Down to the Final Four

Down to the Final Four.

It’s always about a surprise school getting there, but also about the expected teams filling the bracket for the last three games to determine the national champion.

There’s a Cinderella, and there’s royalty. This season is no exception.

Cinderella is easy to pick out. That’s Loyola of Chicago. So is royalty. That’s Villanova, Kansas and Michigan. Yes, Michigan. They have a rich tournament resume and they’re on an incredible hot streak having won their last 13 games.

We’ve known about Kansas and Villanova all year. At, or near the top of the nation, and no surprise. They are the crème de la crème.

But this week we talk of the intruder joining the party in San Antonio.  Loyola.

They were seeded 11th in the South Region, making them the fourth team to reach the Final Four as an 11th seed. The Ramblers, from a small Catholic school in the Windy City, actually have a longer winning streak than Michigan’s 13 straight.

Loyola has won 14 consecutive games, and while their opponents don’t quite rank up there with Michigan’s mostly Big Ten competition, the fact is the Ramblers have beaten the teams they had to beat to get where they are.

They remind me of Texas Western in 1966. That’s a long time ago. So distant, that even Texas Western changed it’s school name to the  University of Texas at El Paso a year after their championship. They’re known better as UTEP.

Texas Western won the NCAA championship shocking Kentucky in the title game. Other than a huge big man in the middle, Dave “Big Daddy” Lattin, they were a bunch of quick, athletic and versatile players around 6’7″. They did possess two smaller guards who ignited the team, but that’s not why I mention Texas Western.

You see, there has been widespread understanding that when Texas Western beat Kentucky in 1966, that game marked the first time ever, an all-African American team defeated an all-white squad. That happens to be true. But that game was not the momentous occasion it has been made out to be. It’s been dramatized more recently in the film, Glory Road, in 2006.

I know because I was there.

I was there as fan, during the time I was working as a newscaster and sportscaster at KYW Radio and TV in Philadelphia.

There are two others I know, who were there. None of us knew each other at the time.

One was my great friend Ernie Accorsi, the immensely successful former General Manager of the New York Giants.

The other was John Thompson, the former national championship head coach of the Georgetown Hoyas.

We have all talked about the 1966 national championship contest and all agree that despite the story of all-African beating all-white, the game was hardly discussed or analyzed in that manner. It was about how a relatively tournament unknown stunned the basketball world by outplaying a traditional power who, at the time, had won more NCAA titles than any school.

Kentucky had won four. Obviously, the champions of the prior two years, UCLA, would ultimately blow everyone else out of the water with 11.

Kentucky now is in second place with eight.

For those who don’t go back that far, race was indeed a story in basketball, and in all sports, as we know. Yes, there was a time when it didn’t matter if you had the talent or not, color was a factor. Sad, but true.

But that issue was not the story of Texas Western’s triumph over Kentucky.

The game that had the most significance in the world of race relations in college basketball happened three years earlier.

As we come full circle, it involved Loyola of Chicago.

Chicago Loyola is no stranger to the Final Four, as most of us long-time observers know full-well.

In 1963, a band of athletes from New York City and Nashville joined the son of a Chicago policeman to form a team that won 29 and lost only 2.

They did not play a particularly imposing schedule, but they beat virtually everyone they faced and would up ranked third in the nation after reaching No. 2 for several weeks.

Their only defeats were to Bowling Green and Wichita State. Those two squads possessed two of the great basketball players ever to play the game. Bowling Green’s Nate Thurmond, who ranked with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell among  the best centers ever, is a Hall-of-Famer and Dave Stallworth, was a consensus first-team All-American and played on an NBA championship team.

Loyola defeated the Cincinnati Bearcats in overtime in ‘63 to spoil Cincy’s chance for a third consecutive national title.

But the game that altered America’s culture occurred in one of the early tournament games. In the Mideast Regional semi-final, played in East Lansing, Michigan, Loyola was scheduled to play Mississippi State, an all-white team from the Southeast Conference.

Now, the Ramblers did not have an all-African American lineup. There were two starters from New York City, Jerry Harkness and Ron Miller, two from the same high school in Nashville, Les Hunter and Vic Rouse, and the lone Caucasian, Jack Egan, making up the starting five.

Integration had not come to the SEC, or the ACC, or for that matter, all of the Southern conferences.

The state of Mississippi had an unwritten policy prohibiting white athletes from competing against non-whites. In the two previous years, Mississippi State had to turn down the automatic bid to the tournament by winning the SEC crown. But this time, coach Babe McCarthy was determined to defy the policy.

Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett issued an injunction prohibiting the Bulldogs from going to Michigan to play Loyola.

So, in the middle of the night, avoiding state troopers who were prepared to serve court papers, McCarthy took the team out of the state for their journey to the Midwest.

Prior to the game, Loyola’s Jerry Harkness shook the hand of MSU’s captain and star, Joe Dan Gold in a salute to the southern school for defying the Governor and playing the game.

Amazingly, the Loyola players were not even aware of the social significance of the event. They only wanted to continue winning, and capture the National Championship.

Which is exactly what they did.

So when people talk of 1966, and Texas Western over Kentucky for the NCAA title as a crowning moment of race relations in the United States, I always shake my head.

No, I always say. It was when Mississippi State left under the cover of darkness to meet Loyola in 1963.

When Chicago Loyola reached this season’s Final Four, that was the first thing that hit my mind.

Here’s another salute to the Ramblers.




2018 Loyola to the final four



1963 Loyola National Champions


Jerry Harkness and Joe Dan Gold


P.S. Jerry Harkness and Joe Dan Gold became good friends. So much so, that when the 70-year old Harkness received the phone call informing him that Gold had died of cancer, Harkness immediately made plans to attend Gold’s funeral in 2011, which he did.
In remembering the famed handshake, Harkness recalled that there were no words spoken, they merely nodded at one another. That spoke volumes.


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