How Loyola’s 1963 championship team busted racial divisions in college sports

CHICAGO — Loyola's miraculous march to the Final Four is shedding new light on the school's last team to win it all, but it’s what they overcame off the court that makes them one of the most significant teams in American history. Loyola's 1963 team was the first to break racial barriers in college basketball.

Team captain Jerry Harkness remembers how black students were banned from college sports in the south during the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s. But it didn't stop him.

“I was kind of motivated when you heard on the radio, ‘we shall overcome,’ you heard spirituals, black spirituals and it told me, ‘Wow, this is something,'" Harkness said from his home in Indianapolis.

Even though black players were allowed to play in the north, Harkness and teammate John Egan remember how coaches used an unwritten rule known as the "gentlemen's agreement," when they would only play two African-American players at home, and three on the road.

Loyola’s crusty coach George Ireland had been at the helm of the program for a decade with only mediocre results. In 1963, he decided wins and losses should be determined by players, not prejudice.

“He found the black players that he had to be the best players he could get. If they were green he would have put them on the floor,” Egan remembers.

Egan was a gritty guard from St. Rita high school on the South Side, and the only white player to start for the 1963 Ramblers. Unprecedented in those days, the other four starters were all African-American: Leslie Hunter, Vic Rouse, Ron Miller and Jerry Harkness. Coach Ireland was taunted by other coaches for recruiting black players.

Racism swirled around the team on road trips, especially in the south, where black players were not allowed to eat with their white teammates or stay at the team hotels. At the games, people would line the tunnels, then rain insults and hurl garbage at the Loyola players.

"Going back at halftime you had to go through and that’s when ice was thrown, and popcorn, the name calling, the n-word and worse than that," Harkness remembers. "I think it was an advantage because it brought us together.”

As the white and black players bonded, the Ramblers rolled off 20 straight wins to start the season, and were ranked second in the national Associated Press poll before cruising to a first-round win in the NCAA tournament.

The second-round game in Lansing, MI would be against an opponent from the deepest of the deep south: all-white Mississippi State. But Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett ordered those players not to take the court against Loyola, and barred them from leaving the state for the game.

Yet, the Mississippi State team defied the governor and a court order, heading to Lansing. In the days leading to the game, racial tensions flared, and Harkness says he got threatening letters warning him not to play.

“I got letters from the Ku Klux Klan, telling us we better not play – with all of the profanity, the n-word and so on and so forth,” Harkness said. “I was nervous because they sent it to me with my address at the Loyola dormitory.”

Once the game arrived, Harkness stepped to center court to shake hands with Mississippi State's captain.

“Just the lightbulbs popping, pop pop pop pop and in your eye and everything, and I said to myself, after we completed the handshake and looked each other in the eye, I said, 'This is more than a game, this is history,'" Harkness said.

It became known as the “Game of Change,” the first time white players from the deep south took the floor against a team of African-American players.

“You’re on the court and you’re completely equal, and the race thing is not in your head, because you’re trying to get yourself prepared to win the game," Harkness said.

Loyola won by 10 points. In the next two rounds, Loyola knocked off Illinois and beat Duke, setting up a national championship game with Cincinnati at Louisville’s Freedom Hall. The Ramblers stumbled, playing uncharacteristically sloppy and sluggish basketball. Cincinnati raced out to a big lead.

Down by 15 points with 13 minutes to go, Loyola mounted a comeback, and the game went into overtime. Tied at 58 and with seconds remaining, the Ramblers held for a final shot, and everyone in the stadium knew who would take it.

"I was supposed to take the shot, so I went around the corner, and Ron Barnum I think tipped the ball, but I didn’t feel it, so I threw it to Les (Hunter)," Harkness remembers.

“He sees Hunter open, Hunter takes a good shot. He’s open, he was shooting from the left hand side, (Vic) Rouse gets position on the right, goes over somebody, tips it — in game over,” Egan remembers.

Harkness said he'll never forget crying and shouting, "To the Jesuit society!" Although he's not sure why he said that.

"You’re just spiritually overwhelmed in a lot of ways, and you don’t even know. It’s spiritual,” Harkness aid

With the Ramblers once again on the verge of a national championship, the spirit of 1963 seems alive on Loyola’s lakefront campus. The echoes of '63 still resonate, and the lesson of that team: the color of your jersey is more important than the color of your skin.