Skip to main content

Loyola's most famous alum wears his Newhart on his sleeve

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
March 22, 2013 -- Updated 1407 GMT (2207 HKT)
Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of Loyola University Chicago winning the 1963 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament. The tournament involved 25 schools over the course of 29 games and ended March 23. The Loyola Ramblers won the national title with a 60-58 victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats. Here, the 1963 team is pictured with its trophy. Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of Loyola University Chicago winning the 1963 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament. The tournament involved 25 schools over the course of 29 games and ended March 23. The Loyola Ramblers won the national title with a 60-58 victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats. Here, the 1963 team is pictured with its trophy.
HIDE CAPTION
The 1963 Loyola Ramblers: NCAA champions
The 1963 Loyola Ramblers: NCAA champions
The 1963 Loyola Ramblers: NCAA champions
The 1963 Loyola Ramblers: NCAA champions
The 1963 Loyola Ramblers: NCAA champions
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Saturday marks 50 years since Loyola University Chicago won the 1963 NCAA championship
  • Surviving teammates would like to see the Ramblers in the Basketball Hall of Fame
  • No Illinois university has won the NCAA men's crown since
  • Loyola alum Bob Newhart: I pray Loyola doesn't try to deny that I went to school there

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

(CNN) -- I give Bob Newhart a call because I have a hunch he will have something funny to say. I am right.

The subject: Loyola of Chicago and the 50th anniversary (this Saturday) of its winning 1963's national championship of college basketball.

The man on the phone: A proud Loyola grad, maybe the school's most well-known: a comedian, actor and star like few others in this great big TV Land of ours.

Hi, Bob.

"You know, my first memory of Loyola basketball actually goes back to 1949," says the 83-year-old Newhart, who is still second to none in knowing how to begin a monologue. "Loyola's team came home from winning a big tournament game that we weren't supposed to win. 'Giant killers!' they were called. We were all naturally proud of our team. 'Loyola the Giant Killer.'

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

"Then it turned out that players from the team we beat (Kentucky) got caught shaving points. They were crooked. So I guess that giant we killed wasn't quite as gigantic as we thought.''

Funny now. Not so much back then, but funny now.

Happily, a funnier thing happened on March 23, 1963, when the Loyola Ramblers shocked the two-time defending champion Cincinnati Bearcats and the whole college basketball world by winning the NCAA tournament.

Bleacher Report: Last-Minute Bracket Advice

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



That team:

Won by the wacky score of 111-42 over Tennessee Tech in the tournament's opening game, to this day, the largest margin of victory in the NCAA Division I men's tournament's history.

Next defeated a Mississippi State team that had to sneak OUT of the state of Mississippi just to play the game, certain parties down South objecting to their all-white boys occupying the same court as a Chicago team with non-white young men on it.

Next bounced the Big Ten boys from Illinois by 15 points.

Next decked the Duke team in the Final Four by 19 points.

And then, down by 15 points in the second half, came back to conquer Cincinnati in overtime 60-58 on a last-second shot.

Cisco lets workers enjoy March Madness
Nate Silver predicts March Madness

What a story.

"We win! We win!" roared the Ramblers' radio voice, Red Rush, on the air.

The NCAA title game had also been on national TV for the first time, but Chicago's WGN delayed it to air a live telecast of a high school championship game instead. "So throughout the city," Chicago historian and author John R. Schmidt recalled recently for WBEZ 91.5 FM, "many crafty radio listeners used their knowledge of Loyola's amazing comeback to clean up on barroom bets."

I tell Newhart this.

"Ah, now THAT's the Loyola I know!" he says mirthfully.

No joke, though, Bob: Loyola (29-2) was king of college ball.

Not another university from the state of Illinois has won the NCAA men's crown since. UCLA took 10 of the next 12. The football-free Jesuit institution from the Near North Side of Chicago went back into relative anonymity in big-time athletics, an onlooker as the likes of Indiana and Duke and (yes) Kentucky became lords of the rings.

Loyola hasn't even been in the NCAA tournament field since 1985.

Bleacher Report: 25 Greatest Moments in March Madness History

I recently enjoyed phone conversations with three of Loyola's surviving 1963 players -- Les Hunter, Jerry Harkness and John Egan -- while doing a story for History Channel's magazine. Each is pleased by this burst of golden anniversary limelight, although it sure would be a nicer honor if the Naismith basketball museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, would heed a proclamation made by lawmakers in Springfield, Illinois, that the Ramblers should be enshrined in the game's Hall of Fame.

Because guys of a certain age can tell you: This was one amazing team.

"I remember pulling for them because Cincy was a basketball power back then and this little school from Chicago beat them," said Bill Frieder, 71, who later would coach Michigan and Arizona State. "I think everyone was stunned."

Stunned by the WAY this school won, not just the fact that it did win.

It used just five players. No other Rambler set foot on a court in that NCAA title game except Hunter, Harkness, Egan, Ron Miller and the man whose last-instant putback of a Hunter miss gave Loyola the championship, Vic Rouse.

Coach George Ireland did have a couple of other valuable guys for a while, but Pablo Robertson (who became a Harlem Globetrotter after college) and Billy Smith flunked their midterms in early February and were ruled ineligible.

"We played five guys a lot, and we had our tongues hanging out a lot," Egan, 70, a Chicago attorney, told me. He didn't mean the way Michael Jordan's tongue would later hang out. This was sheer exhaustion, not a facial tic.

The coach ran the Ramblers ragged, pressing opponents from one end of the gym to the other, no matter how many tongues hung.

Loyola scored 100 points or more in its first six games. Topped the 100 mark 11 times in all. Lit up Western Michigan for 123.

One of the season's first foes was North Dakota, coached by Bill Fitch, who would later take the Boston Celtics to the 1981 NBA championship. An under-used member of Loyola's team who is still with us, Rich Rochelle, did an interview not long ago in which he remembered the way Ron Miller guarded the visiting team's top player so relentlessly, Miller even followed the kid during a timeout to the North Dakota bench.

Substitutions with a big lead? Sympathy for the losing side? Nah.

"Ireland had no mercy," Rochelle recalled.

The coach had a bleeding ulcer and a curt manner at times, which didn't endear him to his own guys. But he's the one who got them there. His contacts in New York City landed him Harkness, Miller and Robertson. He turned to Nashville to recruit high school teammates Hunter and Rouse. He added the feisty Irish local boy Egan to the stew. He started four black players when such a thing wasn't being done.

Mississippi State's players didn't cotton to racial bias any more than the Chicago school's did. They and their coach defied Dixie politicians by catching a plane to Michigan for a regional game in East Lansing. Hands were shaken, black and white, and a splendidly played game ended 61-51 in Loyola's favor.

Eight days and two victories later, Loyola found itself in Louisville, Kentucky, making history.

Championships were not in Loyola's DNA. It did get to that National Invitation Tournament title game at Madison Square Garden in 1949. But the wins over City College of New York and Kentucky lost their luster when point-shaving accusations were confirmed against both losing teams.

Bleacher Report: Power Ranking Cinderellas with Bracket-Busting Potential

Newhart, class of '52, didn't go there for basketball.

"No, but I think at that time they enforced a 5-foot-9 or over limit," he fibs.

When a chance came for his college to become as famous in sports as he had just become in show biz, Newhart said he didn't pay attention because "I was still worrying they'd find me out and make me go back to being an accountant."

He was for real and Loyola was as well.

Oh, the Cincinnati kids did go up by 45-30, but the Ramblers wouldn't fold. Harkness, a legit All-America player, and Hunter, one of the most unfairly underrated college players of all time, led the way. In overtime, tied at 58, Harkness expected to shoot, but said, "I just didn't feel it." He passed to Hunter, who let it fly but missed. Rouse rebounded it and laid it in at the horn.

Fifty years later, not everybody's still around.

The buzzer-beating hero, Rouse, died in 1999. The cagey coach, Ireland, went two years later. The rah-rah radio guy, Rush -- "He eyes it, he tries it, he buys it!" -- was silenced eternally in 2009.

Several players do remain, basking in the glory of their school's one shining moment.

As do other alumni.

"It's a great, great school," said Newhart sincerely, and not just because the Newhart Family Theater on campus now bears his name. "You know, my sister taught there, and she became a nun. And the new pope is a Jesuit, and I'm a Jesuit-educated guy, so I'll be praying that he knows what he's doing. Just like I'll also pray that Loyola doesn't try to deny that I ever went to school there."

No chance of that, Bob.

Just as no one can deny that Loyola of Chicago was once the star of the show.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1918 GMT (0318 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1644 GMT (0044 HKT)
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT