Loyola Basketball’s Dark Years: The Beginning (1985-1990)

With Loyola basketball’s ascension to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in 1985– before it was even known as the Sweet 16– the Ramblers ended a 17-year NCAA Tournament drought. They also served notice that Loyola was ready to take a prominent place in the Chicago-area college basketball scene.

The Dark Years

DePaul was the hot college team in town in the late 1970s and early 80s. The Blue Demons made the NCAA Tournament as an Independent team (not affiliated with a conference) in 1976 and for eight of the 10 years between 1976 and 1985. The highlights of that span were four Sweet 16 appearances, Elite Eight appearances in 1978 and 1979, a trip to the Final Four in 1979, and a #1 overall final AP ranking in 1980. The Blue Demons were in the middle of a 21-season streak of winning seasons against Division I competition running from 1974-75 to 1994-95.

Down in Champaign, the Illini mostly sleepwalked through the late 1960s and the 70s, but knocked Loyola out of the 1980 NIT, made the Sweet 16 in 1981, and reached the Elite Eight in 1984 for the first time since Loyola knocked them out of an Elite Eight matchup in the 1963 NCAA Tournament.

Loyola’s 1985 Sweet 16 run came as the Ramblers had been moving forward in college basketball in the early 80s, under the radar, mostly unnoticed in the shadow of DePaul and Illinois’ spotlight. Loyola, in large part behind the prolific scoring of Alfredrick Hughes, had seen their win total steadily rise four years in a row. By 1984-85, the Midwest City Conference regular season champions entered the NCAA Tournament with a 25-5 record, a 17-game winning streak, a #14 AP ranking, and an automatic bid as the conference tournament champion. The resume resulted in a 4 seed in the 1985 NCAA Tournament, well above DePaul’s 10 seed and just below the Illini’s 3 seed.

Not so surprisingly, the Ramblers won two games in the tournament and gave the defending champs all they could handle before bowing out. It was a huge year for Loyola, a signal of a program headed upward, and a statement that Loyola was a valid alternative to DePaul or Illinois for local Chicago talent. For Loyola fans, it was especially significant for Loyola to top DePaul’s performance in their first year under new head coach Joey Meyer.

The year after the Sweet 16, 1985-86, was going to be a rebuilding year, and everyone knew it. Alfredrick The Great, Andre Battle, and Greg Williams graduated, and took along with them 5,002 career points scored in their combined four years at Loyola. While at Loyola, the trio led the Ramblers to an 83-37 record in four consecutive winning seasons. Senior Carl “Go-Go” Golston led the ’86 Ramblers in scoring with 19.6 points per game. Andre Moore put up a solid junior season, averaging nearly a double-double with 17.6 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. But the loss of experience, mid-range shooting, and versatility was a bit too much, and the Ramblers slumped to a 13-16 season. On the heels of an NCAA Tournament appearance, Loyola drew 4270 per game in their last year at DePaul’s Alumni Hall.

Loyola played at Alumni Hall from 1984-1986.

DePaul’s Alumni Hall at Sheffield and Belden was the home court for the Ramblers in the mid-1980s. Photo: DePaul University

Expectations were sky-high in Rogers Park from the NCAA Tournament success after 1985. People were talking about an on-campus arena on landfill extending the campus into Lake Michigan. There was a buzz around campus. Recruiting picked up. Highly-touted 6’9″ center Kenny Miller from Morgan Park arrived in 1986 and sat out a season as a Proposition 48 player. Gerald Hayward (a 6’6” forward from Hyde Park) landed at Loyola right after the Sweet 16 appearance, and Sun-Times Chicago area player of the year Bernard Jackson transferred from Wichita State in 1985. Antowne Johnson (a high-scoring 6’6” center), and Keir Rogers (a strong and athletic shooting guard/small forward from Michigan City, Indiana) made an immediate impression in 1987. Keir Rogers’ teammate from Michigan City, Keith Gailes, arrived at the same time and began play in 1988 as a Prop 48.

Loyola played well in 1986-87, winning 16 games. Their 8-4 conference record was good enough for a tie with Evansville for the regular season title. Andre Moore averaged 20.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game. Moore tied his own Loyola single-season record for blocks with 66, and set the school career record with 176. The Denver Nuggets selected Moore with the 31st pick in the 1987 NBA Draft. Bernard Jackson averaged 22.8 points per game to lead the Ramblers offensively. Late-season surging Xavier won the MCC Tournament that season, however, and also won an opening round game in the NCAA Tournament. It was the third NCAA Tournament berth ever for Xavier, and the second NCAA bid in what would become a string of six straight tournament appearances for the Musketeers. No one could have imagined it would be 15 years before Loyola would have another winning season.

The International Amphitheater in Chicago

The International Amphitheater at 4220 S. Halsted in Chicago. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Great performances by newcomers and some impressive recruiting led to an super-high hopes for the 1987-88 season. Loyola would move to a new, exclusive home court: the historic and absurdly-inconvenient International Amphitheater at 4220 S. Halsted Avenue. It was a venue that hosted five major-party political conventions (Republicans in 1952 and 1960, Democrats in 1952, 1956, and 1968) and two NBA franchises in its history. Loyola would be an anchor tenant in the arena’s revitalization. But the Amphitheater was next to the long-gone Union Stockyards on the South Side, 1.7 miles from the closest El station (35th & Dan Ryan), and 15.7 miles from Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus.

Kenny Miller

Kenny Miller had a successful pro career after leaving Loyola.

Despite having phenomenal talent in 1987-88, the Ramblers finished below .500 at 13-16. Junior Gerald Heyward finished fourth nationally in points per game at 26.1, behind only Hershey Hawkins, Darren Queenan, and Anthony Mason. Freshman Kenny Miller led all rebounders in the NCAA with 13.6 per game and 395 boards overall, while adding 14.7 points per game… as a FRESHMAN. The Ramblers also had promising performers like freshman Keir Rogers (3.1 ppg, eventually one of Loyola’s top-10 scorers), junior Antowne Johnson (8.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg), and redshirt junior guard Keith Carter (11.7 ppg, 5.7 assists per game) set to return for 1988-89.

1987-88 Rebound leaders

Loyola’s Kenny Miller led the nation in rebounds in 1987-88.

Yet even with some pretty good basketball and attendance draws like UIC, Northwestern, Cincinnatti, and Bradley, the move to the Amphitheater resulted in a 21% attendance drop from the previous season at the UIC Pavilion. Loyola’s average home attendance fell to 2601 per game, falling below 3000 for the first time since 1980-81.

At the beginning of the 1988-89 season, Kenny Miller and 6’4″ junior guard Tim Bankston were ruled academically ineligible. At first, Miller said he would stay at Loyola and try to regain eligibility. A year and a half later, under time pressure and family tragedies, he was still trying. Without Miller, Loyola had no starters taller than 6’6”.

Early into the conference season, on Jan. 12, 1989, Loyola beat Xavier to move to 2-1 in conference and 6-7 overall. The following day, Friday the 13th, the university ruled center Antowne Johnson and Gerald Heyward academically ineligible by Loyola academic standards (but not by the more lenient NCAA standards applicable to most other Division I schools). Johnson and Heyward averaged a combined 41.6 points and 20.6 rebounds per game. Both players were in their last year of eligibility, so the decision effectively ended their college basketball careers. Heyward scored 1264 career points at Loyola, and Johnson notched 362 rebounds in one full season and parts of two others. Their departures left the Ramblers with only six available scholarship players and two walk-ons. Newcomer Keith Gailes got plenty of playing time and made the most of it, averaging 22.5 points per game in the first of his three seasons at Loyola; he finished his career in 1991 as the school’s second-highest career scorer. Attendance fell again in 1988-89, from 2601 the first year in the 9,000-seat International Amphitheater to only 1918 per game. Squabbles with the Amphitheater over amenities, attendance, and contract disputes spilled over into articles in the newspaper.

When Chuck Schwarz was hired as Athletic Director in 1988, he was ready and willing to make big changes in the athletic department. By the end of the 1988-89 season, advisers who supported higher academic standards than the NCAA were holding sway in counseling Loyola University President Fr. Raymond Baumhart, S.J.. Fr. Baumhart had been Loyola President since 1970, and was not known for his interest or support for athletics. In March 1989, Coach Gene Sullivan was let go after establishing a 149-114 record at Loyola. On May 1, 1989 Will Rey, a top assistant at Evansville, was hired to take over the reins at Loyola. He beat out very popular former Loyola assistant Doug Bruno for the position.

All through the late 1980s, Loyola played top competition and won their fair share of big games:

  • Nov. 30, 1985 Loyola beats #15 N.C. State, 60-58
  • Dec. 28, 1986 Loyola beat #9 Illinois, 83-82
  • Dec. 7, 1988 Loyola beat Wisconsin, 90-76
  • Jan. 21, 1989 Loyola beat DePaul, 70-69

Yet the number of wins and the team’s winning percentage shrunk each year as the 80s wound to a close. After rebounding to 16 wins and a tie for the conference regular season title in 1986-87, the Ramblers sank to 13 wins in 1987-88, 11 in 1988-89, and only 7 in 1989-90 (Will Rey’s first season).

The former Midwest City Conference was undergoing changes, too. The name was changed to Midwestern Collegiate Conference in 1985-86. In 1988-89, Dayton was added to replace Oral Roberts, which had dropped out of the conference to go Independent. The following year, the league would add Marquette, giving the Midwestern Collegiate Conference an impressive membership roster for the 1989-90 season: Butler, Dayton, Detroit, Evansville, Loyola, Marquette, Saint Louis, and Xavier.

Loyola basketball began the 1989-90 season with a new, first-time head coach at yet another new venue, the Rosemont Horizon. The Horizon was the fourth different home court in a five-year period, which included the indignity of playing at the on-campus home courts of UIC and DePaul. The team had been cleared of any players with marginal academics, and players were now held to a higher academic standard than most other schools. New leadership, new recruiting priorities, and stronger competition in the conference would test the strength of the athletic program and the school’s commitment to athletics.

Spoiler alert: It gets darker.

To be continued.

The Dark Years: An Introduction

The longtime die-hard fans of the Loyola Ramblers men’s basketball team have suffered through some pretty bleak seasons for most of the 33 years since their last NCAA Tournament appearance. In the 2017-18 season, however, the sudden and improbable success of the Ramblers was not only an amazing, happy surprise, it was a bit disorienting.

The month of March had always been a quiet and reflective time for Loyola men’s basketball fans, a time when it became a mental health exercise to process the jealousy Rambler fans felt for the Butlers and VCUs and George Masons of the world. It was a time to snort cynical rationalizations against successful Xavier, Dayton, or Gonzaga teams, and wonder in mumbling tones whether our love for Loyola was too much of a burden.

And then, BOOM! The 2017-18 season!

Loyola players celebrate after winning a regional final NCAA college basketball tournament game against Kansas State, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Could it have been any more joyful, from start to finish? Most Loyola fans knew that the team would be pretty good. But winning a conference regular season or tournament is another matter altogether, and something Loyola hasn’t done since the mid-1980s. If you’re at all like me, you were entranced, amazed, and delighted by EVERY… SINGLE… ELEMENT of Loyola’s dramatic run in March 2018. I’m still watching game replays and highlights to make sure it all really happened in the absolutely amazing way it did.

Yes, it did happen, and it happened in exactly that amazing way. Our eyes and ears and other sensibilities aren’t betraying us. It was crazy-amazing.

But the last-second heroics, the buzzer-beaters, the clutch last minute steals, and the screaming fans at Damen Student Center and bars around Chicago was even more fantastic than most people know. Because for a decent-sized group of loyal, long-suffering fans, Loyola and the Ramblers had crossed one of college basketball’s cruelest and most punishing deserts—a 33-year NCAA Tournament drought—and come out on the other side in college basketball’s Eden.

YEARS IN THE WILDERNESS

Only a handful teams in all of college basketball have endured a longer drought between tournament appearances. And aside from one school that dropped entirely from the Division I level after a scandal (CCNY), no other former NCAA Tournament champion has gone through any remotely similar dry spell.

Most of the young people who looked at the gray-hairs going crazy last March had little idea of the 33-year exile from college basketball relevance Loyola fans endured. It wasn’t just mediocre– much of it was bad, and a lot of it was incredibly bad. Ignominiously bad. Shameful to the institution bad.

If the modern Loyola Ramblers are to build a resilient fan base with knowledgeable and vibrant fans of all ages, it’s important that the younger folks know the full extent of THE DARK YEARS. For a lot of the fans who came along in the 21st Century, they might not know about the worst of the bad years, the ones die-hards suffered through, the worst of the worst years, the long and shameful and embarrassing and hurtful and trying and terrible years.

These were years where there was nobody there, when it was so quiet during the game you could hear planes flying over the roof and the hum of the heating and cooling system at the old Rosemont Horizon. During these years, the basketball team with LOYOLA on their chests was so bad, it felt like serving penance to be a Loyola fan. In the four years from 1992-1996, Loyola had five separate losing streaks of eight games or more, including a 12-game losing streak. In those four awful years, the team won only 11 regular season conference games out of 55 played, and only 23 games total against Division I competition. Four of those 23 wins (and two very embarrassing losses) were against teams from the weakest conferences in men’s basketball.

Yes, it’s important that everyone has a great time with the recent (and probable future) success of the Ramblers. Young people need to know and experience The Glory, yes. But it’s also important that Loyola fans know about the many haunting, tortured years of aimless futility as well. Going over some of the bad decisions and missed opportunities of the past might help sustain success going forward. As a fanbase we can also be proud that we stuck it out through some very bleak years. And so that’s where we will begin the tale of…. THE DARK YEARS.

A Season of Dreams Come True

The Chicago skyline lit in maroon and gold supporting Loyola in the NCAA Final Four.

The Chicago skyline lit in maroon and gold supporting Loyola in the NCAA Final Four. @zoegalland/via Twitter

This is the column I’ve been dreading having to write since a day or two before Loyola’s first NCAA Tournament game, nearly three weeks ago. Yes, of course I enjoyed every game, and most of the time between the games in Loyola’s amazing 2018 NCAA Tournament run. But I knew there was something like a 99-point-something chance the Ramblers would lose at some point in the 2018 NCAA tournament. And that it would be the end of a dream-come-true season for me, the most enjoyable season by far in my nearly 30 years of following Loyola hoops. And I would have to write about it.

The dreaded task of writing the obituary of the season; it would mean saying farewell to some great players, with endearing personalities I’ve come to know and admire. It would mean acknowledging the end of a season of wonder that smashed so many stubborn negative streaks and stereotypes that have held Loyola basketball back. Now I would have to instead wonder if Loyola could build on success, and how to help bring the conference up as well. And having it end suddenly, with an ignominious loss to an over-seeded Power Five program in the first or second round was going to be hard.

But time after time, the Ramblers pulled out inspiring victories against teams few thought they could beat, putting off the inevitable task until Loyola was in the Final Four. THE FINAL FOUR!

Put it in perspective… Loyola was picked to finish third in the MVC, a conference that almost everyone agreed would likely be a one-bid league after Wichita State’s exit. And even that seemed like a stretch for a lot of observers; this was a team that had never finished above .500 in the MVC, hadn’t had a winning conference season since 2007, and was 64 games under .500 in conference play over the past 10 years. Coach Porter Moser hadn’t had a winning season in conference as a head coach since guiding Arkansas-Little Rock to an 8-6 mark in 2003.

Even after the season got rolling and the Ramblers beat #5 Florida on the road, there were still question marks and setbacks. A blowout loss at Boise State was ugly and sobering. Custer and Richardson were lost to injury for a combined 15 games. A loss at Milwaukee and a home loss to Indiana State all but assured Loyola would have to win the MVC Tournament to get to the Big Dance.

On the morning of January 4, 2018, Loyola was 11-4 overall, and 1-2 in conference—with the next two games on the road against the two most recently successful programs in the MVC. Yes, there was the win at Florida, but the Gators had dropped out of the AP Top 25 by New Year’s Day. And Loyola’s second-best win at that point was a home W over Wright State.

The next game against UNI was the return of Clayton Custer from his ankle injury suffered against Florida. And from there, Loyola won 14 of their next 15 games to finish the regular season at 15-3. It was their first regular season conference championship since 1987. After beating UNI, Bradley, and Illinois State to win Arch Madness, the Ramblers won their first conference tournament title and secured their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1985.

And the “first since” and other milestones just kept coming: first Loyola tournament win since 1985, longest Loyola winning streak since 1985, first Sweet 16 by a team from Illinois since 2006, longest active winning streak in college basketball, first Elite Eight appearance for Loyola since 1963, first Elite Eight appearance by a team from Illinois since 2005, etc.

One other “first since” was Loyola’s first appearance on the national stage since the social media age began. And the stories and videos and memes of Sister Jean, Custer and Richardson’s friendship, the Wall of Culture, and Chicago latching on to the Ramblers as a feel-good story was made to blow up social media. Sometimes inspiring eye-rolls, and sometimes inspiring tears, Loyola also had a Final Four level Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Soundcloud and media game.

I knew there had to be a season-ending piece, but I had no idea it would take so long. Loyola blew past my main goal for the season, an NCAA Tournament appearance, with Donte Ingram’s beautiful three-point shot splashing at the buzzer against Miami. At that point I was more than satisfied. Then came Custer’s miracle, off-balance, running 20-foot jumper against #3 seed Tennessee that hit rim, bounced high off glass, and through. Then the Townes three against #7 Nevada. And a relative blowout against K-State. But that time, I was hoping against hope that I’d never have to write that column that ended with a loss.

Success always plays with your mind. And as Loyola had a 10-point lead midway in the second half against Michigan, it played hard. “Are we going to win this? I think we can win this! We’re going to win this! We are going to the National Championship Final!” It played so hard that the shift in the pace of the game being dictated by Michigan, and the slowly tightening noose of the Michigan defense were barely noticeable. Until the lead was down to 3. Then nothing. Then negative three. And negative six. Finally, 57-69.

I felt bad for the Loyola players who were taking it so hard, in large part because I wasn’t taking it so hard. I felt bad for the students on TV who went down to San Antonio and looked crushed when Loyola lost. I knew that the day would come to write the column that marked the end. But the players didn’t have any concept of an end to the season until it finally arrived, sudden and severe. That sincere #NoFinishLine belief by both players and fans was probably a big part of why they were in San Antonio on the last weekend of the college basketball season.

I remember watching Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson play in their first game as Ramblers, November 11, 2014. That was the year Loyola went to their first post-season tournament in 30 years, when Loyola won the CBI in Richardson and Ingram’s freshman year, part of Loyola’s first recruiting class as members of the MVC. Both of them took steps forward year by year, adding or improving a new facet to their game each off season. And they became steeped in the emerging Loyola culture, helping to integrate players like Lucas Williamson, Aundre Jackson, and Clayton Custer into the philosophy behind Loyola basketball.

As their college basketball careers end in the 2018 Final Four in San Antonio, Richardson and Ingram have been a part of 89 wins against 50 losses in their Loyola careers—the most wins for four-year players since—- EVER, for Loyola. Donte Ingram finishes his career with 1235 points, 688 rebounds, and 175 three-pointers. Ben Richardson ends with 761 points, 306 assists, and 302 rebounds. Both won prestigious league awards—Donte Ingram with the 2018 Second Team recognition and 2018 Arch Madness Most Outstanding Player, and Ben Richardson with the 2018 MVC Defensive Player of the Year award. Donte and Ben—and fellow seniors Aundre Jackson, Nick DiNardi and Carson Shanks– leave Loyola and their fans with banners, trophies, and memories. And most important, they’ve established a new sense of pride, and a culture of success in the program.

Thank you to everyone in the Loyola community—players, coaches, administrators, trainers, sports information, fans, students, and friends—who helped make this fantastic season happen.