[*we got game]
By Dan McGrath, Jour ’72 | Former sports editor for the Chicago Tribune
More than 40 Catholic college teams play basketball at the Division I level, so it’s implausible for any one of them to claim God is on its side, particularly when the eight Catholic members of the Big East or Atlantic 10 square off against one another.
But they sure keep score. It’s a point of pride among the Jesuits that six of the eight Catholic NCAA champions are Jesuit schools, including, of course, Marquette, which put an emotional exclamation point on the distinguished coaching career of the inimitable Al McGuire by winning the tournament in 1977.
Clearly, the game has come a long way since Dr. James Naismith invented it in a Springfield, Mass., YMCA in 1891. Millions of youngsters were subsequently introduced to it in Catholic Youth Organization programs and youth-center gyms throughout the country, including George Thompson, Dean Meminger, Bo Ellis, Butch Lee and other city kids who helped define Marquette basketball.
Women, too, have embraced the game at the collegiate level, beginning in the early 1970s when coach Cathy Rush established a dynasty at little Immaculata College in suburban Philadelphia. Since Title IX legislation mandated equal opportunity for women in the field of athletics, basketball has been the most popular women’s sport played at NCAA institutions.
The college game is not a theocracy — no Catholic school has been national champion since Villanova University’s epic upset of Georgetown University in 1985. Marquette (2003) is one of only three Catholic teams to make a Final Four appearance in the 21st century, prompting Sports Illustrated’s Frank Defordto wonder if Catholic schools haven’t given up tournament basketball for Lent.
History says otherwise. In addition to those eight national championships — by San Francisco University (2), Holy Cross College, La Salle University, Loyola University Chicago, Georgetown and Villanova, plus Marquette — Catholic school teams have made 34 Final Four appearances. The NIT, once the more prestigious of the postseason competitions, has crowned 21 Catholic champions.
“Basketball has always been part of the Catholic school experience,” says ESPN analyst Digger Phelps, who spent 19 high-profile years as Notre Dame University’s coach. “CYO ball, the parish, high school, college — Catholic kids grow up with it. Those rivalries we had with DePaul and Marquette and Dayton ... there was nothing like it.”
The religious orders chose to establish their schools where there were large Catholic populations to serve, “and that meant the cities, where the immigrants settled,” says Neil Isaacs, a basketball writer and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland.
Basketball was one way to serve Catholic school children, beginning at the youth-league level. A CYO gym was a cheap and accessible outlet for healthy recreation, an oasis of fun and games in neighborhoods teeming with people.
Catholic schools fielded competitive teams and played ambitious schedules as far back as the 1930s, but it was the mid-1940s pairing of Ray Meyer and George Mikan at DePaul University that transformed college basketball.
Meyer, a Chicago-bred son of German immigrants, took over as DePaul’s coach in 1942 after playing at Notre Dame. Mikan was a gangly teenager from Joliet, Ill., whose 6-foot-9 frame was an intriguing basketball attribute. Endless footwork and fundamentals drills helped Mikan become a dominant player and his team a national attraction.
“George Mikan was basketball’s first superstar,” Isaacs says. In his wake came “Easy” Ed Mcauley, hook-shot-shooting star of the 1948 NIT champion St. Louis University Billikens.
In New England, meanwhile, Holy Cross became the first Catholic school team to win the NCAA tournament. In Philadelphia, fierce “Big Five” rivalries developed among the feisty teams and their sponsoring religious orders at La Salle (Christian Brothers), Villanova (Augustinians) and St. Joseph’s (Jesuits). La Salle’s Explorers claimed bragging rights by winning the 1954 NCAA tournament behind Tom Gola. And in metro New York, Fordham University, St. John’s University, Manhattan College and Seton Hall University headlined Madison Square Garden doubleheaders that showcased the emerging talents of African-American players. “Catholic colleges played a role in helping the country integrate,” Isaacs says. “They offered opportunities to black players who didn’t have a lot of options and were totally excluded from some places.”
The San Francisco Dons of Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and Hal Perry won back-to-back NCAA tournament titles in 1955-56, compiling a then-record 60-game winning streak. Elgin Baylor’s above-the-rim acrobatics brought Seattle University to the 1958 Final Four and established a flight pattern for future high flyers.
As the tumultuous 1960s dawned, a transfer of power was under way in Chicago. Loyola won the 1963 national championship with four African-Americans in coach George Ireland’s lineup, making a statement three years before Don Haskins was hailed as a social pioneer when his all-black Texas Western team beat all-white Kentucky in the 1966 title game.
“It was a courageous thing for George Ireland to use four black starters, given the climate of the times in Chicago,” says retired sportswriter Bill Jauss.
Loyola had a great run in the 1960s, packing old Chicago Stadium for doubleheaders that drew teams from all over the country. But 90 miles to the north, a challenge to the Ramblers’ Midwest supremacy was gathering steam.
Al McGuire blew into Milwaukee in 1964, and Marquette basketball would never be the same. The street-wise New Yorker was equal parts hustler, philosopher and orator, and with Hank Raymond drawing the X’s and O’s, he had Marquette in the NIT title game within three years. Ten straight postseason appearances followed before the magical run came to a fairy-tale end on a rainy night in Georgia.
The lasting image of McGuire is a sweet one: weeping on the bench as the final seconds of Marquette’s title-game victory over North Carolina ticked away. He was the same guy who picked a fight with Kentucky autocrat Adolph Rupp, thumbed his nose at the NCAA, and went off and won the NIT when he disagreed with a regional assignment, and allowed his players unprecedented freedom of expression.
“He was one of those bigger-than-life coaches who had a tremendous impact on the game,” says ESPN’s Dick Vitale, who coached at the University of Detroit as McGuire’s Marquette career was winding down. “Al, Digger, Ray Meyer at DePaul, John Thompson at Georgetown — those were the guys I wanted to emulate,” Vitale says.
Under Phelps, a showman in the McGuire mold, Notre Dame took on all comers, ending UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak in 1974 and reaching the Final Four in 1978. A year later it was like an Oldies Road Show when DePaul crashed the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson Final Four party. Ray Meyer was in his 37th year with the Blue Demons: “Coach” to all who knew him, including his family, and “America’s Grandfather” to the rest of the country.
“Al was (broadcasting) the game when we beat UCLA in the regional final, and he was more excited than Coach,” recalls Joey Meyer, who played for his father, coached with him and eventually succeeded him. “They had a great rivalry — those games at Alumni Hall and the Milwaukee Arena were just electric. But they loved each other.”
The birth of the Big East and its subsequent marriage to fledgling ESPN prompted a renaissance of Catholic school basketball in the 1980s: Three Big East teams reached the 1985 Final Four, with Villanova stunning Georgetown in the first all-Catholic title game in 30 years. In all, seven Catholic school teams made Final Four appearances in the decade. There wasn’t another until Dwyane Wade brought Marquette to New Orleans in 2003.
“It’s harder now for the Catholic schools,” Phelps concedes. “Everybody’s in a conference, everybody’s on TV, and there’s a lot more competition for players.”
Joey Meyer, now coaching an NBA D-League team in Fort Wayne, Ind., isn’t sure those changes are for the better.
“We had a lot of national media around in our Final Four year, and Coach let them in to watch practice, and we couldn’t get started till Coach and Louie the janitor finished their halfcourt shooting contest,” he recalls. “I can’t imagine that happening today.
“It was simpler then, more innocent. But, man, it was fun.”
Jesuit basketball spotlight
In the history of basketball and Catholic schools, the 28 U.S. Jesuit colleges and universities hold an esteemed place. There will be 90 Jesuit basketball matchups around the country this year. The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities sees the popularity of basketball on its campuses as a way to bring attention to other shared traditions, including 500 years of excellence in education. Learn more at www.ajcunet.edu/jesuitbasketball.