TGS FINAL FOUR PREVIEW... REMEMBERING LOY-CHI '62-63
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
In our last installment, we left off with Mississippi State's president, Dean W. Colvard, announcing on March 2, 1963 that the SEC champion Bulldog basketball team would indeed break the "unwritten rule" and accept an invitation to participate for the first time against integrated teams in the '63 NCAA Basketball Tournament. As expected, Colvard's decision was met with significant in-state resistance, including that of Governor Ross Barnett. But the only remaining potential legal challenge seemed to rest in the hands of the state's College Board, which would convene an emergency meeting on Saturday, March 9 to address the issue. It was assumed at the time that approval from the College Board would be the only hurdle Colvard needed to clear for the Bulldogs to participate in the NCAA Tourney...
As could be expected, Colvard's (left) decision was politically charged, as the pro-segregation forces rapidly mobilized against the MSU president. And it quickly became the top news item in Mississippi, temporarily knocking national stories such as New York Senator Kenneth Keating challenging the Kennedy White House to make sure that no Soviet armaments were still making their way to Cuba, nearly five months after the missile crisis reached a head, off of the front page headlines. Colvard's decision, just five months removed from the rioting at Ole Miss following James Meredith's enrollment, also generated coverage across the country. Multiple indicators, however, showed that state public opinion was vastly in favor of MSU participating in the Big Dance; Jackson TV station WJTW conducted a poll among its viewers, and 85% responded positively to the Maroon breaking the "unwritten rule" and playing in the NCAA Tourney.
Some of those in support, however, might have been moved to do so simply in sporting terms. An editorial in the Tupelo Daily Journal expressed support for Babe McCarthy's hoopsters to participate in the Big Dance, "with best wishes and enthusiastic encouragement of the overwhelming majority of the citizens of Mississippi." But there was a caveat; before the editorial was complete, readers were reminded that the basketball decision need not go any further and bring about integration of the Mississippi schools. "If schools are integrated," the editorial concluded, "the action will be forced upon the state through court suits such as those which put James Meredith in Ole Miss and which now seek to desegregate the public schools of Jackson.
"Since the 1954 Supreme Court ruling (Brown vs. Board of Education), 10,000 Mississippi servicemen have returned to our state from fully integrated military duty yet have not caused integration of a single classroom."
Among other dissenters to Colvard's decision were many hardline segregationists who still had influence on the state's affairs. One of those was state senator Billy Mitts of Enterprise, a cheerleader at MSU during his college days, who called Colvard's actions "a low blow to the people of Mississippi." Mitts was one of a handful of politicos who were using the threat of de-funding MSU in the wake of the Colvard decision. "I advocate a substantial decrease in the financial appropriation for every university of this great state that encourages integration," said Mitts an UPI story dated March 4. He added that the College Board "should place native sons of Mississippi" in college presidencies, "and not risk a similar tragedy of this sort in the future." MSU President Colvard, it should be noted, hailed from North Carolina.
Given the state's history, the anti-Colvard forces could not be ignored, although much of the public was coming around to the idea that sooner or later, the state's segregation policies were going to change. Octogenarian Jack Cristil, who passed in 2014 and previously MSU's play-by-play for 58 years, including that '63 season conveyed as much when we reflected with him during our meeting in his hometown of Tupelo. "It (segregation) was just the way things were in those days," said Cristil. "We all just grew up in that environment and for the most part didn't even think about it. After a while, we knew change was coming, but it took some very nervy people to take the early steps. Dean Colvard was nervy, alright, and he helped to speed up the process."
Mrs. Martha Colvard, Dean Colvard's widow, relayed similar info to us not long ago when we spoke to her from her home in Charlotte. "My husband knew which way the winds of change were blowing," said Mrs. Colvard. "It was time for somebody to take action and do the right things, but he knew it wasn't going to be easy. It (allowing the MSU basketball team to play in the NCAA Tournament) was a very risky position for him to take."
Her husband had done his homework on the matter, however, and knew that there was no formal declaration of the "unwritten rule" barring competition against integrated teams. Further, Colvard correctly interpreted state education bylaws that indicated any such decisions rested with the school's president, which he believed must act upon the best interests of the students and faculty, alumni and friends of MSU. "Whatever shortcomings it revealed or failures in capacity of judgement," Colvard said of his decision to break the unwritten rule, "they may not rightly be ascribed to failure and desire to do the right thing."
The state's College Board, not scheduled to convene until March 21, called an emergency meeting on March 9 to address the MSU issue. Colvard, believing the board was unlikely to put up much of a fight in the aftermath of the negative publicity surrounding the James Meredith fiasco at Ole Miss the previous autumn, was proven correct. Its eleven members voted 8-3 to allow MSU to play in the NCAA Tournament, then on a 9-2 vote expressed their confidence in Colvard after M.M. Roberts of Hattiesburg, whose motion to have MSU banned from the NCAA Tourney was defeated, then saw his motion for the resignation of Colvard die for the lack of a second.
Meanwhile, Babe McCarthy's hoopsters, who had continued to practice all week in preparation for their groundbreaking NCAA Tourney appearance, were relieved. McCarthy, in Jackson for the state high school tournament that Saturday night at the Mississippi Coliseum, was overjoyed. "On behalf of the team, we are extremely grateful for the privilege of representing MSU in the national playoffs," said the coach.
The NCAA Tourney was set to get underway Monday night, March 11, with first-round competition in the Mideast Regional taking place at Northwestern's McGaw Hall. MSU was slated to enter the competition the following Friday for "Sweet 16" action in the regional finals at Michigan State's Jenison Fieldhouse in East Lansing. The controversy at home for Mississippi State, however, had hardly abated after the College Board decision, for in East Lansing the Bulldogs were likely to draw the nation's second-rated team, Loyola-Chicago, which would be heavily favored over Ohio Valley Conference champ Tennessee Tech in its first-round game at Evanston.
The controversy? Loyola's lineup featured four black starters, and, at a point earlier that season, the Ramblers had become one of the first schools to have an all-black lineup on the floor. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger made sure its readers knew what likely awaited the Bulldogs in their first NCAA assignment, reminding of a Loyola team with "four Negroes" in its starting five, then running a large photo of the Ramblers across the top of front page of the sports section, featuring Loyola starters Jerry Harkness, Les Hunter, John Egan (the lone white starter), Vic Rouse, and Ron Miller dribbling toward the camera. The Ramblers then sent quite a message to MSU in the first-round game against poor Tennessee Tech, zooming to a 61-20 halftime lead against the overmatched Golden Eagles en route to a 111-42 demolition, which still stands as the biggest margin of victory in NCAA Tourney history. Thus, Loyola it would be to oppose Mississippi State in the Sweet 16 at East Lansing on Friday night.
Or so most thought.
Colvard's enemies, however, had one last deal from the bottom of the deck to prevent MSU from breaking the "unwritten rule." After the apparent last line of defense--the College Board--failed to stand in MSU's way to participate in the NCAA Tourney, aforementioned state senator Billy Mitts, and a like-minded colleague, B.W. Lawson, also of Enterprise, took matters into their own hands, requesting a court injunction to prevent MSU from competing at East Lansing. Chancellor L.B. Porter granted the injunction on Wednesday afternoon, March 13. As for the team, it was preparing to leave on Thursday morning for East Lansing from the Starkville airfield. The school planned to fight the injunction, but was pressed for time to do so before the game. Would the MSU basketball team be prohibited from participating in the NCAA Tournament if the injunction were successfully served?
News of the injunction reached the Colvard home in a roundabout fashion. "We were called by our minister," said Mrs. Colvard in our recent discussion, "who told us that an injunction was on the way." Colvard knew that he, McCarthy, and AD Wade Walker were likely to be served the injunction, but was quick to implement a new course of action. "My husband packed his bag very quickly and headed back to the school," said Mrs. Colvard, "then he left for Memphis." Walker was instructed to leave town, and McCarthy would also be on his way to Memphis, over the state line, on Wednesday night. The players were secluded into one of the school dorms to await instructions while the basketball world, and Loyola, waited and wondered if the Bulldogs were even going to show up in East Lansing on Friday night.
Officials did show up in Starkville, injunctions in hand, looking for Colvard and McCarthy, but could find neither. "The Chief of Police (Dop Johnson) went first to the campus, then to our home, looking to serve the injunction to my husband," said Mrs. Colvard. "When he rang our doorbell, I told him that my husband wasn't home, and told him he could inspect inside if he wished. But he seemed a little embarrassed about the whole situation, and told me, 'No ma'am, we believe you,' and he left."
Meanwhile, an elaborate plan had been arranged with the players, just in case the police would be waiting at the Starkville airfield to stop the team from boarding its chartered Southern Airways flight. Members of the freshman team had donned MSU letterman jackets, disguising themselves as varsity players, and headed for the nearby airstrip along with team trainer Dutch Luchsinger, hoping to serve as decoys for the real team, which instead headed about 20 miles east to the Columbus, MS airfield. Play-by-play man Jack Cristil was one of MSU's traveling contingent who didn't know what was going on. "I wasn't sure what was happening, and was told to wait for word on what we were going to do," said Cristil when interviewed in Tupelo. "Bob Hartley (the school's sports information director) then called me and said to get over to the Columbus airfield pronto, because we were going to be taking off from over there in about a half an hour." The small contingent then escaped Mississippi before it could be served the injunction, boarding a private plane for Nashville, where it would switch to a Southern Airways flight after picking up coach McCarthy, who had flown to Music City from Memphis that morning. From there, the team would fly to the Lansing airport, where it finally arrived, about two hours later than expected.
There were rumors of potential protestors that would greet the MSU team in Michigan, but none were present when the team arrived. In fact, according to Cristil, the only curious observer in Lansing was there for a different reason. "This fellow told me he had never seen a Southern Airways airplane before, and just wanted to see what it looked like, " said Cristil of the four piston-engine aircraft.
After that dramatic escape from Mississippi, word came from home that the injunction had indeed been quashed by a Mississippi Supreme Court justice late on Thursday evening. Finally, it was time to play some basketball!
It is hard to imagine how much coverage an event like the Sweet 16 battle between MSU and Loyola would have demanded in the modern era, considering the surreal set of circumstances surrounding the matchup. Not only regarding the social implications, but also the basketball confrontation itself, which promised to be one of the most intriguing of the 1962-63 season. There were those who believed MSU, ranked sixth in the country, might be the perfect team to slow down the second-ranked Ramblers, pointing to the style contrasts, featuring the Bulldogs' penchant for defense and patient, tempo-conscious basketball against a go-go Rambler team that was the highest-scoring in the land.
The setting at Michigan State's Jenison Fieldhouse was highly-charged. Loyola star Jerry Harkness, when interviewed for our upcoming book, Ramblers vs. Bearcats, recounted the early moments, right before tipoff. "So many flashbulbs going off in the crowd," Harkness recalled. "It was almost blinding for a few seconds." Uncommon for the times was a heavy security presence. No disturbances occurred, but just in case, countless city police officers and state troopers, plus FBI and Secret Service details, had staked out the premises.
There was a tension to the game, but nothing remotely resembling an incident between the teams took place. "Just a good, hard-played basketball game," said Harkness. MSU play-by-play announcer Cristil recalls the game as well. "Loyola was quicker with better athletes, which really showed up in the rebounding," said Cristil. "(Jerry) Harkness was very good, but I remember being very impressed with (Les) Hunter and especially (Vic) Rouse. They were quick to the balls off the glass, more so than any team we had seen."
Early in the game, however, things seemed to be going MSU's way. If anything, Loyola seemed to be the more cautious of the two teams. But after MSU scored the first 7 points of the game, Loyola began to find its rhythm. The Ramblers started to locate holes in McCarthy's zone defense, with Harkness converting a pair of three-point plays to get Loyola back into the game. An Egan jumper gave the Ramblers their first lead at 14-12 with 7:01 remaining in the half, and by intermission, the Ramblers had stretched the lead to 26-19. For a while early in the second half, Loyola threatened to put the game away, before a 7-0 run by MSU cut the deficit to 41-38 with 10:55 to play. But that was as close as the Bulldogs would get the rest of the way. A quick Rambler spurt fueled by Rouse and Miller restored Loyola's control, and when star Maroon F Leland Mitchell fouled out with 6:47 to play, the Bulldogs' last realistic hopes were extinguished. The Ramblers extended their lead to as much as 57-42 with 3 minutes to play before settling for a handy 61-51 win.
The groundbreaking weekend for MSU was not over, however, as a consolation game awaited the next night vs. another integrated team, Bowling Green, with three black starters including C Nate Thurmond, who would go on to a decorated NBA career. The Falcons, narrow losers to Illinois by a 70-67 count in the other Friday night game, also boasted of another future pro, Butch Komives, but MSU rallied for a 65-60 win even without the services of G Joe Dan Gold, who had broken a finger late in the previous night's loss to Loyola. As for the Ramblers, they routed the Illini, 79-64, to reach the Final Four in Louisville. And if it was worth anything to Babe McCarthy, his team had played Loyola much tougher than did Illinois, or national semifinalist Duke the next week, which would be blown out by the Ramblers, 94-75, at Freedom Hall.
In retrospect, Colvard's actions were a significant marker, not just for sport, but for the state of Mississippi and entire civil rights movement. The wheels were now further in motion for the state's schools to de-segregate. When the first-ever black student, Richard Holmes, applied to MSU in 1965, it was still a very touchy time in the state and in the South in general, but Colvard remained a voice of reason in the region, and it is worth noting that Holmes' enrollment as the first black student at MSU in July of 1965 was peaceful and without incident.
Not long afterward, Colvard would be wooed back to his native North Carolina, hired as the first Chancellor of the new UNC-Charlotte campus, where he served with dignity until his retirement at age 65 in 1978. Colvard then remained affiliated with UNCC for almost another three decades, and MSU play-by-play announcer Jack Cristil recalled running into Colvard after his move back to North Carolina. "We (Mississippi State) were playing a game at Charlotte, and Bob (Hartley, the SID) and I decided to stop by and see Dean," said Cristil. "He was busy, of course, and we dropped by his office unannounced, so his secretary told us we'd have to wait a while to see him. A few minutes later, his head popped out from behind the door, he saw us, gave a big laugh and invited us in for a great visit."
Meanwhile, the Mississippi State-Loyola connection endures. When the Bulldogs were playing a game in Indianapolis several years ago, a group of MSU supporters made a surprise visit to ex-Rambler star Jerry Harkness' sporting goods store in the suburbs of town. Harkness, based in Indy since his stint with the Pacers in the early days of the ABA, was genuinely touched by their presence. "They made a special trip out to see me at the store," said Harkness. "They were great, told me they remembered the game vs. Loyola in 1963, and wanted to thank me for being involved. I told them I was glad I was a part of it, and that their visit meant a lot to me. They all remembered the game, and we reminisced. Really a nice visit."
It's worth noting that Harkness' son, Jerald, produced an excellent documentary regarding the 1963 Loyola-MSU contest, Game of Change, available online at www.ncaaondemand.com. As for Colvard, he wrote a pair of books, Down to Earth and Education was my Ticket, and was the subject of an excellent biography penned by Marion A. Ellis in 2004, entitled Quiet Leader.
Dean Colvard's passing in 2007, however, was effectively unnoticed by the national media, which we considered unfortunate. His contributions to forwarding change, not only in sport but also in society, were monumental, especially considering the circumstances within which he had to operate in the early '60s. Unlike so many modern-day "progressive" spokesmen and spokeswomen, who often speak from platforms within the entertainment industry or the mainstream media that provide safe haven for their commentary, Colvard's stances and actions were made in a hostile environment and taken at considerable personal and professional risk. Colvard did something more than simply talk about injustices, perceived or otherwise; he actually took direct action upon them.
So, when the sports media decides to honor Dr. King, as ESPN has done in the past week, or other related topics, we hope they spare a moment to also honor the memory of another man of principle, Dean Colvard, and not trivialize his contributions by highlighting those who are far less worthy of attention and praise.
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