In the early years of NCAA basketball, Our Game had its unquestioned capital in New York City. The finest players and smartest coaches came up through the five boroughs, and an NIT victory at Madison Square Garden was the pinnacle of the college sport.
Capitals attract power, of course, and that means money and shady deals and moral compromise. The particular scandal that sunk New York as the capital of college hoops taught us plenty of lessons about the intersection of greed, power, athletes and gamblers. It also served to help decentralize the sport: with the Big Apple no longer the preeminent destination for recruits, America’s basketball talent headed across America, and no one metropolis has really claimed capital-hood again.
There are hot spots, of course. A decade of championships went through John Wooden’s Los Angeles (thanks in large part to New York recruit Lew Alcindor); the current epicenter of power-conference ball lies in Appalachia, halfway between Tobacco Road and northern Kentucky. And the mid-major diaspora has its own waypoints: Dayton is an admirable capital; Spokane and Cincinnati have joined the fold; our teams came from Hinkle and the Roundhouse and all over Virginia to crash the Final Four.
For all of the places that have had moments in the sun, though, one is strangely almost absent: Chicago.
By all rights, the Windy City should have a co-starring role in college hoops history. After all, the city fields enough college teams for a Big 5-style rivalry. It features the kind of winter chill that drives people into sweaty bandbox arenas for warmth. The metro area stretches all the way into basketball-mad Indiana; the NBA grew up right there along the Great Lakes, and this site’s very own mailing address is in the city.* And yet, only one Chicagoland mid-major has ever really been thrust into the national spotlight.
Then again, as you’d expect of a place built on the motto “Make no little plans,” it was a hell of a spotlight. The 1962-’63 Loyola Ramblers would break the state of Ohio’s three-year stranglehold on the national championship. They’d also participate in a watershed moment for civil rights, and serve as a harbinger of the tumultuous decade to follow.
By all accounts, coach George Ireland — who spent 26 years on the Rambler bench — was a man of contradictions. He was an irascible presence who’d gotten his start coaching at a military academy; he was also an incredibly devoted family man and forward-thinking coach. Ireland’s coaching philosophy distilled the game in a way almost no one had before: the object was to put the ball in the basket and, dammit, his players were going to do that, as quickly and as often as humanly possible.