Game Changer: Loyola Chicago's 1963 National Title forever changed college basketball

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In 1963 Loyola Chicago became the first college basketball team to start four players of color. (Source: The Associated Press) In 1963 Loyola Chicago became the first college basketball team to start four players of color. (Source: The Associated Press)

Long before Loyola Chicago rambled to the 2018 Final Four, or Sister Jean’s star sky rocketed, Loyola Chicago was the top team in college basketball..

The year was 1963 and the Ramblers won the National Championship on the final shot.

“I wanted to take the shot, but just I didn’t feel it,” said All American Jerry Harkness in an interview with the university website. “Everybody for the rebound was out of whack because they were preparing for me to take the shot.”

Harkness passed to Les Hunter, who shot the game winner but missed. Vic Rouse tipped home the title with one second left on the clock. 

“I took my time once I was in the air,” said Rouse to the Chicago Tribune following the win. “I never thought we’d lose. We came too far to lose it.”

Rouse passed away at in 1999 the age of 56. His legacy, and his team’s legacy, lives on every time a college basketball team takes the floor.

“It’s remarkable the impact that it had, not only on college basketball but all throughout the country,” said Fred Mitchell, a long time Chicago Tribune columnist. 

The 1963 Ramblers made history starting four African American players. At the time, there was an unwritten rule among coaches to not play more than three players of color at the same time. The 1963 Ramblers became the first team to play five African Americans at once during a Christmas tournament that year. 

“All of a sudden they would start throwing things at players for no reason,”  said John Egan, the lone white starter on the 1963 team. 

That team defeated segregated squads from Arkansas, Memphis, Loyola New Orleans, Houston, and Duke. They won their first NCAA Tournament game over Tennessee Tech 111-42, still the biggest margin of victory ever. They drew Mississippi State in the round of 16. Segregationists won an injunction to keep the game from being played. The Mississippi State team snuck out of the state, with their coach hiding on the floor board of a car. The game was played in Michigan with Loyola winning 61-51. 

“There wasn’t one issue,” Mississippi State Coach Babe Mitchell told the New York Times before his death in 2003, “and not because we weren’t trying or trying to be nice.”

The win sparked the Ramblers all the way to the Final Four. The beat Illinois, Duke and saved their best win for last against two time defending champion Cincinnati in the title game. The Bearkats had won 47 straight. Coach George Ireland relayed a simple message that he gave to his team during a 1993 interview.

“I said rip the ball off the backboard,” said Ireland to WBBM-TV.

The 1963 Ramblers remain the only Illinois team to win a college basketball National Championship. Can the 2018 Ramblers join the 1963 team and hoist a National Championship banner into their on campus arena?

We’ll find out Saturday when the Final Four tips off in San Antonio.

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