If you go to Loyola, odds are you know about the 1963 men’s basketball team. The only team in Illinois to win the NCAA national championship wore the maroon and gold. Even though this championship was more than 50 years ago, its impact on history is undeniable.
Jerry Harkness was the captain of that team and an All-American forward. Most significantly, however, he was black. He was one of four black starters on the team, which was unprecedented at that point. At the time, there was a “gentleman’s agreement” among college coaches to not have more than three black players on the court at any time.
Loyola’s four black starters — Harkness, Les Hunter, Vic Rouse and Ron Miller — were the first to break that “agreement.” Texas Western University (now the University of Texas at El Paso) received credit in 1966 for starting five black players for the first time, but Loyola was the first to have five black players on the court, in a game against Wyoming in 1962.
Even though Loyola was an integrated university, a black person’s life was nowhere close to “equal.” Harkness said they would have to stay at separate hotels and ride in separate taxis any time the team traveled. He even said players received letters from the Klu Klux Klan, addressed to their dorm rooms. Social gatherings and parties on campus were rarely a fun time for the black students and players.
“We got to [the party] a little bit early, and we were talking to girls,” Harkness said. “The girls were scared to death. [They] were shivering. We left there because just being there was panicky for the girls. And then the next day a nun went over to see the coach. She told the coach that we had the girls scared … One guy tried dancing with a white girl and a [priest] came up and said ‘No mingling.’ That’s the way it was. We just stayed with ourselves.”
While the black players may have felt like pariahs, on the court they were kings. The starters were known as the “iron men” because they would play all 40 minutes of the game. Loyola headed into the 1963 NCAA national tournament as the No. 3 team in the country. The Ramblers were 24-2 (including a 21-0 start), averaging nearly 94 points per game. In the first game of the tournament, Loyola defeated Tennessee Tech University 111-42. The 69-point margin of defeat is still the largest in NCAA national tournament history.
The players basked in the glory of greatness on the court, but this starkly contrasted with their lives off the court. While the black players ran in their own social circles, Harkness said there was always something that was a little off.
“In a lot of situations, it was kind of lonely,” said Harkness. “Unless you made your own social activities … the black guys didn’t have much to do at the dorms … but we had each other … I think in many areas [equality] was busting out. It was ready to change, but you have politics and certain things that hold it back. They integrated Mississippi State [University] without any problems, and they say a lot of that came because of the game.”
The game Harkness referred to was a second round matchup between the Ramblers and Mississippi State University (MSU). The state of Mississippi forbade any team from competing against black players since the schools there were not integrated. The Bulldogs, known as the Maroon at the time, snuck away in the middle of the night to travel to East Lansing, Michigan, where the game was to be played. The pregame handshake between Harkness and MSU’s Joe Dan Gold was much more than a standard gesture to start a game.
“To this day [I] am amazed at the number of flashbulbs [at that game],” Harkness said. “Then we knew that this was more than a game. This was history. I felt that right there as I went back to the huddle, and I was in sort of a daze.”
The Ramblers won that game then the National Championship a few games later. They played the No. 1 University of Cincinnati, which had won the last two National Championships in a row and was looking for a three-peat. The Ramblers overcame a 15-point deficit and defeated the Bearcats 60-58 in overtime.
The team was inducted to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, and the trophy and memorabilia from the team is on display in the Norville Center, forever enshrined in Loyola’s hall of fame. Outside of that, the 1963 Loyola men’s basketball team has been largely forgotten. The 1966 Texas Western University team’s story was made into the feature film “Glory Road,” but the significance of the Ramblers in helping break the race barrier in college basketball has not received the credit it deserves. Nevertheless, the impact was real and lasting.