In 1956, Ireland had "80 percent of my stomach taken out" because of a bleeding ulcer; on the bench, however, he seldom exhibited any signs of tension. He had no use for the antics of his demonstrative counterparts, like Jucker's. "They should be taken off the bench and made to stand in a corner," he once said. "When I was teaching school, if I'd thrown a tantrum, I'd have been fired. Coaches are obviously teachers who happen to conduct their tests in public."
Over the years, though, Ireland had more than a few squabbles with the good Jesuit fathers who run Loyola. "I guess I irritated a lot of them," he says, "but money was scarce. I didn't even have an office. My recruiting budget was practically nothing, and we were playing then in a gym that was already 40 years old." He clearly recognized basketball's future, though, and vigorously recruited blacks from the South and the biggest urban centers. Ireland enjoys telling of the aged priest who, after saying his prayers at the campus altar, supposedly looked up to find that he had been kneeling before a black Madonna. "My god," he shouted, "look what Ireland has done now."
As a coach, Ireland was, by his own happy admission, "a butt-kicker." He was a fanatic about conditioning and an innovator who had his players practice rebounding with weights on their ankles and shooting at rims two inches smaller in circumference than regulation to increase accuracy. His Ramblers played a pressing defense and an offense he called "organized confusion." Says Hunter, "He didn't approach the game with what you might call intellectual profundity. His style was, If you miss, go back and get it and put it up again."
According to Ireland, "The object of the game is to put the ball in the basket," and that's exactly what his 1962-63 Ramblers did—better, in fact, than any team in the country. Loyola, which entered the NCAA tournament with a 24-2 record, had averaged 93.9 points per game, highest in the nation. Everyone in Ireland's scheme could, and would, shoot. Harkness led with a regular-season average of 21.4 points per game, but Hunter had a 17-point average, Egan a 14.2, Rouse a 13.5 and Miller a 13.1.
Ireland didn't believe in substituting. "We had no sixth man," says Lyne. "And oh, my goodness, were we in shape," says Harkness. To reach the final game, the Ramblers—the first Loyola team to play in the national tournament—knocked off four conference champions or cochampions.
While Ireland may have been strict with his players, even distant from them, he has always, in his own way, held them in great affection. "That '63 team was an extraordinary group of young men," he says. "All intelligent, all willing, all good at what they did. They were not great players, but they were a great team."
A capacity crowd of 19,153 filled Freedom Hall in Louisville on March 23, 1963, to see the matchup between the explosive Loyola offense and the exasperating Cincinnati defense. In the beginning, it looked like no contest. Ireland's speedy marksmen missed 13 of their first 14 shots, and the Bearcats moved to a commanding 19-9 lead. Bonham was doing most of the scoring behind Shingleton's artful picks.
It was 29-21 at the half, and the Cincinnati fans who had made the short trek to Louisville were already celebrating. Jucker's teams were not known for blowing big leads. Loyola was only sparsely represented in the big hall—an example, Ireland groused, of Jesuit-inspired apathy toward sports—and what few fans there were had little to cheer about. The Bearcats' lead was not so much the product of an impenetrable defense as of a Rambler offense decidedly out of whack. Loyola had made only eight of 34 first-half field goal attempts. Harkness, hounded by Thacker and Yates, hadn't scored a point.
At halftime, however, Ireland did not choose to berate his team; his tone—much to the surprise of his players—was almost sympathetic. The ball was just not dropping, he told them. Don't panic. The baskets would come.
But at the outset of the second half, it was Cincinnati that in one stretch hit five of six shots, including three straight Bonham jumpers. And the Ramblers couldn't buy a basket. Harkness, in fact, was experiencing a personal crisis. "I think that game was like the beginning of the end for me as a player," he says. "Until then, I had all the confidence in the world. I was not a great outside shooter. I didn't have to be because I was so quick. But in that game I learned I could be stopped."