SI Vault
John Underwood
April 01, 1963
Conservative Cincinnati had its third straight national championship all but won. Then brash Loyola broke through the Bearcat stall for an almost unbelievable last-second victory
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April 01, 1963

The Ramblers Wreck Cincy

Conservative Cincinnati had its third straight national championship all but won. Then brash Loyola broke through the Bearcat stall for an almost unbelievable last-second victory

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In the dark of the early morning on the day his team was to win the national championship and save Cincinnati from the extravagance of being champion three years in a row, Loyola Coach George Ireland got out of bed at Louisville's Sheraton Hotel and headed for the shower. "I can't sleep," he told his wife Gertrude. "Every time I close my eyes I see basketball players running up and down the floor." "I do, too," said Gertrude, "so while you're up, bring me a glass of ice water, will you please? My mouth is dry." Down the hall in another room, their daughter Kathy, who leads cheers for the Loyola team and who is herself an aspiring insomniac, put a pillow over her pretty ears in a last-ditch effort to shut out the Cincinnati fans singing Jesus Loves Me at an irreverent pitch in the room next door. She tried to say her prayers and found it was no use because "I kept seeing myself kicking up another Loyola cheer: 'one, two, one-two-three....' "

Not too long after that, Coach Ireland dressed and went downstairs for a team meeting, only to discover he was an hour early. He came back up again. "I've got the best basketball team in the country," he announced to his wife. "I know you do, George," she said. "Tonight we'll prove it," he said. "But, oh, boy, what a critical audience to have to play to—750 coaches—and their wives." Gertrude Ireland laughed.

Meanwhile, around the corner at the Kentucky Hotel in an executive suite 12 stories higher than Ireland's room at the Sheraton, Coach Ed Jucker of Cincinnati got up from what he said had been a "good night's sleep" and busied himself with final preparations for his team's defense of the championship. "No one has ever won three in a row." he said, "and we want to very badly. I feel we can." If he had dreamed, it would surely not have been of these things: of his impregnable, imperturbable, grade-A homogenized Bearcats frittering away a 15-point lead—quickly, like sugar pouring through a hole in a sack: of the Bearcats making more fielding mistakes than Marv Throneberry, getting into bad foul trouble, failing to call time out when 19,153 second-guessers (including the 750 coaches in town for their annual meeting) at Freedom Hall knew it was the only thing to do, lurching into overtime with the play taken away from them, being upstaged in the final scene by somebody else's stall tactics, and, in the very last second of an overtime period, losing to Loyola of Chicago 60-58. That's not the stuff of dreams, it's the stuff of nightmares. It is also exactly what happened to Ed Jucker's Cincinnati team last weekend in Louisville.

Up to the moments of that crushing climax, Louisville had belonged to Jucker's favored Bearcats. A lapel was not stylish if it wasn't pinned with a "Cincy" button, and if you were undecided, the hawkers along Fourth Street would sell you an "I Like Sex" badge, same price. Jucker's boys peered out from glossy pictures in jewelry store windows. The handsome Jucker family (wife and four kids) smiled two columns wide from the pages of The Courier-Journal and the coach was revealed to be a "chicken-and-ham" eater.

The town was alive to the prospect of seeing Jucker's expert stylists match up with Loyola or Duke, the speed entries, in the championship game (Oregon State simply did not figure to have a chance in its Friday night semifinal with the Bearcats). You couldn't buy a ticket either night even if you were Happy Chandler. One Cincinnati group of 13 had reserved hotel rooms a year ago—but didn't have seat one in Freedom Hall for Friday. Another Cincinnati rooter, a lady, walked around town with a sign hung around her neck: "Wanted, desperately, two tickets for tonight."

But if Louisville was familiar with the champion Bearcats, what of Coach Ireland? If the truth were known, he, too, was very familiar with Cincy. This is the kind of confidence George Ireland has: he began sending his scouts to see Cincinnati play as early as last December, knowing full well the only chance he had of ever meeting the Bearcats would be in the championship game in Louisville. And to get that far, his Ramblers had to swim the Tiber, climb Kilimanjaro and go over Niagara Falls in a grocery bag. Naturally, they did these things with ease. In earlier rounds of the NCAA tournament they knocked off the Southeastern Conference champion (Mississippi State), the Big Ten co-champion (Illinois) and, in their semifinal in Louisville on Friday, Atlantic Coast Conference champion Duke, 94-75. When Ireland and Assistant Nick Kladis sat down to watch Cincinnati take Oregon State apart 80-46 in the second game, it was the 10th time one or the other had seen the Bearcats this season. By contrast, Jucker said he had scouted Loyola only twice.

Loyola players call Ireland "The Man" and they hold him in awe. He is athletic director as well as basketball coach at the sprawling Chicago school, and on especially busy days—e.g., when his part-time secretary isn't there—he is known to be quite grim. Other times, most of the time, he is animated and waggish.

On basketball theory, however, Ireland is single-minded. He plays to run and shoot. "The object of the game is to put the ball in the basket," he says, and Loyola does it with greater regularity than any team in the country. He defies you to say his attack lacks order. "Undisciplined? You called us undisciplined?" He challenged a writer who had been so unschooled as to use such a sappy word. "Listen," he said. "When I tell these boys to sweat, they sweat."

"This is a good bunch of kids," he continued. "Relaxed but sensitive. Leslie Hunter gets tears in his eyes when you correct him. Of course, everybody says we don't play much of a schedule, and we've got a fat little guy (5 feet 9) at guard in Johnny Egan, and Jerry Harkness shoots two-handed foul shots. Nobody seemed to want him until he came with us and made All-America."

On the day of the championship game, Ireland sat in conference with his assistants at the Sheraton. "Can we board [outrebound] Cincinnati?" he asked, and answered himself, "I think we can. Can we press them? I think we can. We'll drive on them, drive for the basket. We'll make them play our game instead of standing around like they do. I think we can make them foul, and I don't think their big boy [George Wilson] is strong enough to handle ours [Hunter]. But Vic Rouse will have to be alert when they start picking off for that Ron Bonham."

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