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Tourney Talk: CHD’s 50th Anniversary Interview about former Loyola coach George Ireland

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 NCAA tourney championship won by Loyola head coach George Ireland.  He started the postseason by leading his team to the biggest blowout in tourney history, and finished it off with one of the most exciting title games in tourney history (a two-point OT win over top-ranked and two-time defending champion Cincinnati).  This Ramblers team is also famous for becoming the first Division One team with four African-American starters.  Coach Ireland passed away in 2001, but Jon Teitel had the privilege of speaking with the coach’s daughter Judy Van Dyck about her father’s life and legacy. 

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George Ireland (daughter Judy Van Dyck)

Your father was a two-time All-American at Notre Dame (where one of his teammates was future Hall of Fame coach Ray Meyer): what made him such a great player? He actually went there to play football, but they realized he was a good basketball player. He never missed a practice or a game, and ended up marrying the sister of one of his teammates.

In 1936 he helped the Irish win a Helms national title: what did it mean to him to win the title? As a young kid in college I am sure it meant the world to him. He devoted his life to basketball: after getting married he became a high school coach.

He was hired as coach at Loyola in 1951 and a decade later became the first coach of a major college program to use a lineup of five African-American players: how big a deal was integration in college basketball back then, and did he see himself as a pioneer? He did see himself as a pioneer, but he does not get the credit for what he did. I was on campus at the nursing school when those players came in as freshmen. Dad was not there to be their friend: he just wanted to make sure they got their degree and played hard on the basketball court. He expected a lot but cared about them and would not let anyone hurt his kids. He intercepted a lot of the hate mail that got sent to the players’ dorm. It did not sit well with my father that his players could not eat and travel together. I always admired him for that but he never got credit for that. Nine of his players on the 1963 team ended up getting a combined 21 degrees! The movie “Glory Road” was beloved by a lot of people, but he was the one who started it.

In 1963 his team led the nation in scoring for the second straight season (91.8 PPG): do you consider him to be one of the best offensive coaches ever? I cannot say the best ever…but he is surely among the top few. There was no three point line back then, but he made sure that his kids were in great shape to run the fast break.

They opened the magical 1963 NCAA tourney by beating Tennessee Tech 111-42, which remains the largest margin of victory in tourney history (69 points): do you think that record will ever be broken? He was out to show that his kids could score, run and shoot. He had a passion for basketball. I guess the record might be broken now that there is a three point shot, but not yet. I actually missed the game because I was giving birth that night, we were going to name our son “NCAA” but we were not sure how to pronounce it! I talked to him after the game: he always called me Dude and said, “Dude, we did it!”

Their next game was a 10-point win over Mississippi State, who had to sneak out of the state under the cover of darkness to go to East Lansing (due to a Mississippi statewide prohibition against playing integrated teams): where does that game rank among the most important in the history of the sport? That was the breaking of the racial barrier. When Jerry Harkness shook hands with one of the white Bulldog players, the amount of flashbulbs going off inside the gym was incredible. There are two sides to it: the Bulldogs get a lot of credit for sneaking out in the middle of the night, but it was also important that Loyola welcomed them to campus.

The title game featured one of the most dramatic comebacks in college basketball history (down by 15 points with 10 minutes to play, Jerry Harkness made a 12-footer in the final seconds of regulation and Vic Rouse made a last-second tip-in during the extra period to clinch a two-point OT win over two-time defending champion Cincinnati): how were each of his five starters able to play 45 minutes, and what was the reaction like when they got back to campus? They just had in it them to run up and down the court and play their hearts out for my dad. He was tough but he had a gentle side to him. There were articles and photos in the local paper.

He concluded the 1963 season by being named national COY: what did it mean to him to win such outstanding individual honors? What Irishman would not love a thing like that!? Loyola did not get the money that schools get today, but it was a feather in their cap and he put the school’s name on the map.

He also served as Loyola’s AD from 1956-77 and was the chairman of the school’s physical education department (1969-77) and an associate professor of physical education (1970-77): how was he able to balance all of these different gigs, and which role did he enjoy the most? He loved coaching the most. It was tough to juggle everything, but he just did his jobs.

He passed away in 2001: when people look back on his career, how do you think he should be remembered the most? I think he should be remembered as the man who had the fortitude to break the racial barrier. Kids today feel entitled: they do not know the people who paved the way for them. He paved the way for “Glory Road” and a bunch of other changes.

JonTeitel