Jesuit History 101: Basketball

In The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola extols the value of “holy rivalry.”  Perhaps that Jesuit virtue helps explain the notable success Jesuit schools have had over the years in men’s college basketball.  As four Jesuit teams (Georgetown, Gonzaga, Marquette, and Xavier) prepare to the take the court in this season’s NCAA tournament, let’s take a crash course in Jesuit history—Jesuit basketball history, that is.  Here are my top ten postseason moments in the history of Jesuit basketball:

10.  Seattle University’s 1958 Final Four appearance. Long before the NBA instituted the dunk contest, basketball fans watching the 1958 NCAA tournament were awed by the aerial acrobats of Seattle University star Elgin Baylor.  Baylor propelled Seattle all the way to the 1958 NCAA title game, where the Chieftains eventually lost to Kentucky.  Baylor was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

9.  St. Louis University’s 1948 NIT championship. Back when the National Invitational Tournament reigned supreme as the nation’s premier postseason tourney, St. Louis star “Easy” Ed Macauley brought his famed hook shot to New York’s Madison Square Garden where the Billikens ran the table.  After a Hall of Fame NBA career, Macauley went on to be ordained a Roman Catholic deacon.

8.  Marquette’s 1970 NIT championship. At the conclusion of the 1970 regular season, the Marquette Warriors were ranked eighth in the country.  But when the NCAA selection committee gave Marquette a regional seeding location with which Warriors’ coach Al McGuire was not pleased, McGuire – always the tough hustler from the streets of Brooklyn – audaciously snubbed the NCAA bid and entered the NIT.  Legend has it that when Marquette’s president, the Rev. John P. Raynor, S.J., called McGuire and asked him to reconsider, McGuire responded, “Father, I don’t hear confession and you don’t coach this team.”  Marquette went on to win the NIT championship.  It was the last time a school would decline an NCAA tournament invitation.

7.  Gonzaga’s 1999 NCAA Elite Eight appearance. Among Cinderella’s greatest dances of all-time was Gonzaga’s 1999 NCAA tournament run.  In just the school’s second NCAA tournament appearance, the starting five of Matt Santangelo, Quentin Hall, Richie Frahm, Jeremy Eaton, and Casey Calvary captured the hearts of the nation and led the Bulldogs to within a game of the Final Four.  The 1999 team made Gonzaga a household name (well, at least among households fixed to CBS in late March) and transformed the small school in Spokane into a perennial basketball power.

6.  Holy Cross’s 1947 NCAA championship. The motto of the College of the Holy Cross is In Hoc Signo Vinces (“In this sign you shall conquer”) and in ’47 the Crusaders did conquer, becoming the first Jesuit school to win an NCAA championship.  The Crusaders featured stars George Kaftan and Joe Mullaney as well as a cocky freshman point guard named Bob Cousy, who struggled in the championship game, shooting just 2-for-13 from the floor.

5.  Georgetown’s 1984 NCAA championship. While the Georgetown teams of the 1980’s were a national force under the imposing leadership of coach John Thompson, they often are remembered for their heartbreaking NCAA title game losses.  Within a span of four years, Georgetown lost two NCAA title games by a combined three points.  First, in 1982, the Hoyas were defeated on a game-winning shot by a University of North Carolina freshman named Michael Jordan.  Then in 1985, Georgetown fell short against a Cinderella Villanova squad on whom the clock never struck midnight – a game which was also the last Catholic-vs.-Catholic title game, in a year in which three of the Final Four teams were Catholic schools (Georgetown, Villanova, and St. John’s).  But sandwiched in between those narrow championship-game defeats came the Hoyas’s sole national title, in 1984.  They were the last Jesuit school to win the Big Dance.

4.  University of San Francisco’s back-to-back 1955 and 1956 NCAA championships. As the civil rights movement gained steam, Jesuit schools were at the forefront of racial integration among college basketball teams.  The 1954 USF team was the first college team ever to start three black players, including one of the greatest defensive players of all time, Bill Russell.  Led by Russell’s extraordinary play, the Dons more than overcame the racial discrimination they faced, winning back-to-back NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956.  During their championship seasons, USF posted a then-NCAA record 55-game winning streak.

3.  Loyola University Chicago’s 1963 NCAA championship. Three years before Texas Western won the NCAA championship with an all-black starting lineup (recently depicted in the film Glory Road), coach George Ireland’s 1963 Loyola University Chicago team won the NCAA title with four African-Americans in the starting lineup.  In the Mideast regional semifinals, Loyola defeated a Mississippi State team which played the Ramblers despite being banned from participating in the game by Mississippi Governor Ross R. Barnett on account of Loyola’s integrated lineup.  In the championship game at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Loyola squared off against the heavily favored, two-time defending national champion Cincinnati Bearcats.  Loyola overcame a 15-point second-half deficit and forced overtime on Jerry Harkness’s 12-foot jump shot with four seconds left in regulation.  The Ramblers, whose entire starting lineup played the whole game, went on to win 60-58.

2.  Loyola Marymount’s 1990 Elite Eight appearance. Tragedy struck LMU in the West Coast Conference tournament when star Hank Gathers – who had led the NCAA in both points (32.7) and rebounds (13.7) per game the year before – collapsed and died during a second-round game.  The remainder of the WCC tournament was canceled, and LMU was awarded the conference’s NCAA tournament bid by virtue of being regular season champions.  In memory of his fallen teammate, Bo Kimble, a naturally right-handed shooter, shot the first of each of his free throws left-handed throughout the NCAA tournament.  Kimble made all of his left-handed attempts.  The 11th-seeded Lions went on an inspired tourney run, scoring an NCAA tournament record 149 points in a 34-point victory over defending champion Michigan to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.  LMU made it all the way to the West regional final where they were defeated by eventual champions UNLV.  The 122.4 points per game regular-season average posted by the 1990 LMU squad remains an NCAA record.

1.  Marquette’s 1977 NCAA championship. Alright, as a Marquette alumnus, I admit that I’m more than a little biased.  But it is tough to find a storybook ending which eclipses that of the Warrior’s colorful and quotable coach Al McGuire.  Marquette opened the season ranked #1 in the land.  Then, McGuire stunned the basketball world in late December by announcing that he would retire at the conclusion of the season.  After the announcement, the Warriors began to slide, at one point losing three consecutive home games and looking like they might not even make the NCAA tournament.  A late-season surge, however, secured their tourney bid, and the Warriors never looked back.  After a last-second victory over Charlotte in the NCAA semifinals, Marquette faced North Carolina in the championship game.  As the clock ticked down with Marquette comfortably ahead in McGuire’s final game, the brash coach sat on the sideline in tears – one of the most memorable images in the history of the NCAA tournament.  In Al’s words,

All I could think of was, why me? After all the years of odors in the locker room, the socks and jocks. All the fights in the gyms. Just the wildness of it all. And to have it end like this. It’s been a great run. Normally, alley fighters, street fighters like me, don’t end up in lace.

To use a McGuire-ism, it all ended for Al in “seashells and balloons.”

© Vincent L. Strand, 2010.

7 Responses to Jesuit History 101: Basketball

  1. Father Joseph LeBlanc says:

    It is an impressive list. Although some events and remarks in the present coming from these Universities in relation to social matters and the teachings of the Church are somewhat disturbing.

    Although, again, congratulations on the athletic endeavors; as well as schools of academic excellence.

    You are the core of Catholic Education in this country; and may it continue in years to come. The Christo Rey Network is a good example of that excellence ministered to minority students. Great program.

  2. David M says:

    I think you’ve gotta include one of Xavier’s postseason runs in this list.

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:


      I thought about it. Which run do you find more impressive, 2004 or 2008? I lean toward 2004 since Xavier was more of a surprise that year.

  3. Beautiful piece. As one of Vince’s former high school coaches, I’m proud he did his homework and is staying faithful to the greatest annual sporting event on the planet. I’d like everyone to know that in high school Vince was not our best shooter, but he was our high scorer, and he didn’t have the highest vertical, but he was our leading rebounder. He was the heart and soul of our team. That, to me, is the beauty of basketball. The teams that Vince rated (minus Georgetown) were often out manned, yet they still found ways to win.

    Let the tournament begin.

  4. Cely says:

    My friend, it seems to me that you have another calling in life…sportswriter! This is a fantastic post – timely and extremely well-written. What’s the status of your idea for an all-Jesuit school preseason tournament? Please discuss with Father General next chance you get!

  5. How come there’s no “World Cup” equivalent, in
    Basketball? Since it like soccer, is played the
    world over!

    Why not in this New Millennium, the Jesuits,
    internationalists that they are anyway, start it
    and then let the secular world take it over?!

    For example, Lithuania is known for its basketball,
    with Jesuit presence there, and how many other
    nations like that?! This way we broaden out the
    playing field, make it even more inclusive, and
    give more 3rd World Countries even more hope!

  6. Mike says:

    My father played on the USF teams, considered one of the best college basketball teams ever. The win streak was 60 games over three years and not 55. John Wooden’s UCLA teams broke this record with Bill Walton playing center. Russell and Bill Walton are considered 2 of the best college centers that ever played the game. And the USF team had 7 African Americans on the squad, in the 1950’s. They were segregated while playing in a tourney in New Orleans. I guess it doesn’t make sense to rank these teams, they were all significant, but I just wanted to include more facts & accuracy.

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