In the record books, the March 15, 1963, game between Mississippi State and Loyola shows up as just another second-round NCAA Tournament game, a non-descript 10-point victory by the Ramblers.
In reality, though, the contest between Loyola, a groundbreaking team with four Black starters, and Mississippi State, a college program located in the nation’s epicenter of segregation, was so much more. It was “The Game of Change” and remains among the most transformative moments in college basketball history.
In the early 1960s, you see, the college game was governed by an unwritten rule, a gentlemen’s agreement anything but gentlemanly. Coaches would not play more than three Black players at a time.
After Loyola lost in the 1962 NIT semifinals to Dayton, Loyola head coach George Ireland rejected the unwritten rule, one he felt handcuffed him from playing his best players.
“He just got tired of losing [and] tired of hearing the alumni complain,” said John Egan, a white player on Ireland’s integrated team.
Ireland broke with tradition during the 1962-63 season, starting Egan alongside four of his Black teammates – Jerry Harkness, Vic Rouse, Les Hunter, and Ron Miller. Though the Ramblers won, finishing the regular season with a nation’s best 24-2 mark, Ireland’s decision was not universally celebrated. The Loyola squad endured vile words and death threats. Harkness, the Ramblers’ star guard and the school’s all-time leading scorer, recalls receiving a letter from the Ku Klux Klan saying that the Ramblers didn’t deserve to play against whites.
In the NCAA Tournament’s opening round, Loyola trounced Tennessee Tech 111-42, still the largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game. That victory set up a second-round matchup with Mississippi State, the “ruler” of the Southeastern Conference.
While the Bulldogs had won four of the last five SEC titles, they had not played in previous NCAA Tournaments due to another unwritten rule, this one prohibiting the state’s public school athletic programs from playing against integrated teams.
In 1962, when Mississippi State finished the season 24-1, Joe Dan Gold and teammate Jack Berkshire traveled to Iowa City to watch NCAA Tournament games featuring the likes of West Virginia’s Jerry West and Ohio State’s John Havlicek.
“That’s when I found out what a big deal we had been missing,” Gold said. “Jack and I talked about how we should be playing.”
The bumpy road to ‘The Game of Change’
Putting his job on the line, Mississippi State president D.W. Colvard made the decision that Coach Babe McCarthy’s 21-5 squad would play in the 1963 NCAA Tournament, even if it meant competing against an integrated opponent. And on March 10, 1963, the Mississippi State College Board voted 8-3 in favor of Colvard’s call.
With Mississippi State enjoying a first-round bye, McCarthy prepared for a potential second-round matchup with Loyola by traveling to Evanston, Illinois, on March 11 to scout the Ramblers. After seeing the Ramblers trounce Tennessee Tech, McCarthy called Loyola “the greatest fast break team I have ever seen.”
Two days before Loyola was slated to play Mississippi State in East Lansing, Michigan, however, a Mississippi judge signed a temporary order forbidding the use of state money for “mixed athletic activities outside the state and from breaching what it termed the public policy against integrated athletics,” according to a Chicago Tribune report. The decision, which Ireland called “a disgrace to basketball,” put the NCAA Tournament game against the Ramblers in peril.
“It’s too bad they may be deprived of proving they were champions of the South,” Ireland said of Mississippi State.
Empowered by Colvard, McCarthy was determined to see his Bulldogs play in the Tournament and devised a plan to escape possible detention at the Starkville airport. While McCarthy flew to Nashville to avoid being served the restraining order, assistant coach Jerry Simmons kept the team’s regulars in seclusion at a dormitory before sneaking the entire squad out of town and similarly evading the court order.
A near capacity crowd of 12,143, a group almost entirely devoid of Mississippi State fans, filed into Michigan State’s Jenison Field House on March 15. Before tip-off, Harkness, Loyola’s All-American point guard, went to mid-court and shook hands with Mississippi State team captain Joe Dan Gold.
“The flashbulbs just went off unbelievably, and at that time, boy, I knew that this was more than just a game. This was history being made,” Harkness later recalled.
The Bulldogs, so-called “masters of the slow-down game,” scored the contest’s first seven points and held the Ramblers scoreless for the opening 5:49. Loyola, though, stormed back to take a 26-19 lead into the break and Mississippi State could never get within three points. After Mississippi State star Leland Mitchell fouled out with 6:47 to go, Loyola pulled away for a comfortable 61-51 victory behind a 20-point outing from Harkness.
“We’d have to play a near-perfect game to beat Loyola,” McCarthy said after the game, calling the Ramblers “the best club” Mississippi State had played all season.
After defeating Mississippi State, Loyola topped in-state rival Illinois 79-64 to reach the Final Four. At Louisville’s Freedom Hall, the Ramblers throttled Duke 94-75 to reach the title game against two-time defending champion Cincinnati. After falling behind 15 early on, Loyola stormed back to force overtime against the Bearcats, where a last-second putback by Rouse gave the Ramblers a 60-58 victory. The win remains the state of Illinois’ only national basketball title.
Becoming ‘The Game of Change’
The 1963 game between Loyola and Mississippi State effectively put an end to segregated college basketball, helping to erase the Jim Crow era policies of the past and open doors for more Black students to receive college athletic scholarships. Three seasons after Loyola’s victory, in fact, Texas Western and its five Black starters defeated an all-white Kentucky squad 72-65 in the national title game, a result memorialized in the 2006 film “Glory Road.”
Much later in life, Gold, who would later coach at Mississippi State, and Harkness, who played six seasons of professional ball before becoming a businessman and civil rights advocate, formed an earnest friendship. When Gold first visited Harkness’ house in 2008, Harkness remembers greeting Gold at his door.
“I remember we shook hands and nodded at one another again,” Harkness said. “I wish I could describe the warmth, the shared feeling.”
When Gold died of cancer in April 2011 at age 68, Harkness attended the funeral in Kentucky. There, beside the casket, Harkness spotted a 48-year-old photo that elicited tears. It was the now-famous shot of Gold, in his maroon #33 Mississippi State uniform, shaking hands with Harkness at center court.
The Game of Change remained as meaningful as ever.