Fifty years ago, and three years before Texas Western’s historic NCAA Tournament upset of Kentucky, the 1963 Loyola Ramblers went on an NCAA Tournament run that would change college basketball forever.
There were no Selection Sunday-style celebrations in Starkville, Mississippi on March 11, 1963 when the SEC champion Mississippi State Maroons learned whom they would be playing in their opening NCAA Tournament game.
The Maroons were slated to play the fourth-ranked Loyola (Illinois) Ramblers in East Lansing, Michigan. But traveling north to represent the SEC in college basketball’s national championship tournament would mean defying Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and the unwritten rules about which teams Mississippi State was allowed to play.
Loyola and head coach George Ireland had no use for unwritten rules.
One such rule in the early 1960s said that college basketball teams should have no more than two black players. Three was pushing it. College coaches had a saying back then: “”I play one black player at home, two on the road, and three if I’m behind.”
Of course, there were plenty of teams, particularly in the south, who refused to put any black players on their rosters. The SEC, for example, was entirely white until Perry Wallace took the court for Vanderbilt in 1967. Many coaches at the time refused to schedule games against teams with integrated rosters.
The Ramblers were different. George Ireland started four black players, sometimes five.
Deal With It
Ireland, himself a former All American at Notre Dame, ignored the rules governing the racial composition of college basketball teams. He wasn’t interested in quotas; he was interested in good players, regardless of the color of their skin.
He recruited post players Les Hunter and Vic Rouse, both juniors on the 1963 team, out of Pearl High School, an all-black school in Nashville, Tennessee. (At the time, high school basketball in Tennessee was segregated. When the sport integrated in 1965-66, Pearl went 31-0 and won the state title.)
Two-time All-American forward Jerry Harkness (senior) and guard Ron Miller (junior) came to Chicago from the Bronx, as did reserve guard Pablo Robertson (sophomore), who went on to a career with the Harlem Globetrotters. Harkness didn’t play varsity basketball until his senior year in high school. He had been a playground player whose primary school sport was track. Loyola was the only school to offer him a scholarship.
In 1961 Ireland became the first coach in major college basketball to start five black players. During the 1962-63 season he started four.
George Ireland’s decision to eschew the sport’s unwritten rules was effective. The 1961-62 Ramblers went 23-4, finished the regular season ranked tenth in the AP Poll, and advanced to the semifinals of the NIT (which was a big deal back then).
But the Ramblers of the early 1960s were interested in more than just winning. They forced the college basketball world to take notice of the injustice of segregation.
In 1962 Ireland took his team south to face another Loyola: Loyola of New Orleans. Louisiana law at the time barred Ireland’s black players from lodging with their white teammates. Instead of staying in the team hotel, Harkness, Miller, Rouse, and Hunter spent the night with African American families in New Orleans. The two Loyolas played in front of an all-white crowd because black fans had boycotted the game on account of segregated seating in the Loyola of New Orleans gym.
Ireland said of the experience, “I think the overall result may have been good. But the tension on all of us had just been too tough. I would not do this again.”
The Ramblers continued to schedule southern opponents, even if they didn’t travel south of the Mason-Dixon line to face them. During the 1962-63 season, Arkansas, Memphis State, and Loyola of New Orleans all made the trip to Loyola’s Alumni Gym in Chicago to play the Ramblers. Loyola beat them by 19, 12, and 35 points, respectively.
Ramblers players called their coach “The Man.” And the team’s 1962-63 starting line-up—Harkness, Miller, Hunter, Rouse, and guard Jack Egan—earned the moniker “The Iron Five.” Together, The Man and the Iron Five opened the season with 20 consecutive wins and led the nation in scoring, averaging 92.3 points per game.
The Game of Change
The 1962-63 Ramblers compiled a 24-2 regular season record and secured an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, where they opened with Ohio Valley Conference champion Tennessee Tech. Loyola defeated the all-white Tennessee Tech team 111-42. Their 69-point margin of victory still stands as the largest in NCAA Tournament history.
Mississippi State awaited Loyola in the Mideast Region semi-final. The Mississippi State Maroons (now Bulldogs) had won the SEC in 1959, 1961, and 1962 but each time had turned down their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on account of an unwritten law in the state of Mississippi that forbade racially integrated athletic competition. Each time Kentucky went to the tournament in their stead.
In 1963 Maroons head coach Babe McCarthy and other university leaders decided that they weren’t going to pass up yet another opportunity to play for a national championship and orchestrated a secret trip to East Lansing, Michigan, the site of the Mideast Regional. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, a staunch segregationist, was adamant that the Maroons not leave the state to play against an integrated Loyola team. State senator Billy Mitts found a judge to issue an injunction keeping the team from traveling to Michigan.
A few days before the game, university president Dean Colvard went to Alabama for a speaking gig. Colvard instructed McCarthy to drive up to Memphis and stay there until it was time to leave for East Lansing. With McCarthy and Colvard out of the state, there was no one for Mitts’s judge to serve the injunction to.
The day after the coach and president left Mississippi, a group of bench players and trainers went to the Starkville, Mississippi airport to see if anyone there would try to keep them from heading north. When no one did, the rest of the team joined them at the airport and boarded a plane to Nashville, where they would meet McCarthy and board a flight to Michigan.
Meanwhile in Chicago, Ireland asked to have all of his players’ mail forwarded to him so that they would be spared from the hate mail that had been filling their dormitory mailboxes.
Despite all the drama leading up to the regional semifinal between Loyola and Mississippi State, the game itself went on without incident. The third-ranked Ramblers defeated the sixth-ranked Maroons 61-51 in a contest known by those who remember it as “The Game of Change.”
The Mississippi State team that had spurned its state government received a warm reception from fans and students when they returned to Starkville. Loyola advanced to play Big Ten champion Illinois.
A Great Run by Any Standard
The 1966 NCAA championship game, in which a Texas Western (now UTEP) squad with five black starters upset an all-white Kentucky team, is often cited as a singular turning point in the history of race and college basketball. Texas Western’s story was the subject of the successful 2006 Disney movie Glory Road and several books and made-for-TV documentaries.
College Basketball 101 doesn’t cover the 1963 Loyola Ramblers, who overcame prejudice and rejected convention en route to a national title three years before Don Haskins, Bobby Joe Hill, and the Texas Western Miners went on their historic tournament run.
Where storytelling is concerned, Texas Western’s story is tidier. First, the Miners’ transcendent win over Kentucky was a championship game. Loyola’s most significant tournament game, at least in terms of race relations in the United States, came in the second round. Second, when Texas Western played Kentucky in the 1966 title game, five black players took the floor against five white players. In the 1963 final, both teams had racially integrated starting line-ups.
One day after beating Mississippi State in the “Game of Change,” Loyola easily defeated Illinois (79-64) to win the Mideast Region and advance to the Final Four in Louisville. In the national semi-final the Ramblers rolled over Duke, defeating the second-ranked Blue Devils 94-75.
Though Loyola was widely considered one of the nation’s best teams and had won their first four NCAA Tournament games by an average margin of 28 points, Cincinnati was considered the overwhelming favorite to beat Loyola in the title game.
The Bearcats, who boasted two first-team All Americans in Ron Bonham and Tom Thacker, opened 1962-63 ranked first in the AP Poll and remained atop the poll for the entire season. Cincinnati’s only loss that season was to fifth-ranked Wichita State, a team that had also defeated Loyola.
When the 1963 NCAA title game tipped off, the majority of the players on the floor—four of Loyola’s starters and three of Cincinnati’s—were black. While the 1966 final—with its black-versus-white, integration-versus-segregation storylines—works better as a Disney movie, the 1963 game was arguably more significant.
For the first time in NCAA history, two fully integrated teams were playing for a championship.
Cincinnati lived up to expectations and controlled much the game. The Bearcats had built a 15-point lead with ten minutes remaining in the second half. But behind Harkness, who led Loyola with 20 points, the Ramblers rallied and forced overtime. Neither team was able to secure an advantage in the extra period until a tip-in by Rouse at the buzzer clinched the game for Loyola. The Ramblers won 60-58.
In a span of eight days, Loyola defeated four teams ranked in the top eight of the final AP Poll: Mississippi State (7), Illinois (8), Duke (2), and Cincinnati (1). Few teams in college basketball history have had to defeat four teams of that caliber en route to a title.
The Ramblers Ramble On
Harkness, a senior, was selected by the Knicks in the second round of the 1963 NBA Draft. After a brief five-game stint with the Knicks, he played two seasons with the ABA’s Indiana Pacers in the late 1960s before settling in Indianapolis.
The other four members of the Iron Five returned for the 1963-64 season and took Loyola to the Sweet 16. The Pistons drafted Hunter in the second round of the 1964 draft then traded him to the Baltimore Bullets. He played one season in the NBA and six in the ABA.
No other Ramblers played in the NBA or ABA, though Robertson (as mentioned above) had a nice career with the Harlem Globetrotters, which afforded him the opportunity to star on the Globetrotters’s Saturday morning cartoon in the 1970s and to appear on Scooby-Doo.
Ireland took Loyola to the NCAA Tournament again in 1966 and 1968 before retiring in 1975. He remains the winningest coach in Loyola history. The Ramblers have only been to the NCAA Tournament once since Ireland’s retirement.
One cannot tell the story of college basketball in the United States without mentioning the 1963 Loyola Ramblers.
While it is tempting to point to one game in 1966 as the one responsible for ending segregation in basketball, the truth is that many teams, players, and coaches, across many years (and even decades) had a hand in integrating the game.
We can celebrate Loyola’s 1963 title, on its 50th anniversary, as a victory for integration and justice. But aside from issues of race, we can also celebrate it as one of the great runs in tournament history.