The king of the hill is no patsy

Peppery George Ireland has his Ramblers hopping for the NCAA
March 09, 1964

The comforts of being a national champion are extravagant. Since his Loyola University basketball team won at Louisville last year, George Ireland (above) has been named Coach of the Year four times and Man of the Year twice, received a raise, a George Ireland Day in Skokie, Ill., a full-time assistant coach he won't have to pay out of his own pocket, a $1,280 trophy case he is encouraged to clutter up, a whirlpool bath to facilitate training, keys to New Orleans and Camden, N.J., and a blue-eyed, blonde secretary named Dawn to wake up the front office. Though Ireland is head of the Loyola athletic department, he never had a full-time secretary before, and Miss Ditzler—Dawn—sticks out like a sorely needed thumb.

The discomforts of being the defending national champion have to do with that part about defending it. Ireland ran into Elston Howard of the Yankees at a banquet the other night and explained how fans in other places now boo his team like mad and sometimes throw eggs. Home folks put the knock on him for not beating Fizby Tech by 50 points or more. Opponents, practically drooling, engage Loyola in play like it was Guadalcanal instead of basketball. "Little Loyola does not sneak up on people anymore," sighed Ireland. "There is not much breathing room at the top."

"Now you know what it's like to be a Yankee," said Howard.

"Yes," answered Ireland. "And I love it, don't you?"

In their exalted, assailable residence at the center of the target, the Ramblers have won 19 of 24 games this year, including a rockaby 117-63 victory over Marshall last weekend. For their kind of perilous living, that is not bad—19 victories. Yet Ireland is surprised. "I am surprised," he said, "that we lost five games. I was surprised we lost two to Wichita, surprised we lost to St. John's and Memphis State, and I was certainly surprised we lost to Georgetown. But don't tell me 19 and 5, or 20 and 5 if we beat Ohio Tuesday, is a disappointing season, because I'll take that kind of disappointment any season."

Ireland was asked if he therefore thought it possible Loyola could make it to Kansas City later this month and win a second straight NCAA championship. "Definitely," he said definitely, and eagerly began to outline how he might play Michigan ("We'd give Russell 25, and Buntin 25, too") or Ohio State ("That Bradds worries me, but he's the only one") in the regionals at Minneapolis. Later, Ed Gleason of TWA, his friendly neighborhood ticket agent, said reservations were already in for Loyola's passage to Kansas City. With that kind of confidence, Loyola people are naturally infected with the idea that the huge gold-and-maroon signs Ireland put up outside the gym—"1963 National Champions"—really are out of balance, because there obviously is space on the right for "1964." "George Ireland and his budget," chuckled one university man. "He's got it all figured out—he won't have to buy new signs this year. Just do a little touching up."

Ireland's signs brighten an otherwise dreary Loyola campus that is just a pinch larger than the lobby of the Palmer House and nestles on the frosty shore of Lake Michigan. The lake appears, along with a grassy slope and a lounging boy and girl, in pictures that basketball prospects see depicting the sweet life there. "The grassy slope," explains Assistant Coach Jerry Lyne, "is about as big as a bath mat." Ireland and his assistant do not always encourage visits. What they do is encourage exemplary fellows like All-America Jerry Harkness of last year's team to tell fond stories about swimming in the lake and playing in the chummy, 41-year-old, 3,000-seat gymnasium. Another recent selling point is Loyola's record-setting miler, Tom O'Hara, running 18 miles a day along the lakefront.

There is, nevertheless, a something about Loyola, a sort of Spartan atmosphere that grows on, or to, a boy like creeping hemlock. Guard Johnny Egan passed up 19 other offers to go there. Coach Ireland, a bright, popular man with great resourceful drive, was recently trumpeted for (but not officially offered) the job at Notre Dame. He was an All-America there in 1934 and 1935. But he said he "would not coach at Notre Dame if they gave me the buildings. I have no intention of leaving." He said it was because he makes too good a living as Loyola's athletic director and head coach, that he would not want to leave what has taken 12 years to build, and that sooner or later you have to agree there is no place like homely old Loyola.

George Ireland is called The Man at Loyola. He is known for his handsome, curly-haired Irish head and his curl-an-ear Irish temper, his efficiency at handling a limited ($42,000) budget and his no-fooling regard for property and protocol. The gym is his territory and woe unto the man caught smoking in the vestibule. He is a dynamo of a worker ("I am booked for 13 conventions this summer") and if he seems to fizz on the outside, inside he roils. The Ireland torso is striped like a hotcross bun. One scar, from belly to backbone, relieved him of kidney stones after the NCAA championship last year. The other, from his necktie to the floor, was for an ulcer "after a losing season" and left him with a stomach that is 80% gone. Fearless, he wolfs down wife Gert's powerful homemade sausage and keeps it down with half a loaf of Gonnella (It's Swella) Italian bread. Gonnella is operated by a former team manager and sponsors the broadcasts of his games.

Ireland does not believe in being buddy-buddy with his players. He rules with an iron larynx, and if he cannot find something to complain about he does not let it stop him. During half-time talks—one of his passions—he has been known to kick great bags of basketballs into the air and to splatter oranges. "As a rule of thumb," he says, "I start by giving them hell."

Ahead 61-20 at the half against Tennessee Tech in the NCAA tournament last year, Ireland was frantic. "What'll I say, Jerry, what'll I say?" he asked Lyne. "Well, coach," said Lyne, groping, "the second team made you look bad." Ireland frowned. "You darn right. You darn right. And they're going to hear about it, too." Lyne says it got so hot he hid behind a locker. Loyola won with ridiculous ease.

Ireland believes in run-and-shoot and recently completed a 28-minute film for the NCAA entitled High Speed Basketball. In it he reveals everything but the color of daughter Kathy's bedroom furniture, which happens to be red. (The pretty Kathy coaches Loyola's cheerleaders and dates opposing players; son Mike keeps score.) "All our secrets are out," lamented Team Captain Jack Egan when he saw the film. "The Man doesn't know how to be anything but direct."

The Ramblers themselves, of course, are not much of a secret. They are four-fifths the same cast Ireland took to Louisville last year: Egan, Forwards Vic Rouse and Co-captain Ron Miller and Center Les Hunter. If in their last five games they have appeared to be the equal of the 1963 team it is a justifiable comparison. They have finally adjusted to the idea that All-America Harkness really did graduate last June. Without Harkness, they are less punishing on offense, less penurious on defense. "But we had depended too much on him," says Ron Miller. Now they depend more on themselves and it is a good thing. It has become a team without a star and, with the possible exception of the 6-foot-7 Hunter, a team without a particularly good pro prospect. Ireland really doesn't care because he thinks college graduates can do better things than play pro ball.

Miller, a quiet man with superb hands and model deportment (he is alternately called Mitts and The Chaplain), is, at 6 feet 2, a splendid jumper and the best all-round player on the team. When an opponent puts a trailer on playmaker Egan, as Georgetown did effectively. Miller brings the ball downcourt. All four have increased their scoring over last year, Miller by eight points to a team-leading 22-point average.

Without Harkness, Ireland quit the full-court press in favor of a less debilitating half-court press. His bench is not strong, and the new fifth man, sophomore Jimmy Coleman, is still learning. He scores fewer than 10 a game, but he moves well, has improved steadily and has stood the close scrutiny of teammates who were reluctant to forgive him for not being Jerry Harkness.

The Ramblers are winning games by fewer points—19 on the average, compared with 24 last year—but the schedule has been tougher, and Rouse, who made the winning basket against Cincinnati in the NCAA final, missed three games with a separated shoulder. During his absence Loyola lost two games. Even with Rouse back, they lost two more on the road last month, so before the Houston game Co-captain Egan asked Ireland to leave the dressing room while the team talked it over. He is a tough little guy, Egan, the son of a South Side Chicago cop, but he is also a law student with a keen mind. He is the only white player on the starting team, but he is its leader. He is a boxy, 5-foot-10 180-pounder who hates to be called fat—because he's not—and who, for less than that, has been known to tell a 6-foot-10 opponent that, "I'm going to stuff you right through that basket if you don't behave."

"We've got a great team here," Egan told the squad in privacy. "But nobody is going to find out unless we start playing like one and being a little unselfish out there. And you know who this is telling you that: the most unselfish guy of all." The team laughed, but got the message. Loyola beat Houston 98-68, and Ireland called it their best game of the year.

The following Saturday the most unselfish guy scored 23 points as the Ramblers beat Marquette 99-81. "Little Coach," Egan told Lyne, who sometimes answers to that, "tell The Man I'm the hottest thing in basketball. Tell him he better build his offense around me. Tell him there's no reason we can't go all the way."