USF vs. Loyola: A true clash of the (former) titans
Loyola edged out USF last Saturday, but it didn't make a blip on most radars
Both programs have a proud history, but neither one has been relevant in years
Loyola and USF aren't the only Catholic schools who are struggling
Kentucky-Indiana was the history headliner on last Saturday's national college basketball card -- between them they claim 12 NCAA tournament titles. With a 17-point win in Bloomington, the precocious Wildcats (10-0) informed a national television audience they're capable of competing for their eighth.
Kansas might be the team most likely to deny them; the top-ranked Jayhawks got to 9-0 with Saturday's no-sweat win over La Salle in another meeting of former national champions. ESPN carried it, and a typical roaring full house watched at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
Meanwhile, you had to be up on your hoops history to recognize a more private meeting between San Francisco and Loyola Chicago as a matchup of former NCAA tournament kings. The game drew a modest crowd of 2,363 to Loyola's 5,200-seat Gentile Center. The Horizon League Network feed went unclaimed even in Chicago, which is home to two Horizon League members.
And March Madness will likely roll along without both teams, as it has since 1985 in Loyola's case and in every year but one for USF since 1982. It wasn't always so.
Loyola's Ramblers were a national power through the 1960s, winning the '63 national championship with a dramatic overtime toppling of Cincinnati that denied the Bearcats a third straight title. Coach George Ireland's lineup featured four black starters, three years before all-black Texas Western's socially significant handling of all-white Kentucky in the 1966 title game.
"That was a very courageous thing for Ireland to do, given the climate of the times in Chicago," said retired sportswriter Bill Jauss, who covered college sports in the Midwest for more than 40 years.
The Ramblers never made another Final Four trip, but remained a rankings regular in the '60s and were the headline attraction in college doubleheaders that packed the old Chicago Stadium and drew the top teams from all over.
San Francisco left a larger footprint. The Dons of Bill Russell and K.C. Jones won back-to-back NCAA tournaments in 1955-56, compiling a then-record 60-game winning streak. Like everyone else on the West Coast, they couldn't escape the shadow of UCLA through the Wooden era, but they shot to the top of the rankings in the late '70s with a team that was as quirky as it was talented and thus not built for the rigors of March.
"The best way to get Marlon to pass you the ball," coach Bob Gaillard once suggested of bombs-away guard Marlon Redmond, "is to paint a hoop on your shirt."
Turns out Gaillard and his staff had abided a few recruiting shortcuts in assembling their cast, and a tap on the wrist from the NCAA in the form of minor probation was too much for the Jesuits who ran USF. "Never again," Rev. John LoSchiavo, S.J., the university president, vowed upon returning from a meeting with NCAA disciplinarians. They should have taken him at his word.
In Ireland, centuries of sectarian violence are known as the troubles. At USF, the term applies to Quintin Dailey's three-year stay on campus: All-America performer on the basketball court, train wreck in his personal life. And he was contagious.
After being charged with sexual assault for allegedly forcing himself on a female dorm counselor over Christmas break during his junior season, Dailey pleaded guilty to simple assault. His sentence included probation, community service and a tacit promise he'd leave for the NBA and USF would be through with him. Only it wasn't.
Dailey came hounds-tooth clean with the officer preparing his probation report, detailing a no-show summer job and access to a pre-paid rental car. Those were major violations, and USF had a prior. Rev. LoSchiavo's proactive response was predictable given his dire previous warning: He took USF out of the basketball business, a self-imposed death penalty that lasted three years. The Dons have never been the same.
Rex Walters was a junior high student in San Jose, 40 miles to the south, during the troubles.
"I went up to a clinic at USF, met some of the players, and they invited us to stay for a game," he recalled. "The place was rockin'. I thought, This is big-time."
A sweet-shooting left-handed guard, Walters was a big-time prospect by the time USF brought basketball back, one the Dons had no hope of landing in their scaled-down state. With a Final Four appearance at Kansas and a seven-year NBA career on his playing resume, he's now the USF coach, intent on restoring some of the luster.
"There's a lot of history involved with this program," Walters said. "We hope to reconnect with it and build some of our own."
Saturday's contribution was of dubious value. Trailing Loyola 64-63 with 14.2 seconds lefts, the Dons had six men on the floor as they pressured the Ramblers inbounds play out of a timeout. Technical foul. Two free throws gave Loyola a 66-63 victory, dropping the Dons to 3-7. USF is light years behind Gonzaga, which has taken to dominating the West Coast Conference in the manner to which USF was long accustomed.
"That's not a valid comparison," Walters said. "Gonzaga is a major program, top to bottom, playing in a mid-major conference. They've done a great job up there. They deserve to be where they are. We've got a lot of work to do before we can even think of seeing ourselves at that level. It's a process, and we've got to be patient."
Butler is the closest thing to a Gonzaga-level dominator in the Horizon League -- Loyola's current one-bid base of operations -- and the Ramblers beat the Bulldogs last season. Still, as Loyola honored its 1985 Sweet 16 team at halftime of the USF game, under a large gold banner saluting the 1963 national champions, it was hard to ignore the slippage.
"There were a lot of changes to the landscape in the '80s and we didn't keep up, and we're paying for it now," athletic director John Planek conceded. He's hopeful that an ambitious renovation of the Gentile Center -- more seats, better training facilities -- will aid recruiting and position Loyola for a possible upgrade in the inevitable next round of changes. The Big East is considering a split into football and non-football divisions. The Atlantic 10 is an unwieldy 13 teams and a geographic mishmash. Talk of forming a new conference of Midwest-based Catholic schools of similar size, background and mission has been revived, and Loyola would like to join those discussions.
Once the pride of the Jesuit fleet, Loyola and USF aren't the only Catholic schools whose basketball influence has waned. No Catholic school has won the NCAA tournament since Villanova's epic upset of Georgetown in the 1985 title game. Only three have made Final Four appearances since 1989, prompting SI.com's Frank Deford to wonder if the Catholic schools hadn't given up tournament basketball for Lent.
"There's no question its harder for the Catholic schools to compete," said ESPN's Digger Phelps, who coached at Notre Dame with a take-on-all-comers swagger for 20 years. "Everybody's in a conference, everybody's on TV, and there's more competition for players."
So they play to their strengths.
"We have a Jesuit education to offer," Loyola coach Jim Whitesell said after getting to 6-2 with Saturday's win. "As you go out in the world, there's a lot of value in that."
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