But for Mississippians of a certain generation, there will be another game played on Sunday, Dec. 1 at noon in the Humphrey Coliseum that will carry a very different kind of significance. In that contest, MSU’s Bulldogs will play host to the Loyola of Chicago Ramblers.
A half-century ago, the Mississippi State Maroons, legendary MSU head basketball coach James Harrison “Babe” McCarthy and MSU President Dean W. Colvard led the Mississippi State College Maroons (as they were then known) to break the barrier of segregation by accepting the automatic bid to meet Loyola University of Chicago in the March 15, 1963 NCAA basketball tournament in East Lansing, Mich.
For many, the courage that Colvard and McCarthy showed in defying the Mississippi Legislature and fiery segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett to enable the all-white MSU men’s basketball team to compete against a Loyola team with four African-American starters represented the university’s finest hours. For many, Mississippi State’s 1962-63 basketball team, coach, and the university administration came together to create a defining moment not only for MSU athletics but for American civil rights and universal sportsmanship as well.
To put the game in context, the 1963 game was played before Martin Luther King penned his historic letter from the Birmingham, Ala., jail.
Loyola head coach George Ireland said prior to the 1963 game: “I feel Mississippi State has a right to be here, no matter what the segregationists say. They may be the best basketball team in the nation and if they are, they have a right to prove it.” Jerry Harkness, the Loyola All-American, and State’s All-SEC team captain Joe Dan Gold met at center court in Michigan State’s Jenison Field House for the opening tip. Gold extended his hand and Harkness shook it.
“About a thousand flashbulbs went off,” Gold would say after the game. The game saw State jump to an early lead only to trail the Ramblers 26-19 at the half. The Maroons went on an 8-4 run to pull to within 30-27 in the second half, but would get no closer. State was down four with two minutes to go and missed the shot. Retired MSU radio broadcaster Jack Cristil – who called the historic game - said it was “a good shot that just didn’t go down. We had to start shooting, and Loyola beat us by 10, 61-51. It was a disappointing loss, but it had been a marvelous opportunity for the young men.”
Loyola would go on to win the 1963 NCAA national championship. But Harkness, who would attend Gold’s 2011 funeral in Kentucky and receive the embrace of Gold’s widow and family, said the championship’s luster faded in comparison to the history he, Gold and their respective teammates made in the “Game of Change.”
Harkness later told USA Today: “For most of 50 years, the biggest thing that ever happened to me was winning the NCAA championship. I couldn’t even think of anything else but that. But in later years it came to be that the biggest game in my life was the Mississippi State-Loyola game, bar none.”
The two 1963 teams reunited Dec. 14-15, 2012 at Loyola as the first game of a home-and-home series between the modern teams, then again on June 9 at the Chicago Hilton as part of the Rainbow PUSH Sports Banquet. The game between the modern Loyola and MSU basketball teams on Sunday at noon is likely the last time these old warriors from the historic 1963 game will be together.
MSU will host a private event for the players and widows on Saturday, Nov. 30, and a pre-game reunion brunch for them on Sunday. Both teams will be honored at halftime of the contest. As part of the anniversary, MSU will host a symposium on race and sports on Monday, Dec. 2 at 10 a.m. in the Colvard Student Union.