Looking Back at Loyola University’s 1963 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship
Throughout 1962-63, the Loyola Ramblers played four African-American starters in every game—in defiance of a non-verbal compact among teams that set quotas for the “appropriate” number of Black athletes to play at any time. In a Christmas tournament, Loyola made history by playing five African-Americans at once for perhaps the first time in major college basketball. And the Ramblers’ thrilling overtime championship game victory over two-time defending champions Cincinnati was one of the most exciting in NCAA Tournament history. But Loyola’s 1962-63 season marked a sea change in college basketball not only because of the players’ success on the court, but also their success in the classroom.
Although the victory of an all-Black Texas Western team’s victory three years later over an all-White Kentucky squad is much better known—thanks to the book and film Glory Road—Loyola’s victory was likely much more significant. During the course of the 1962-63 season, Loyola played and defeated segregated squads from Arkansas, Memphis State, Loyola-New Orleans, Houston, Tennessee Tech, and Duke. In the NCAA Tournament, another Mississippi university—Mississippi State-- had to secretly leave the state under cover of darkness to evade a state legislature injunction against playing Loyola. After Loyola won the championship, the “gentleman’s agreement”—a compact among major college basketball coaches that compelled most college teams to play no more than three black starters at home and two black starters on the road-- was history.
The 1963 Ramblers set an NCAA record that still stands for the largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game when they beat all-White Tennessee Tech in the first round, 111-47. They beat three top 10 ranked teams to reach the tournament final, and then they beat the two-time defending champions-- the #1 team in the country that had won 47 consecutive NCAA Tournament games-- on a court in their opponent’s backyard. And they did it while coming back from an eight-point halftime deficit and a 15-point deficit with less than 11 minutes left to play—before there was a shot clock or a three-point line.
Assembling the team
Loyola Coach George Ireland wasn’t necessarily looking to break new ground—he was just looking to win. Loyola had featured several great African American players through the 1940s and 1950s, almost all of whom were not only great players but great students. Ben Bluitt helped the Ramblers reach the NIT final in 1949, and later became one of the first African American major college coaches at Cornell in the 1970s. Art McZier became co-captain of the teams of the mid-50s before establishing a prominent career in Washington, DC with the Department of Commerce and the Small Business Administration. Clarence Red was a prolific rebounder in the late 1950s who became a dentist.
Having seen success by African Americans on the court and in the classroom, and understanding the difficulties of Black players in finding slots to play basketball on teams that had strict racial quotas against “too many” Black players, Ireland took the leap of throwing out the unwritten rules by recruiting three great African American players in 1960.
Ron Milller was a talented 6’2” center on his Bronx high school team. Ireland recruited him and turned him into a shooting guard. Six-foot, six inch Vic Rouse was an athletic and academic star at Pearl High School in Nashville, and his 6’7” teammate Les Hunter was a beast of a center. Coming from the South, neither of them had much of a chance playing for a non-historically Black college, as there were no major basketball schools in the South willing to take them. These three Black players would join a White fellow 1961 recruit-- scrappy playmaker John Egan from the South Side of Chicago—and a silky-smooth All-American, 6’4” junior Jerry Harkness, on Loyola’s 1961-62 team.
The 1961-62 Ramblers, the first major college team composed of four African-American starters, played a demanding schedule that took them all the way to the NIT semi-finals. They gained valuable experience together as a unit through the 1961-62 season, undergoing shocking conditions on the road, both in their accommodations and the treatment they received from opposing fans. They learned to play through taunts, separate accommodations for the White and Black players, harassment, and disappointments. But they were all ready, willing, and experienced coming back for the 1962-63 season as four juniors and a senior.
Loyola began the 1962-63 season ranked #4 in the country, and soon moved up to #2—behind defending champions Cincinnati—as both Loyola and Cincinnati began the season undefeated through January. On February 16, 1963, the 21-0 Loyola Ramblers suffered their first loss of the year to Bowling Green, featuring future NBA All-Star Nate Thurmond, on the road. The same night, #1 Cincinnati also lost at Wichita State, breaking their 37-game winning streak over two seasons. Two weeks later, Loyola also lost to Wichita State in the final game of the year, dropping the Ramblers to a #5 ranking in the AP poll with a record of 24-2.
Several weeks before the end of the season, Loyola accepted their first ever invitation to the NCAA Tournament. The Ramblers had been national runners-up in the 1939 and 1949 NITs, and had reached the semi-finals in 1962. As late as the mid-1950s, the NIT was considered a more prestigious tournament, and as an Independent team not affiliated with a conference, Loyola was at a disadvantage in the NCAA Tournament.
In spite of the Ramblers’ #2 AP ranking at the time of their NCAA Tournament acceptance, Loyola would be required to play an extra round in the 24-team tournament, as large conference winners received a bye in the first round. Loyola made a statement by throttling their first round opponent Tennessee Tech, 111-47, in their first round game in nearby Evanston, Illinois. It was not as close as the score might indicate-- at the halftime break, it was Loyola 61, Tech 20. The first round victory won Loyola a matchup with SEC Champion Mississippi State, setting up one of the most remarkable college basketball games in history.
Defying State-Mandated Segregation: Loyola vs. Mississippi State
On March 2, 1963, Mississippi State announced to the crowd at their last home game of the year that they would accept the bid to represent the SEC in the 1963 NCAA Tournament, which would mean they would potentially play against an integrated team.
But even before it was certain that Mississippi State would face Loyola and their four black starters, racist elements in the Mississippi media got into the act. On Thursday, March 7, 1963—four days before Loyola’s game against all-white Tennessee Tech that would decide who played Mississippi State—the Jackson Daily News printed a five-column wide picture of Loyola’s starters to show that four of them were African Americans. As a caption to the picture, Daily News editor Jimmy Ward wrote that “readers may desire to clip the photo of the Loyola team and mail it today to the board of trustees of the institution of higher learning” to prevent the game from taking place. The Jackson paper editorial included an apology to readers for misleading them in a previous editorial that all five of Loyola’s starters were African-American. The editorial said “maybe a lucky white boy graduated to the first team.”
Mississippi State President Dean Colvard decided to accept the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on March 2, 1963-- a bid the school had previously declined three times before when faced with the prospect of playing one or more integrated teams. After Mississippi State declined the invitation the year before, the same Jackson Daily News wrote that “a change of heart by Mississippi’s politicians” was the key to Mississippi State playing in the NCAA Tournament. Just three weeks earlier the Daily News lamented, “racial problems appear to doom the talented Maroons’ chances of representing the league in the post-season tournament.” But when the Maroons faced the prospect of meeting Loyola, however, the newspaper changed its tune to instigate political pressure against MSU’s participation in the tournament.
The College Board of Mississippi met March 9, 1963 to uphold President Colvard’s decision to accept the NCAA bid by an 8-3 vote. But on March 13—the day before the team was scheduled to travel to the tournament site at East Lansing-- State Senator Billy Mitts and former State Senator B.W. Lawson obtained an injunction against the team leaving the state. The temporary injunction was issued by Hinds County Chancellor L.B. Porter-- the same person who issued the injunction preventing James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi the previous fall.
Several other all-white teams from the SEC, such as Kentucky, had never flinched at playing integrated teams. In 1949, an integrated Loyola team upset Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team en route to the NIT Final, and Loyola beat eventual national champion Kentucky in 1958. Georgia Tech—another all-white team—was quite willing to accept the SEC’s bid if Mississippi State declined.
But Mississippi was different-- one of only three states in the country that had yet to integrate elementary and secondary schools according to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The state was still reeling from three days of rioting the previous fall, when African-American Air Force veteran James Meredith tried to simply enroll at Ole Miss. Between 1954 and 1960, the state legislature passed 14 separate laws designed to get around Brown vs. Board of Education. The most draconian of the state laws included a poison pill provision allowing the governor to abolish all the state’s public schools, colleges, and universities rather than submit to integration.
Meanwhile, according the Bill Jauss in the Chicago Daily News on March 15, 1963, cards and letters addressed to Loyola players were arriving in Chicago, suggesting that they “bring their shoe shine kits” to the game, or “come down here and pick some cotton.” Some of the letters were signed, “KKK.” Loyola forward Jerry Harkness told Jauss, “I expected that. I’m getting a little immune to it. They called us names when we played in Houston, called Jack Egan names too. The players are all right. I think that Mississippi State wants to play us. If they don’t, they’ll never know how good they are.”
The team’s original plan was to leave Starkville early on Thursday morning. But learning that the Hinds County sheriffs would be expected to arrive in town late Wednesday night, MSU implemented their elaborate escape plan. The president and vice-president of the University drove across state lines to Birmingham, Alabama and checked into a hotel under assumed names to prevent them from being served with the injunction. The head coach, the athletic director, and the assistant athletic director drove to Memphis and took a plane to Nashville. The team itself sent the freshman squad to the airport as scheduled—posing as the varsity team-- to serve as decoys. The real varsity team hid in a dorm on campus, and the next morning boarded a private plane to Nashville where they met up with the coach and team officials. From Nashville, the whole group took a commercial flight to East Lansing, Michigan.
Some have said local county officials, who were required by Mississippi law to be present at the service of an injunction, had no intention of assisting with preventing the team from leaving. But later that afternoon the Mississippi Supreme Court invalidated the injunction anyway..
Up in East Lansing, there were no incidents. The Loyola players were very gracious to the Mississippi State players and coaches who defied their courts and state legislature to simply play a college basketball game. 12,143 spectators attended, with flashbulbs lighting up Jenison Fieldhouse as the two team captains shook hands.
The game was a tight, back-and-forth contest until Mississippi State’s 6’ 4” senior leader Leland Mitchell fouled out with 6:47 left. Mitchell had scored 14 points and made 11 rebounds in his limited time on the court; his replacement was scoreless and without a rebound through the rest of the game. Loyola advanced to the regional finals with the 61-51 win.
“I remember the [Mississippi State] guys being nice,” Ron Miller recalled in a 2002 interview. “I remember the guys wishing us luck [after the game], and wanting us to win it all. And during the game it was polite. They played a very hard, very aggressive, very strong defensive game-- very clean, and they didn’t back off. I always thought that they were a lot like we were when we went to New Orleans [the previous year]-- we just wanted to play basketball.”
"Game of Change"
Advancing to the NCAA Final
While the Ramblers were defeating Mississippi State in one of the most remarkable and historic games in college basketball history, #8 Illinois had defeated Bowling Green, 70-67, for the right to face the Ramblers the following night. The Illini had strength, height, and toughness on their side—those three attributes were the deciding factor in their victory over Bowling Green. But Loyola matched the size and strength of the Illini with quickness and a graceful shooting touch. Loyola won 79-64, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score, vaulting Loyola into the Final Four in their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Loyola’s semi-final appearance came against #2 Duke, featuring national player of the year Art Heyman. The Blue Devils reached the semi-finals with a 27-2 record. Their only two losses came in the same week in late December, when they lost to unheralded Miami and Davidson. But since those two defeats, Duke had run the table in the ACC with a 14-0 record and won the ACC tournament. They had reached the Final Four by defeating NYU 81-76 in the East Regional semi-finals and beating St. Joseph’s 73-59 in the East Regional Final to extend their winning streak to 20 straight games—the longest winning streak in the nation at the time.
The Ramblers built a 13-point first-half lead by busting Duke’s zone defense with great ball movement and outside shooting from the corners. When Duke defenders drifted out to cover Harkness or Miller shooting from long distance, the outside shooters whip-passed down low to Les Hunter, who rarely missed his jump shots from just outside the paint. Loyola led 44-31 at the break.
But behind their All-American forward Art Heyman, the Blue Devils mounted a second-half comeback. With 4:19 left to play in the game, Duke cut Loyola’s lead to 74-71 on a basket by Heyman.
That’s when the Ramblers dazzled the Freedom Hall crowd in Louisville. Ron Miller scored one basket on an outside shot from the baseline, and another on a drive to the basket. After Hunter blocked a shot by Heyman, Harkness scored at the other end on a breakaway. Hunter and Egan made two free throws apiece, and before anyone knew what happened, Loyola led 84-71. It was a 10-0 run in crunch time against the #2 team in the country. With the win secure, the Ramblers outscored Duke 10-4 down the stretch for an impressive 94-75 victory that sent them to the tournament final.
David vs. Goliath: The Cinncinnati Bearcats
During the previous four seasons leading up to the 1963 final, there was no more accomplished team in the country than the Cincinnati Bearcats. They were the two-time defending national champions, and they had accumulated a 110-7 record in the previous four seasons heading into the game. They had beaten Jerry Lucas and the #1 Ohio State Buckeyes in the 1961 tournament, and when the two met again a year later, #2 Cincinnati again knocked off the #1 Buckeyes in a rout. In the 1962-63, the Bearcats were ranked #1 from the pre-season poll to the final poll of the year, receiving several unanimous #1 poll results. They would have been undefeated in 1962-63, but for a one-point loss on the road to a top 10 team that broke their 37-game winning streak. And the Bearcats had accumulated a perfect 11-0 NCAA Tournament over the previous three years. The team was composed of three seniors and two juniors who had played in a combined 47 NCAA Tournament games without experiencing a single loss, and they were playing for their third straight title only 106 miles from their campus.
A standing room only crowd of 19,152—the majority Cincinnati fans-- showed up in Louisville for what promised to be a coronation. The tip-off for the national championship came at about 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time, about 7:30 p.m. in Chicago. Although the game was televised live in many parts of the country, Chicago’s WGN-TV-- the Tribune-owned station-- decided to show the game on tape delay following the Illinois High School State Championship in Champaign.
Loyola missed 13 of their first 14 shots from the field in the first half. The Ramblers couldn’t find any space on the floor to shoot against the number one defensive team in the country. Open jump shots were impossible to come by with Cincy’s experienced floor spacing. The best shots the Ramblers were able to get off were shots off the dribble that didn’t go down. And shockingly, Loyola’s consensus All-American-- senior Jerry Harkness, who led Loyola with an average of more than 21 points per game-- had not made a single field goal in the first half. Loyola was lucky to be trailing 29-21 at the break.
The Ramblers scored the first two points of the second half, and after the press forced a turnover, Loyola had a chance to cut the deficit to four. But Les Hunter missed a shot off the glass that was rebounded by Cincy’s Tony Yates. That’s when the Bearcats went on an impressive run. Yates hit 20-foot jumper, Tom Thacker hit a lean-in eight footer, and Ron Bonham was wide open for a lay-up under the basket. Three minutes later it was 45-30. With Cincinnati ahead by 15 points, and less than 12 minutes remaining until their third consecutive title, the Bearcats went into their legendary stall.
“At that point, I was angry, not at anybody in particular, just at us in general,” Egan recalled many years later. “I was probably more outspoken than anyone about the value of our team, the quality of our team—and I really believed it, I wasn’t just saying it. And to get that far and not perform, that just gave me a sickening feeling. Even to this day, it never really bothers me to lose something if I perform.”
The Ramblers responded with a full court press that appeared to rattle the Bearcats just a bit. The e margin was cut to 45-33 before Cincy’s top player George Wilson picked up his fourth foul, prompting the only substitution by either team in the game. With Wilson out of the game for only four minutes with four trouble, Tom Thacker and Tony Yates also picked up their fourth fouls as the Cincinnati lead dwindled.
With six minutes left and Cincinnati leading 48-41, Loyola’s Jerry Harkness hit on a turnaround jumper from just inside the free throw line-- his first field goal of the game-- to cut Cincy’s lead to 48-43. Harkness’ long overdue basket couldn’t have come at a better time, and seemed to undermine the confident Bearcats. As the Bearcats brought the ball up court, Harkness stepped into the passing lane for a steal and took it to the hoop for an easy lay-up. After more than 35 minutes without a field goal, Harkness had two in six seconds. Suddenly, it was a three-point game with 4:24 remaining.
After two free throws by Bonham, Harkness responded with one free throw. After Harkness missed the second crucial free throw, Cincy tipped it out of bounds. Loyola held possession, and the suddenly-hot Harkness scored again on a seven-foot jumper over a double-team to make it 50-48 with 2:42 left. Cincinnati hit one free throw in two separate possessions at the other end, but when a now red-hot Harkness put up a quick six-foot floater from the paint, Cincinnati’s George Wilson was called for goaltending-- cutting the defending champs’ lead to 51-50 with just over a minute left to play. One half of the Freedom Hall crowd—the Cincinnati fans-- were stunned silent. The other half was shouting encouragement.
As Loyola gambled on stealing the inbounds pass, Thacker ran the court and caught a long baseball pass for an uncontested lay-up to make the score 53-50. The Ramblers countered with an eight-foot jumper by Hunter that missed off the rim, giving Cincinnati possession and a chance to open a 55-50 lead. Thacker dribbled the ball to the free throw line, but instead of taking time off the clock, he made a long pass to an open Tony Yates alone under the basket. Shockingly, Yates missed an open five-foot shot off the glass, and Loyola dodged a bullet.
A now-confident Harkness put up a silky-smooth jumper from seven feet out that just skipped off the top of the rim; had it landed in the hands of a Bearcat, the game would be over. But Hunter was there on the glass to tip it in, cutting the Cincinnati lead to 53-52, with 15 seconds left to play. Harkness immediately fouled Larry Shingleton on the inbounds play to put the 5’10” Cincinnati guard on the line with 12 seconds left. His first made free throw put the Bearcats up by two, 54-54. Making his next free throw—in the days before the three point shot—would almost certainly put an end to the game.
A 1987 Sports Illustrated article about the game quoted Shingleton on what happened then: “I have a picture of that scene hanging in my basement. It was taken through the glass of the backboard, and shows the time on the clock, 12 seconds, and the score, 54-52, and the ball in the air. You know, if I’d made that shot, I could probably have been the youngest senator in the history of the state of Ohio. But I flat missed it. And I’ve lived with it all these years.”
Les Hunter rebounded the missed free throw, and flung an outlet pass to Ron Miller, who in turn flipped the ball to Harkness down court. But the outlet to Miller came in the middle of one of his strides; replays show that he took too many steps with the ball as he tried to get a handle on his pass to Harkness. Loyola’s John Egan waited for a whistle to blow, but none came. Meanwhile, Harkness hit a short open jumper to tie the game at 54 all, and sent it to overtime.
The two teams traded baskets in the beginning of overtime, capped by a Larry Shingleton breakaway lay-up that tied the game at 58-58 with 2:15 left to play. Now it was time for Loyola to turn the tables on Cincinnati—holding the ball for a final shot against the team that was most notorious for the stall.
The Ramblers nearly lost the ball as they ate time off the clock when they got caught in a jump ball situation, but retained possession when Egan outleaped Shingleton. Almost everyone in the building expected Harkness to take the last shot. With eight seconds left, Egan passed the ball to Harkness on the left wing. Guarded closely by Bonham, Harkness dribbled and took three strides, passing the ball back to Egan. Decided that Hunter had a better shot from 10 feet out, just left of the lane, Egan passed to Hunter, who put up a rainbow jumper that bounced off the front of the rim up onto the glass. It came down into the hands of Vic Rouse on the weak side of the basket, and Rouse-- shoulder to shoulder with Wilson-- laid it in neatly off the glass just before the buzzer sounded.
"I was probably as close to Rouse as anyone, I was right behind him when he made it," John Egan recalled. "I thought, 'It's good!' and I knew there was no time left. Then it was a sort of different kind of feeling for me. It wasn't exuberance for having won it--obviously I was really happy, but I felt like walking off into the locker room and enjoying it. I'm not one that jumps up with joy and kisses everybody. It was especially nice to see the guys on the bench so happy about it."
"I just remember Jerry going for the shot, and it wasn't open, and he made the pass," Miller recalled in a 2002 interview. "I was surprised that he passed off, and I thought, 'No!' because I had faith that Jerry was going to make the shot. And then it was a blur. I remember Les taking the shot, and then I remember jumping up and down. When it happened, I didn't see Vic tip it in. I was there, and I'm sure I was looking at it, but I don't remember that piece of it. I just remember hugging Les and jumping up and down."
After spending a mostly-sleepless night at Louisville's elegant Brown Hotel, the Ramblers boarded a charter plane to return to Chicago. Several hundred fans and Mayor Daley greeted the Ramblers at the Brown Aviation terminal at O'Hare.
"I was dumbfounded by the reaction [in Chicago]," Miller recalled in 2002. "I didn't expect that. I didn't expect Mayor Daley to be greeting us at the airport, I didn't expect the huge turnout at the airport. To me personally, I didn't think it was that big a deal winning the national championship at that time. Of course I wanted to win it, but I was surprised at the local reaction."
Mayor Daley greeted the Ramblers at the airport and shook every hand he could. There was a mayoral election just two weeks away on April 2. Daley was at O'Hare the day before, too, with President Kennedy-- for the official dedication of the World's Largest Airport.
Within two years after the Loyola victory, Vanderbilt University was recruiting the first African American player for the as yet all-White SEC, Perry Wallace. Not coincidentally, Wallace was a star at Nashville’s segregated Pearl High School, the same high school that produced Loyola’s Les Hunter and Vic Rouse. Wallace went on to graduate from Vanderbilt in 1970, the same year Kentucky and other SEC teams recruited their first Black players. Despite being drafted by the NBA, Wallace earned his law degree from Columbia University in 1975, and became a distinguished law professor.
Despite ridiculous accusations that Loyola’s unprecedented four black starters were “unqualified ringers,”all five of the Ramblers’ starters graduated from Loyola—in fact, the starting five earned a total of seven degrees at Loyola, including post-graduate degrees. The 1963 Loyola starters earned a total of nine degrees, including a Master’s in Industrial Relations, an MBA, a law degree, and a doctorate. Of the nine Loyola bench players at the Final Four, one third attended law school. Only two of the five starters went on to play professional basketball; the rest went on to graduate or professional school.
Four months after the Loyola victory, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a crowd of a quarter million listeners at the March on Washington and announced: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He could very well have been looking at Loyola’s recent success as a model for his dream, because all season the Ramblers were the first to play the five best players they had, regardless of color. And they were champions.