Ramble on: After years of shooting in the dark, nice to see Loyola in spotlight again.

Pardon me if I find it amusing that the whole world has discovered the Loyola Ramblers.

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The Sister Jean mania is awesome. So heart-warming. So One Shining Moment.

I’m always excited to see what fascinating wardrobe ensemble coach Porter Moser will come up with. I love the paisley-plaid-check combos.

Oh, and by the way, gotta love the way the Ramblers play.

Sweet 16? Excellent!

And yet, it’s strange. Because most of my memories of Loyola are that it’s destined to be under-appreciated, not basking in the limelight.

Which is really strange when you consider that Loyola is the only team from the Land of Lincoln that has won an NCAA championship.

That might not seem like a big deal at the moment, as down as the state is. But the University of Illinois has a great history and a fistful of Final Fours. Bradley (two ancient Final Fours! NITs galore!), Southern Illinois (Walt `Clyde’ Frazier!) and DePaul (George Mikan! Superstation WGN!) all come to mind.

But Loyola, which cut down the nets in 1963, is the only team from Illinois that has won an NCAA championship.

Even that marvelous championship missed an opportunity for immortality. The Ramblers, who had four black starters, easily deserve the attention that Texas Western received for winning with five black starters in 1966.

The Ramblers beat perennial power Cincinnati 60-58 in the championship game. But some major drama came earlier in the tournament. Mississippi State had to go through some amazing ``hoops,'' defying Gov. Ross Barnett to play against a team of `African-Americans.’

There’s a great book (Ramblers, by Michael Lenehan) on the ’63 team, if you want to know more.

I only remember that team vaguely. But it did kindle an interest in Loyola basketball.

Riding the L to Wrigley Field as kids, we would always see the sign on their gym, ``Loyola Ramblers. 1963 NCAA champions.’’ As the years went by, it became more weathered.

I wasn’t as into Loyola hoops as some of my buddies. Even then, I was an Illinois/Big Ten guy. But after 1963, when the Ramblers went 29-2, they had other big years, including 22-3 in 1965-66, before coming back to earth. You couldn't help but be interested.

A big hook in those days was Red Rush doing Ramblers’ radio.

``It’s good! Just like Gonnella Bread!’’ Red would say after a made basket. That’s a catch-phrase that always brings mirth when I see my buddy Dave Jones, the Harrisburg legend who’s about to become a hoops Hall of Famer. Jones could pick up Rush on his radio in Ohio.

My favorite, though, was: ``It looks like Corky didn’t eat his Slotkowski Sausage today,’’ after a missed shot.

After that ‘60s heyday, Loyola basketball dipped back into the shadows.

It was DePaul that emerged as the Chicago city school to follow. In the ‘70s, Ray Meyer started reeling in local kids who could play. In 1979, though, the Ramblers, despite a modest 12-15 campaign, surprised the Blue Demons 101-99 in the final regular-season game.

That game was played at Northwestern’s McGaw Hall, and it was wonderful. I went to that game with a couple of buddies. In those days, you could walk up and buy a cheap ticket, and sit right behind the basket—and feel involved in the rebounding war.

DePaul went on to the Final Four that spring, losing to Larry Bird and Indiana State 76-74 in the semi-finals, and setting up the Bird-Magic Johnson classic. I’ll always wonder, though, whether that would have happened if DePaul center James Mitchem had been playing on two healthy ankles in the Indiana State game.

Loyola, meanwhile, had a nice Sweet 16 run in 1985, under Gene Sullivan, who had gone from DePaul AD to Ramblers coach. That team, a No. 4 seed, simply ran into top-seed Georgetown, which was shocked by Villanova in the championship game.

I would like to tell you that Chicago embraces its city basketball teams the way Philadelphia does. But that’s not the case.

It’s nice, I suppose, that Chicago media, who generally can't be bothered, have jumped on the Rambler bandwagon with both feet this month. But that’s the nature of media these days.

Day in and day out, when they’re just plugging away, Ramblers basketball isn’t that big of a thing.

When I was breaking into sports long ago, I remember covering Loyola games where attendance was not mandatory. Even when the Ramblers were in the hunt for the Midwestern City Conference championship with schools like Xavier, Oral Roberts and Evansville, only a few thousand fans would show up.

Even this year, when Loyola was marching to the Missouri Valley Conference championship, it didn’t have a sellout at 4,963-seat Gentile Arena, which is a nice, relatively new building, until its final home game, against Illinois State on Feb. 24.

Heading into that game, Loyola was averaging 2,222 at home.

Some Big Ten teams wouldn’t even bother to turn on the popcorn popper for that kind of crowd.

I’ll be interested to see what happens with Porter Moser if he receives offers to leave—which he undoubtedly will.

I don’t want to cast skepticism on this wonderful Rambler ride.

My wife got her master’s at Loyola. My cousin went to law school there. His wife earned a graduate degree there. My next-door neighbor is the daughter of the late Nick Kladis, who was the star attraction at Loyola in the early ‘50s.

In a lot of ways, Loyola is Chicago college hoops—with all of its ups and downs.

But what a great run this is.

Keep it going, Ramblers. Can’t wait to see those clips of Sister Jean touring the Alamo.

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