Sunday Mississippi State beat Loyola Chicago in an overtime squeaker, 65-64. It was the Bulldogs’ first win in a rivalry that spans 51 years. Loyola leads the series 2-1.
Last year the Ramblers won in Chicago, 59-51, in the first of two home-and-home games played to commemorate the last time the teams met, in the Mideast Regional of the 1963 NCAA tournament. Loyola won that game 61-51 and went on to win the national title.
In order to play that 1963 game, the all-white Bulldogs had to sneak out of Mississippi, defying a court order forbidding them to play against black opponents. It’s an oft-told story, but a great one, and this may be the last excuse I’ll get to trot it out. So here’s a version I like, adapted from Ramblers, of course.
February 25, 1963: James H. “Babe” McCarthy, possibly the most popular man in Mississippi, was on the radio, trying to make the sale of his life.
Selling was his strong suit. An oil salesman just eight years before, he had somehow closed a deal to become head basketball coach at Mississippi State, his alma mater, without benefit of college-level playing or coaching experience. A short time later he signed a widely sought recruit, a future hall of famer named Bailey Howell, who passed up an offer from the supreme rulers of the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky, to play on a team that had just finished dead last. Now McCarthy was about to be named SEC coach of the year for the third time. He had pushed Adolph Rupp off the top of the southern basketball hill. His Bulldogs had just defeated Tulane to earn at least a share of their fourth conference title. As one of his players remarked only half-facetiously, he could have been elected governor.
But Babe had a problem. The core of his 1963 team was a group of four seniors who were winning the SEC title for the third straight time. Normally that would mean they were headed to the NCAA tournament for the third time. But Mississippi was not normal. Mississippi schools observed an “unwritten law” against playing anywhere they might encounter black opponents, or even one black opponent. Each time the Bulldogs had earned a bid to the tournament, Kentucky had gone in their place.
Up till now McCarthy had accepted this lot without public protest. But he hoped this year would be different. It was the seniors’ last chance to play for the big prize. Maybe McCarthy’s last chance, too.
On the postgame radio show, he turned on the powers of persuasion that would later lead writers to call him “Magnolia Mouth,” laying it on thick for the listening audience back home in Mississippi. “It makes me heartsick,” he said, “to think that these players, who just clinched no worse than a tie for their third straight Southeastern Conference championship, will have to put away their uniforms….I do wish by some means that these boys could have the opportunity to play.”
On the Mississippi State campus in Starkville, a few hundred students gathered outside the president’s residence chanting “We want to go.” The president, Dean W. Colvard, was in his third year at Mississippi State. As an “outsider” from North Carolina, he had not felt powerful enough to challenge the unwritten law in 1961 and ’62, but the landscape had changed in the past year. In September James Meredith had enrolled at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, the beloved “Ole Miss.” True, his enrollment had prompted an armed insurrection—two people were killed, hundreds were wounded and arrested, and 30,000 federal troops were dispatched to Oxford by President John F. Kennedy—but the battle was over: no longer could a basketball game be condemned as the first step down a slippery slope to race mixing. In 1963, Colvard thought, the time was right to take a stand. So on March 2, a few minutes before Mississippi State’s traditional season-ender against Ole Miss, he released a lengthy written statement whose gist was this: “I have decided that unless hindered by competent authority I shall send our basketball team to the NCAA competition.”
Colvard’s announcement was followed quickly by the news that State’s first opponent in the tournament would likely be Loyola of Chicago—a separatist’s nightmare come true. Under coach George Ireland, the Loyola Ramblers had four black starters, more than any other major college. In December 1962, in a holiday tournament game against Wyoming, the Ramblers’ lone white starter was ejected and Loyola became the first major college team to have five black players on the floor at the same time.
Thus began two weeks of heated debate and political maneuvering in Mississippi. One of the most enthusiastic debaters was Jimmy Ward, editor of the Daily News of Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital. The controversy was in his paper almost every day. At one point Ward mistakenly told his readers that the Loyola team was “all Negro” and warned ominously that “It would be most unfortunate if friction developed during this sports contest.”
The next day he had to apologize for his error:
“An Associated Press Wirephoto straight out of Chicago within recent hours gives the latest information on this subject…Presumably only four of the starting five are Negroes. If the Daily News said all five were Negroes it was an honest error based on the best sources of information then available. Or maybe a lucky white boy finally graduated to the first team.”
The picture showed four black players and one white, each with a ball, all driving toward the camera. To Ward and many of his readers, it probably looked threatening. He published it across five columns, with a caption headlined “MISSISSIPPI STATE’S POSSIBLE OPPONENT AT NCAA TOURNEY.” He suggested that his readers might want to clip and send it to the state board of higher education, which was about to vote on the matter in a special meeting. This was the “competent authority” that might hinder MSU’s participation in the tournament.
But the majority of Mississippians were ready for change. Students, alumni, and sports fans, aware that a window of opportunity was closing, had written and signed petitions in favor of sending the team to the tournament. The sports director of a Jackson TV station took a postcard poll of viewers and reported that 85 percent of them were in favor of it. Ward’s own sportswriters were in favor of it. Colvard handled the politics deftly and the state board gave him a vote of confidence. By March 13 it was all set: the team was scheduled to leave the following morning for the Mideast regional in East Lansing, Michigan.
Babe McCarthy had made his sale. But it was not quite a done deal.
About 4:30 that afternoon, Colvard received word that a group including state senator Billy Mitts, a former Mississippi State cheerleader and student body president, had obtained a court order instructing university officials to refrain “from allowing any athlete enrolled in Mississippi State University to compete in any athletic contest against members of the Negro race.”
Colvard called an impromptu meeting with McCarthy, athletic director Wade Walker, and a few other people including a local attorney. After the meeting, the president and a colleague drove east about 140 miles to spend the night at the Air Host Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, beyond the reach of Mississippi lawmen. McCarthy and Wade Walker drove north, into Tennessee.
According to Colvard’s memoir, the attorney at the meeting suggested that the team should also leave the state, but Colvard was not comfortable with that. He gambled that not even a Mississippi politician would try to arrest or serve papers on a group of handsome young men in their 20s who happened to be three-time champions of the SEC.
That evening, Mississippi State students heard on radio newscasts that officers from Jackson were on their way to Starkville with the injunction. At a pep rally they strung up effigies of Billy Mitts and one of his associates. Campus police cut the dummies down before they could be torched.
The players didn’t know what was going on. They all lived on the second floor of Memorial Hall, the athletes’ dorm, and they wandered in and out of each others’ rooms as the news dribbled in by radio and rumor. Though some of them didn’t know exactly what an injunction was, they all understood that politicians were trying to keep them from going to Michigan. At one point senior forward Leland Mitchell said To hell with this, let’s get in our cars and drive up there right now. But they were a disciplined team and accustomed to following orders. They’d been told to keep to themselves and be ready to go Thursday morning right after breakfast, dressed in their gray slacks and maroon blazers, same as any travel day. They were scheduled to leave by charter flight at 8:30 AM.
It’s not clear when they learned that their coach had skipped town, but in the morning assistant coach Jerry Simmons told them about a change in travel plans—a “Cloak and Dagger Trek Unprecedented in History,” as it was later described by the Jackson Daily News: Just in case there was any attempt to stop them from leaving, a “decoy” team of scrubs and nonstarters was going to the airport with the team trainer. The rest of the team—the starters and the first three subs—were staying behind on campus. If the decoy team was intercepted at the airport, the starters would drive to nearby Columbus, where a second plane waited to spirit them away if necessary.
Colvard’s memoir credits this plan to Jerry Simmons, but Leland Mitchell thought it had Babe McCarthy’s fingerprints all over it. “See, Babe was a real strategist. He was a snooker player. Snooker is a game where when you miss, you need to leave the other guy a real hard shot so he’ll miss. I’m sure he came up with that idea.”
As it turned out, the second plane was not needed. According to Colvard’s memoir, the officers who came to serve the papers were to be accompanied by the sheriff of Oktibbeha County, where the university is located. The sheriff was ill, or too smart to get involved, so the duty fell to Deputy Sheriff Dot Johnson. Various stories are told about Johnson’s attempts to serve the papers and prevent the team’s escape. Colvard wrote that the night before, Johnson did escort the officers from Jackson, but was “not too helpful in leading them directly and promptly to Coach McCarthy’s home.” On Thursday morning, according to one tale, the deputy let it be known that he had every intention of getting out to the airport—as soon as he finished his coffee. Perhaps this story goes with another in which the deputy roars through the airport gates just as the plane lifts off the runway. In still another version, he arrives at the airport and finds that the charter has been delayed by weather in Atlanta, so he leaves.
Whatever the case, he did not complete his mission. Though the court had enjoined the state board of higher education and all its “agents, servants, and employees,” Johnson’s marching orders consisted of a summons that explicitly named two people, Colvard and McCarthy. Plenty of people were at the airport—players, coaches, reporters, photographers, and assorted well-wishers—but Colvard and McCarthy were not among them. Case closed. The trainer phoned back to the dorm to say the coast was clear. The starters hurried out from campus to join the decoy team. The plane arrived from Atlanta, the flight took off, the players cheered, and the legend of Dot Johnson was born: he was a deputy sheriff who tried to do his duty, but not too hard.
Babe McCarthy and Wade Walker were waiting in Nashville. The plane stopped there to pick them up, then flew on to Michigan. Meanwhile back in Mississippi, a justice of the state supreme court dissolved the injunction, ruling that it was issued “without authority of law.” In East Lansing, fans and tournament officials waited, wondering if MississippiState would show up. The plane was late. They were hearing rumors. Had the team been arrested at the airport? No, a single carful of players had escaped the state. No, their plane had taken off but was turned back in midflight.
When the plane finally arrived, the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, which had the same owners and outlook on life as the Daily News, breathed a great sigh of relief. “No Demonstrations Mar MSU Michigan Arrival,” its banner headline announced.
“It had been feared,” the paper reported, without admitting exactly who feared it, “that the team would be picketed due to the furor raised in the state over the Bulldogs playing against racially-mixed teams in the tournament.” In fact the Bulldogs were greeted warmly and treated as heroes. Where the Clarion-Ledger saw the absence of an angry mob, Charles Love of the Memphis Commercial Appeal saw “a delegation of tournament officials and news personnel on hand to greet the team.” According to Love, an airline official came aboard the plane and asked Babe McCarthy to get off first, explaining “There are all kinds of people looking for you out there.”
“Yeah,” said the Babe. “There were all kinds of people looking for us back where we came from too.”