correction: A previous version of this column referred to Joe Dan Gold as Jay Dan Gold.
Every college basketball season has its pleasant surprises. This season, one has won a national championship, owns a unique place in the pantheon of the sport and, at this moment, is leading its conference and hoping for its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1985.
And you might not be able to guess who it is. That would be Loyola Chicago.
After Saturday afternoon’s 97-75 victory over Missouri State, the Ramblers have a 9-3 record in the Missouri Valley Conference and are 19-5 overall, including a December victory at then-No. 5 Florida.
The Ramblers’ story, however, goes far deeper.
Once upon a time, the Jesuit school on the North Side of Chicago was a national power. In the early 1960s, Coach George Ireland recruited Jerry Harkness, a talented small forward out of the Bronx. A year later, he returned to New York to convince Ron Miller to join Harkness and recruited two players — Vic Rouse and Les Hunter — out of the same high school in Nashville. Locally, he convinced John Egan to stay home.
Among the five, only Egan was white.
“He didn’t really recruit me,” Miller said, laughing, in a phone interview from his home outside San Francisco. “He recruited my mother. I think he said about four words to me during his visit. He kept saying that when a player came to Loyola he was going to graduate in four years and he’d go to church every Sunday. I wanted to go to Dayton. After that visit, my mom was stone-cold for Loyola.”
In the 1961-62 season, with Harkness a junior and the other four recruits sophomores (freshmen were ineligible in those days), Loyola went 23-4 and reached the NIT semifinals. During that season, Ireland followed the gentleman’s agreement of not playing more than three black players at any one time. A year later, he abandoned it, starting the four black players and Egan. At times, when Egan was off the floor, Loyola had five black players in the lineup together.
“They were ‘Glory Road’ before ‘Glory Road,’ ” Porter Moser, the Ramblers’ current coach, said this week in reference to the movie made about Texas Western’s 1966 national championship win over Kentucky — a game that matched five black starters against an all-white team. “But they didn’t get the attention because their biggest win over an all-white team was in the round of 16.”
That team was Mississippi State. The Bulldogs literally had to sneak out of Mississippi to get to East Lansing, Mich., to play the game because of a legislative order backed by the governor of Mississippi prohibiting them from playing against an integrated team.
The story of that game was told in “Game of Change,” a documentary produced by Harkness’s son, Jerald.
There’s a famous photo of Harkness shaking hands before the game with Mississippi State captain Joe Dan Gold. The two men became friends, and when Gold died in 2011, Harkness attended the funeral. When he walked to the front of the church, the photo was next to the casket.
“I lost it,” Harkness said later. “There was no way I wasn’t going to be there. I know if it had been my funeral, Dan would have been there.”
Loyola won that game and went on to beat two-time defending champion Cincinnati, 60-58, in overtime for the 1963 national title. Rouse, the only starter who has since died, tipped in the winning basket at the buzzer off a Harkness miss. The five starters played all 45 minutes.
“Never occurred to any of us to come out,” Miller said. “We’d lost a couple of guys to academics during the season, so we didn’t have much of a bench.”
A year later, without Harkness, the Ramblers were 22-6 but lost to Michigan in the round of 16. Since then, there have been spasms of glory, notably 1985 when a team led by Alfredrick Hughes and Andre Battle went 27-6 and reached the Sweet 16 before losing to defending national champion Georgetown.
That was the Ramblers’ last NCAA tournament appearance. Beginning in 1987, they went through a stretch in which they had four winning seasons in 27 years.
Moser, 49, arrived in 2011, a former head coach at Arkansas Little Rock and Illinois State lured back home from a happy position on Rick Majerus’s staff at Saint Louis.
“I’m a Catholic kid from Chicago,” he said. “I went to a Jesuit school, and I live and die with the Cubs. It was a chance I had to take.”
Two years later, Loyola left the Horizon League to join the Missouri Valley after Creighton jumped to the Big East. The combination has brought about a rebirth, 105 years after the school first played basketball and 55 years after its greatest moment of glory.
This season, with league power Wichita State having left for the American Athletic Conference, the Ramblers have been the surprise team of the Valley.
“We thought we had the pieces before the season,” Moser said. “But the Florida game showed all of us that we weren’t kidding ourselves. A win like that gives you an extra dose of confidence, just a little more buy-in, things you’re going to need as you get into the season.”
Their starting guards, Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson, have played together since pee-wee ball. Both have missed several games because of injuries. In those games the Ramblers are 2-3. With both in the lineup, they are 17-2.
“To get back to the NCAAs would obviously be huge,” Moser said. “We’ve come back a long way to get where we are.”
Of course they will never get to where the 1963 team got to, but they’re aware of that team’s legacy. Five years ago, Moser traveled to Washington with the seven surviving members of that team to be honored by President Obama at the White House for the 50th anniversary of the “Game of Change” and the national title. That same year, the entire team was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
A year earlier, aware that the 50th anniversary was coming up, Moser called Mississippi State Coach Rick Ray and suggested a game to commemorate the Game of Change’s anniversary.
“It needs to be at our place,” Moser said.
For a Southeastern Conference team to play a road game against a mid-major such as Loyola was pretty much unheard of in 2013. Ray agreed to come and play. On the day of the game, a woman introduced herself to Miller and said she was Joe Dan Gold’s daughter. She wanted to tell him a story about a birthday party she had been invited to as a little girl.
“She told me her friend was black,” Miller said. “Her white friends said they wouldn’t go. She said she asked her father about it and he said, ‘Is she your friend?’ She said she told him she was, and he said, ‘Then you go.’ Later, he told her about his friendship with Harkness and how the Game of Change changed his life. The story blew me away.”
Loyola won again that day. The score was 59-51, almost identical to the score in 1963. But that game wasn’t about the outcome. It was about change. Ten of Mississippi State’s 12 players were African American. All five starters were African American. So was their coach.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.