College Sports

East St. Louis' Victor Rouse and the Loyola Ramblers helped integrate NCAA basketball

Loyola coach George Ireland confers with his starting players during a timeout. Second from left is Vic Rouse (No. 40), who grew up in East St. Louis.
Loyola coach George Ireland confers with his starting players during a timeout. Second from left is Vic Rouse (No. 40), who grew up in East St. Louis.

Almost daily, the office phone rings with a reader wanting to know why the BND covered this or, more likely, why we didn't cover that.

Occasionally, the best answer I have is, "I'm sorry, but I wasn't aware."

Such was the answer I gave a reader late last Friday. And I've truly never regretted my lack of awareness more. I'm sorry that I didn't know the full story of the 1963 Loyola men's basketball team or the prominent role a local student-athlete played in its transformative NCAA Championship.

Vic Rouse was both the son and the brother of influential pastors at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in East St. Louis. He was also the power forward and leading rebounder on a Loyola team that fought through the caste rules of segregationist America and changed the way black athletes were viewed in college sports.

To retell this important story, we must first go back 55 years to the Jim Crow South. Perhaps I'm naive, but it's still hard for me to accept that in 1963 — a scant few years before my own birth — that segregationist attitudes not just existed, but were transparent in mainstream U.S. culture.

But back then, there still existed a gentleman's agreement among NCAA coaches that limited the home team to no more than two black players on the court at a time. Sometimes the visiting team could play just one player of color.

But Loyola head coach George Ireland had a short bench and went against the unwritten rules by starting his best five players, whatever their color or creed. Four of them were black. Among the Ramblers "Ironmen" was the 6-foot-7 Rouse, a product of Franklin Elementary School and Hughes-Quinn Junior High in East St. Louis.

Loyola won its first 20 games and finished the season 24-2 with a No. 3 ranking in Associated Press poll.

Rouse had played two seasons under Earl "Tree" Harris at East St. Louis Lincoln before his father, the Rev. Walter A. Rouse sent him to Nashville to live with his grandmother and older siblings.

Les Hunter, Vic Rouse's friend and teammate both at Pearl High School in Nashville and Loyola, said he wasn't sure what prompted that move, but suspected Rev. Rouse send his children away to distance them from sometimes violent racial divisions in East St. Louis.

"I don't really know for sure why he moved to Nashville," Hunter told me by phone from his Kansas City home. "I think it might have been to get away from East St. Louis. That city was a tough place to be."

Rouse scores.jpg
Vic Rouse scores the game-winning shot at the buzzer of the 1963 NCAA Championship game against Cincinnati. AP

Pearl High School was a segregated black high school in Nashville, not far from American Baptist Theology Seminary and Tennessee State University, which his older brother, John Rouse, attended.

Later on, Vic Rouse returned to East St. Louis only to visit with his brother, who moved back in 1975 to become pastor for the same congregation their father once led. Before his death from congestive heart failure in 2011, the Rev. Rouse had the ear of government leaders from East St. Louis City Hall to the White House and had been a local figure in the civil rights movement.

In 1963, however, his kid brother was too focused on basketball and his college studies to be politically active. He nevertheless found himself front and center in a pair of transformative moments in NCAA history.

In the first round of the 1963 NCAA Tournament, Loyola dispatched Tennessee Tech, 111-42, in what remains the most lopsided outcome of a tournament game.

The Ramblers then advanced to a second-round game against No. 7 Mississippi State, which had won consecutive Southeastern Conference championships, but refused previous invitations to the NCAA Tournament because of an archaic state law that prohibited state colleges from competing against integrated opponents.

It was just the year prior that Ole Miss became the state's first integrated public university when James H. Meredith attended classes under the protective watch of federal marshals.

The Bulldogs players, however, wanted to prove themselves in the NCAA Tournament. They had the support of university president D.W. Colvard, but not of Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, who backed a court-ordered injunction to block the team's participation. It took an appeal before the Mississippi Supreme Court to allow the game to go on.

Loyola defeated Mississippi State, 61-51, in what has since become known as "The Game of Change," because of the sportsmanship displayed between black and white players on the court afterward and because of what the Ramblers did to put an exclamation point on their season.

They dispatched No. 8 Illinois and No. 2 Duke to reach the championship game against top-ranked Cincinnati. Loyola rallied from a 15-point deficit to with 10 minutes left to tie the title game and force overtime.

It was Rouse who followed up a missed shot by Hunter to sink the game winner at the buzzer. The starting five celebrated on the court, having each played the entire game from start to finish.

Rouse's clutch basket is remembered today as the "Basketball Shot Heard Round the World." It echoed throughout the NCAA, showing the old-boys network of white coaches that a team built around black players could not only compete, but be a champion.

It was just three seasons later, in 1966, that the Texas Western Miners became the first team to win the NCAA Championship with five black players in the starting lineup. They defeated Kentucky, which didn't have a black player until 1969.

Rouse averaged 13.5 points and led the Ramblers with 12.1 rebounds per game that season and was an honorable mention All-American, despite earning honors through a six-course academic schedule. He was selected by the Cincinnati Royals in the 1964 NBA Draft, but elected instead to continue his education, completing three master's degrees and a doctorate. By the time he was 28, Rouse established his own business consulting firm which stressed minority hiring.

Loyola retired Rouse's number 40 in 1993. He died in Annapolis, Maryland in 1999 at the age of 56 and is buried next to his older brother, near Centreville.

Hunter played a single season for the NBA's Baltimore Bullets (where he was teammates with Edwardville's Don Ohl) and was a two-time all-star in the old American Basketball Association.

He said Rouse would have enjoyed the Ramblers' Final Four run in 2018, which ended with a semifinal loss to Michigan Saturday.

"Vic was the most focused person I ever met, whether it was basketball or academics," Hunter said. "He would really have gotten into this season. I wish he was still here to see this."

For the rest of us, the story of the 1963 Loyola Ramblers and what they did to bring overdue change to college basketball is a story worth knowing.

Todd Eschman is the sports editor of the Belleville News-Democrat. He can be reached at 618-239-2540.

Loyola Chicago team chaplain Sister Jean talks about being the star of the NCAA Tournament during her team's surprise run in the NCAA Tournament.