"Today is Ash Wednesday," Sports Illustrated columnist Frank DeFord wrote recently, "and if recent history is any guide, once again Roman Catholic colleges will be giving up the NCAA basketball championship for Lent." DeFord was referring to the fact that a Catholic school hasn’t won an NCAA final since 1985. With number one seed Villanova's exit from the 2006 tournament, DeFord's prediction was borne out.
But as DeFord noted and recent lack of success aside, the history of Catholic college basketball is worth recalling. With March Madness in full swing, it is a fitting time to remember the colorful characters, heartrending losses, and, yes, stunning victories.
James Naismith invented basketball in 1891. It didn't take long for colleges to take up competitive ball and leagues were formed by the turn of the century. The NCAA Tournament that has birthed March Madness dates to 1939. The first televised college games were played at Madison Square Garden in 1940. Catholic schools—Fordham and Georgetown—were on the losing side of both contests.
One of the most storied tournaments outside of the NCAA was the Philadelphia Big 5—the “biggest, most envied, unique, and frenetic, intracity rivalry” in the history of college basketball, which lasted from 1955 to 1991. With Philadelphia’s history of ethnic and religious strife, its large and vocal Catholic population, and its three Catholic colleges, it was inevitable that religious identity would play a role in the tournament among the University of Pennsylvania, Temple, St. Joseph’s, La Salle, and Villanova.
The first Catholic college to make its mark in the NCAA tourney was Holy Cross, in 1947. The upstart Crusaders were the unlikeliest of champions, a small, developing program whose campus lacked a basketball court. “The success of Holy Cross,” sportswriter Joe Gergen observes, “was a triumph of spirit and an act of fantasy.” Led by 6’ 3” center George Kaftan, Holy Cross defeated Oklahoma for the national championship at Madison Square Garden.
In the 1947 final, freshman Bob Cousy had two points in limited time for the Crusaders. With Cousy coming into his own as a sophomore, Holy Cross made it back to the eastern final in 1948, losing to eventual national champion Kentucky.
The Christian Brothers’ LaSalle College was the next Catholic school to win a championship. Like Holy Cross, it was a small school (1,000 students) with an infant basketball program. It was enough, though, to attract Philly native Tom Gola, 6’-6”, who graduated from adjacent LaSalle High School. The Explorers won the NIT in 1952 by beating four Catholic colleges, but they had a disappointing 1953 season. In 1954, the NCAA tournament, now expanded to 24 teams, invited LaSalle, and the Explorers responded by running the tables, besting Bradley in the finals.
In 1955, another nascent Catholic school program burst onto the scene. Given his lackluster high school career, a young Bill Russell went unrecruited by the major programs. A black Baptist, he went to the only school that offered him a scholarship, the Jesuit University of San Francisco. Joined by Hal Perry and K.C. Jones, Russell led the Dons to a number one ranking and finals victory over Tom Gola and LaSalle. In 1956, USF was dominant, establishing itself as one of the best teams ever to play in the NCAA. Russell and company went 29–0, notching their 55th consecutive win in the tournament championship game.
The next time a Catholic school sat atop the world of NCAA basketball was 1963. As was usually the case, the Catholic team began as underdogs. Loyola University of Chicago’s Ramblers, with four black starters, had already had a remarkable season, drawing attention to segregation by playing in the South. They entered the championship game ranked 3rd in the nation, but were expected to falter against powerhouse Cincinnati, aiming for its 3rd consecutive title. But Jerry Harkness-led Loyola beat the Bearcats on a last-second putback, 60–58.
No program—Catholic or otherwise—had much chance in the Lew Alcindor-Bill Walton-UCLA-dominated period of 1968–1973. Coach Don Donoher’s University of Dayton Flyers were overwhelmed by UCLA in the 1967 finale to begin the Bruins’ extraordinary run. In 1974, however, another Catholic school, Notre Dame, put an end to UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, and Al McGuire-coached Marquette found its way to the NCAA finals, losing to North Carolina State.
In the meantime, a national tournament for collegiate women's basketball had begun. In a cinderella story reminiscent of Holy Cross—if not even more remarkable—tiny Immaculata College outside Philadelphia won the first three AIAW titles (1972–1974).
In 1982, the NCAA started its women's tourney. The only Catholic women's team to win an NCAA championship was Notre Dame in 2001. Led by player of the year Ruth Riley, the Irish downed Purdue, 68–66.
Back on the men's side, the Marquette Warriors, with 7 losses, barely made the tourney cut in 1977. But they were a juggernaut during the tournament, beating North Carolina in the title game. The improbable championship provided one of the most memorable images in tournament history: usually stormy coach Al McGuire weeping on the bench as the game came to an end.
With the help of freshman center Patrick Ewing, the Georgetown Hoyas went to the finals in 1982. They lost a squeaker to North Carolina, led by James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and its own freshman sensation, Michael Jordan. Coach John Thompson and Ewing were back in 1984 (having survived a regional finals scare from University of Dayton), this time facing Akeem Olajuwon’s Houston squad. The battle of the big men went to Ewing and the Hoyas, who triumphed 84–75.
One of the most extraordinary years in Catholic NCAA basketball was 1985. Three of the four teams in the Final Four were Catholic, Big East schools: Georgetown, St. John’s, and Villanova. Memphis State coach Dana Kirk quipped, “We already won the non-Catholic championship of the nation.” Kirk’s team had narrowly escaped Boston College, a fourth Big East—and Catholic—school, in the previous round.
Georgetown, with Ewing in his senior year, was the favorite to win again. Hailed as one of the best teams in NCAA history, the Hoyas beat Chris Mullin’s Redmen from St. John’s in the semifinals to set up a showdown with Villanova. In the finals, coach Rollie Massimino’s Villanova Wildcats slowed the game down, shot an incredible 22 of 28 from the field, and beat Georgetown, 66–64.
A Catholic college team has not won the men's championship since 1985. Seton Hall made it to the finals in 1989. Gonzaga captured the country’s imagination with its unlikely run to the Elite Eight in 1999. Catholic schools have given the NCAA some of the most memorable characters, most dominant teams, and most amazing cinderellas in tourney history. But they have not provided a championship team for twenty-one years—the longest such drought to date.