Photo: AP Photo

Loyola-Chicago punched its ticket to the Final Four on Saturday by handing out its first decisive ass-kicking of the tournament after all those heart-stopping wins. If you saw them thrash Kansas State, 78-62—or if you’d seen them eke out one win after another en route to the Elite Eight—you know the Ramblers are for real. And yet there’s still something shocking and strange about the fact of their presence in the Final Four. Some of that is the 11-seed next to their name, and some of it is surely because this is the program’s first tournament appearance since 1985. But none of this is quite new.

The growing cult of Sister Jean and three straight last-second victories have ensured that the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers are not just this tournament’s chosen Cinderella but one for the ages. Whatever happens when they face Michigan in the Final Four next weekend won’t change that. But a great deal has changed, both in college basketball and the country, since the Ramblers won their first—and, so far, only—national championship. Fifty-five years ago, the Ramblers weren’t a Cinderella team. In 1963, they were trailblazers.

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This is more than a chance to remember Yung Jean, though. It’s a chance to recognize that this year’s underdog has a very real place in American sports lore, one forged more than half a century ago. In that 1963 NCAA title game, Loyola and Cincinnati combined to make history before the ball was even tipped—when the two teams lined up, it marked the first time in NCAA history that the majority of the starting 10 players in a title game were black. The road leading to that moment was a rocky one, and one the Ramblers navigated despite death threats and hate mail from the KKK.

Then-Ramblers head coach George Ireland was a pioneer in the movement to integrate college sports and as early as 1961, his high-octane offenses regularly started and played four black players at one time. This broke with the longstanding unwritten rule in college basketball among coaches that they would not play more than two black players. By 1963, Ireland was starting four black players in every single game. Remember, this was just seven years after San Francisco’s title teams became the first major program, at any level, to start three black players (Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, and Hal Perry). It was three years before Texas Western’s “Glory Road” team became the first in history to win the title with an all-black starting five.

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There is no easy way to the NCAA championship game, but the Ramblers had to face both the best teams in the sport and the great and small bigotries that faced every player of color in the major American sports leagues at the time. Throughout the 1963 season, Loyola’s opponents, especially those in the South, proved none too thrilled about playing integrated squads. According to a 50-year anniversary story in USA Today (you should read it in full), the Ramblers dealt with all manner of bullshit from opposing fanbases all season long:

“We were spit on in Houston,” Miller said. “I remember that the ball went out of bounds. I go to pick it up and I see this lady sitting there, dressed really nice, and she looks at me.” And then she uttered a racial slur.

They remember Ireland’s response was to run up the score against every Southern school, without apology. He was later quoted as saying, “I poured it to them. I was 20 years ahead of my time, and I wanted them to wake up and smell the coffee.”

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Ireland’s strategy of beating down Southern teams held true through Loyola’s run in the NCAA tournament; they bludgeoned Tennessee Tech 111-42 in the opening round. The following round, though, provided a more complicated challenger.

At the time, the state of Mississippi had outlawed integrated athletic events. This mandate extended to publicly-funded teams, which meant that Mississippi State, which then boasted a more-than-decent basketball team, was prevented from even playing in several marquee tournaments. This is not exactly a surprising development considering the university didn’t integrate until Richard Holmes set foot on the Starkville campus in July 1965.

In 1956, the Bulldogs were supposed to play Evansville in the Evansville Christmas Tournament championship game, but once word got back to the university that Evansville was an integrated squad, Mississippi State’s team was driven home before the game could be played, per a 2011 Clarion-Ledger article. And while Mississippi State claimed the SEC championship in 1959, 1961, and 1962, each year, university officials forced the Bulldogs to sit home and listen to Kentucky represent their conference in the NCAA tournament. Come the 1963 tournament, though, the Bulldogs were determined to see how they measured up against the nation’s best, obscenely racist backwards-ass state laws be damned.

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According to a 2012 ESPN story, Senator Billy Mitts got a judge to draw up a temporary injunction to prevent the team from traveling to that year’s tournament. Per CBS, the order came with the approval of segregationist governor Ross Barnett:

“It’s not for the best interest of Mississippi State University or the state of Mississippi or either of the races,” Barnett said at the time.

While the Senator and governor had their fingers on the pulse of their racist constituency, they weren’t the ones facing mounting pressure from fans frustrated by seeing Kentucky take their spot every year. Realizing the injunction was on the way, Mississippi State president Dean Colvard concocted a plan along with Bulldogs head coach James McCarthy—the basketball team reportedly snuck out of the state in the middle of the night in an effort to circumvent the incoming legal notice. Before making his way to Alabama for a speaking engagement, Colvard instructed McCarthy to go to Memphis; that way the injunction would not be served to either administrator. From there, an assistant coach took some freshman and reserve players to a private plane, using them as bait just in case anyone from the state government was following them. The coach then brought along the starters and the team flew to Nashville, where McCarthy and athletic director Wade Walker met them for their ensuing flight to East Lansing, Mich.

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And so it was that, despite the state’s official position on the matter, Mississippi State played Loyola in the second round. Bulldogs team captain Joe Dan Gold, a white forward from Benton, Ky., stepped out to halfcourt and shook the hand of Ramblers team captain Jerry Harkness, a black guard from Harlem. Harkness told USA Today that when he attended Gold’s funeral in 2011, one of the photos next to the man’s casket was the very one of him and Gold shaking hands that day. Loyola won the game 61-51; Mississippi State went on to beat Bowling Green in the third-place consolation game

The Ramblers rattled off victories against Illinois and Duke in the next two rounds to earn them a spot opposite Cincinnati in the title game. The Bearcats were then a program at the height of their powers—following a pair of third-place finishes behind the legendary Oscar Robertson in 1959 and 1960, Cincinnati hired head coach Ed Jucker and won national championships in 1961 and 1962, both over Ohio State. Come 1963, the Bearcats were looking to make the dynasty official; the Final Four was their fifth straight, and a third consecutive title would more than make up for any missed opportunities with Robertson. All that stood in Cincy’s way was that upstart team from Chicago that liked to run.

Loyola struggled for the first half, missing 13 of their first 14 shots; it took the team well into the second half to get its act together. The Ramblers trailed by 15 points with 14 minutes remaining, per USA Today, but the Ramblers battled back, as Harkness finally started to find the range in the final five minutes. With four seconds remaining and Cincinnati up 54-52, Harkness created enough space to nail a 12-foot jumper, bringing the Loyola bench to its feet and sending the game to overtime. This seems a good time to point out that the Ramblers did not bring a player off their bench all game long; Cincinnati wasn’t much easier on its starters, using one reserve, Dale Heidotting, to spell George Wilson for all of four minutes.

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Neither team pulled away in the extra period, which required some heroics on the part of Loyola’s Vic Rouse. After securing the ball with under a minute left and deciding to hold for the final shot—there was no shot clock, remember—Harkness briefly flirted with taking the ball to the rack himself before dishing the ball to Les Hunter at the free throw line. Hunter’s shot was wide right, but Rouse was in the right spot to play the Lorenzo Charles role a full 20 years before anyone would understand that reference. Rouse rose high and snatched the rebound, tipping the ball in over the outstretched hand of Cincinnati’s Tom Thacker to secure the program’s first and only national title in basketball—you can and absolutely should listen to the radio call of the game-winner here.

Loyola’s Vic Rouse winning the Ramblers the 1963 national title with a last-second tip-in.
Photo: AP Photo

Now, despite it being a great championship game between an underdog and an established giant—and one that ended with a buzzer-beater to boot—this isn’t exactly in the pantheon of college basketball’s greatest games. I’d posit it doesn’t and wouldn’t crack the top-20 or even top-40 for most college basketball fans who keep such lists, due to the fact that 1) there’s no widely available footage of Rouse’s put-back and 2) it didn’t result in a major motion picture.

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The title game and its impact on the sport were largely forgotten by the American public. The 1963 final didn’t garner even a passing mention in the 2006 film Glory Road, which followed Texas Western’s historic 1966 title run, and that film seems to be about the extent of most people’s understanding of the integration movement as it relates to college sports. But as always in the slow stop-and-go course of progress in the United States, the popular trailblazers we review in history class generally built upon a foundation laid by someone else. The players, administrators, and coaches at Loyola and Cincinnati were just two of the teams working to build the multicultural game that we now watch every March, just like those San Francisco teams before them. Journalists, historians, and college basketball heads have thankfully kept the Ramblers story alive, to the point that the surviving team members were invited to the White House by President Barack Obama in 2013 to memorialize their mark on the game.

Now, 55 years after their initial run, Loyola has its shot at making history once again—as just the fourth No. 11 seed to ever make a Final Four, the Ramblers will have a shot on Saturday to do what LSU, George Mason, and VCU could not. If Loyola can find the magic to knock off No. 3 seed Michigan, the Ramblers will be the first 11-seed to advance to the national championship game. As that 1963 team proved, once you’re there, anything can happen.