireland said to hell with it. He started Jerry Harkness and Ron Miller, both from the Bronx, and Vic Rouse and John Hunter, forwards from a segregated high school in Nashville. John Egan, the point guard, was the only white player in the starting five.
The Ramblers burned through opponents, often running up the score on schools from segregated states. They beat Arkansas and Memphis State by double digits, Loyola of New Orleans by 30, Washington University in St. Louis by 60.
“I poured it to them,” Ireland said, according to USA Today. “I was 20 years ahead of my time, and I wanted them to wake up and smell the coffee.”
In an era before the three-point line, the Ramblers scored 100 points 10 times in the regular season.
They beat Tennessee Tech in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 111-42, still the largest margin of victory for a tournament game. That set up a meeting with Mississippi State, which earned a first-round bye.
But the state of Mississippi had what newspapers at the time called “an unwritten law” that barred public universities from participating in sporting events that included integrated teams. The Bulldogs had already skipped the NCAA tournament in 1959, 1961 and 1962.
Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett said the school’s participation was “not for the best interests of Mississippi State University, the state of Mississippi or either of the races,” according to the Associated Press.
But the team’s backers, who thought the Bulldogs were favorites in the Mideast Region, pushed to allow the team to play, until a judge issued an injunction keeping it from traveling to East Lansing, Mich., for the game.
In defiance of the court, Coach Babe McCarthy hatched a plan to sneak his team out of the state.
McCarthy drove to Memphis, then Nashville alone the night before. The team trainer took the benchwarmers to the local airport in case authorities tried to serve the team with the injunction. An assistant coach hid in a dormitory with the team’s starters.
When no one arrived to stop the team’s charter flight, the players came out of hiding, dashed on board and the plane took off, with a stopover in Nashville to pick up McCarthy.
After the plane was in the air, an appellate judge tore up the injunction. The game was on.
Before tip-off, Harkness, Loyola’s captain, and Joe Dan Gold, Mississippi State’s, shook hands at midcourt in a significant display of sportsmanship. The two later became friends, and Gold’s family displayed a photograph of the exchange at his funeral in 2011. Harkness attended.
“There was no way I wasn’t going to be there,” he told The Post’s John Feinstein. “I know if it had been my funeral, Dan would have been there.”
Loyola beat Mississippi State, 61-51, then handled Big Ten co-champion Illinois by 15 points to reach the national semifinals. That’s when the New York Times labeled the Ramblers “one of the season’s glamor (sic) teams.” A win over Duke set up a meeting with two-time defending champion Cincinnati in the national title game.
The Ramblers started the game cold, missing 13 of their first 14 shots, and trailed by 15 with 14 minutes to play. But after a late comeback, Harkness hit a jump shot with four seconds left to tie the score at 54 and send it to overtime.
Harkness held for the last shot in the extra session but was bottled up by Cincinnati’s defense. He passed to Hunter, who launched a jump shot from the foul line that clanked right off the rim.
Rouse, his high school teammate, was waiting. His right-handed putback was good as time expired. “A nerve-numbing climax,” the AP called it.
“College basketball hailed a new champion today,” the New York Times wrote. “It was Loyola University of Chicago, previously a stranger to such fame.”
“It’s still unbelievable, just unbelievable,” Ireland said after the game.
“Rouse was like hanging in the air waiting for it,” Hunter told USA Today in 2013. “We came to Loyola as a package deal. Even though it went in for him, I feel like it went in for me, too.”
And amid a 2018 March Madness full of drama, plenty of it authored by Loyola’s latest bunch of tournament darlings, the Ramblers wouldn’t mind a little bit more Saturday.
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