The comforts of being a national champion are extravagant. Since his Loyola University basketball team won at Louisville last year, George Ireland (above) has been named Coach of the Year four times and Man of the Year twice, received a raise, a George Ireland Day in Skokie, Ill., a full-time assistant coach he won't have to pay out of his own pocket, a $1,280 trophy case he is encouraged to clutter up, a whirlpool bath to facilitate training, keys to New Orleans and Camden, N.J., and a blue-eyed, blonde secretary named Dawn to wake up the front office. Though Ireland is head of the Loyola athletic department, he never had a full-time secretary before, and Miss Ditzler—Dawn—sticks out like a sorely needed thumb.
The discomforts of being the defending national champion have to do with that part about defending it. Ireland ran into Elston Howard of the Yankees at a banquet the other night and explained how fans in other places now boo his team like mad and sometimes throw eggs. Home folks put the knock on him for not beating Fizby Tech by 50 points or more. Opponents, practically drooling, engage Loyola in play like it was Guadalcanal instead of basketball. "Little Loyola does not sneak up on people anymore," sighed Ireland. "There is not much breathing room at the top."
"Now you know what it's like to be a Yankee," said Howard.
"Yes," answered Ireland. "And I love it, don't you?"
In their exalted, assailable residence at the center of the target, the Ramblers have won 19 of 24 games this year, including a rockaby 117-63 victory over Marshall last weekend. For their kind of perilous living, that is not bad—19 victories. Yet Ireland is surprised. "I am surprised," he said, "that we lost five games. I was surprised we lost two to Wichita, surprised we lost to St. John's and Memphis State, and I was certainly surprised we lost to Georgetown. But don't tell me 19 and 5, or 20 and 5 if we beat Ohio Tuesday, is a disappointing season, because I'll take that kind of disappointment any season."
Ireland was asked if he therefore thought it possible Loyola could make it to Kansas City later this month and win a second straight NCAA championship. "Definitely," he said definitely, and eagerly began to outline how he might play Michigan ("We'd give Russell 25, and Buntin 25, too") or Ohio State ("That Bradds worries me, but he's the only one") in the regionals at Minneapolis. Later, Ed Gleason of TWA, his friendly neighborhood ticket agent, said reservations were already in for Loyola's passage to Kansas City. With that kind of confidence, Loyola people are naturally infected with the idea that the huge gold-and-maroon signs Ireland put up outside the gym—"1963 National Champions"—really are out of balance, because there obviously is space on the right for "1964." "George Ireland and his budget," chuckled one university man. "He's got it all figured out—he won't have to buy new signs this year. Just do a little touching up."
Ireland's signs brighten an otherwise dreary Loyola campus that is just a pinch larger than the lobby of the Palmer House and nestles on the frosty shore of Lake Michigan. The lake appears, along with a grassy slope and a lounging boy and girl, in pictures that basketball prospects see depicting the sweet life there. "The grassy slope," explains Assistant Coach Jerry Lyne, "is about as big as a bath mat." Ireland and his assistant do not always encourage visits. What they do is encourage exemplary fellows like All-America Jerry Harkness of last year's team to tell fond stories about swimming in the lake and playing in the chummy, 41-year-old, 3,000-seat gymnasium. Another recent selling point is Loyola's record-setting miler, Tom O'Hara, running 18 miles a day along the lakefront.
There is, nevertheless, a something about Loyola, a sort of Spartan atmosphere that grows on, or to, a boy like creeping hemlock. Guard Johnny Egan passed up 19 other offers to go there. Coach Ireland, a bright, popular man with great resourceful drive, was recently trumpeted for (but not officially offered) the job at Notre Dame. He was an All-America there in 1934 and 1935. But he said he "would not coach at Notre Dame if they gave me the buildings. I have no intention of leaving." He said it was because he makes too good a living as Loyola's athletic director and head coach, that he would not want to leave what has taken 12 years to build, and that sooner or later you have to agree there is no place like homely old Loyola.
George Ireland is called The Man at Loyola. He is known for his handsome, curly-haired Irish head and his curl-an-ear Irish temper, his efficiency at handling a limited ($42,000) budget and his no-fooling regard for property and protocol. The gym is his territory and woe unto the man caught smoking in the vestibule. He is a dynamo of a worker ("I am booked for 13 conventions this summer") and if he seems to fizz on the outside, inside he roils. The Ireland torso is striped like a hotcross bun. One scar, from belly to backbone, relieved him of kidney stones after the NCAA championship last year. The other, from his necktie to the floor, was for an ulcer "after a losing season" and left him with a stomach that is 80% gone. Fearless, he wolfs down wife Gert's powerful homemade sausage and keeps it down with half a loaf of Gonnella (It's Swella) Italian bread. Gonnella is operated by a former team manager and sponsors the broadcasts of his games.
Ireland does not believe in being buddy-buddy with his players. He rules with an iron larynx, and if he cannot find something to complain about he does not let it stop him. During half-time talks—one of his passions—he has been known to kick great bags of basketballs into the air and to splatter oranges. "As a rule of thumb," he says, "I start by giving them hell."