By John Gasaway
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In MIRACLES ON THE HARDWOOD, author John Gasaway traces the rise of Catholic college basketball—from its early days (Villanova made an appearance in the Final Four in the first NCAA tournament in 1939) to the dominance of the San Francisco Dons in the 1950s and the ascendance of powerhouses Georgetown, Villanova, and Gonzaga—through their decades-long rivalries and championship games. Featuring interviews with notable coaches, players, alums, and fans—including Loyola Chicago's most famous and dedicated fan, 100-year-old Sister Jean—to get at the heart of how these universities have excelled at this sport.
Small in number but devout in the game's spirit, these teams have made the miraculous a matter of ritual, and their greatest works may be yet to come.
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Catholic schools are good at college basketball. When such programs do well over the first weekend or, especially, the first two weekends of an NCAA tournament, feature stories are duly written up explaining how this proficiency came to be. So far, the overarching run of success from Tom Gola and Bill Russell through Dave Gavitt and John Thompson all the way down to Mark Few and Jay Wright would seem to support such an interpretation.
Coach Wright once said that basketball in the Big East, a conference inextricably though not exclusively associated with the Catholic religion, is “like a religion.”
My hope is that this book might shed a bit of light on the American paths of both faiths.
It takes an army of players, coaches, scouts, doctors, trainers, and bottleholders to make up a football team. Two or three good players, plus a few spares, and a coach who doesn’t drink on the job can make up a winning basketball team, and that can happen to a small school as well as a large one.
—San Francisco Examiner, 1956
Parish and Plains
On the day after her 100th birthday in 2019, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt received a visitor in her office and talked about college basketball. Sister Jean had become a household name as chaplain for a Loyola Chicago team that made a surprise run to the 2018 Final Four. When she was asked by a reporter at that year’s NCAA tournament what it was like to wake up and find oneself a national celebrity, she edited the question before answering it: “International celebrity.”
In her office that day, Sister Jean shifted effortlessly between discussing the X’s and O’s of the 2018 Ramblers and dissecting Loyola’s national champions from 1963. She had observed both teams at close range and, as a basketball addict, her knowledge extended well beyond the Ramblers. Sister Jean spoke perceptively of Bill Russell at San Francisco, as well as of the St. John’s teams of the 1950s. She could cite chapter and verse from all of the above, based not on research conducted decades after the fact but on the real-time observations of an enthralled fan.
Speaking with Sister Jean about any 20th-century event leads to a quick mental calculation of her age at the time in question. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, she was already teaching at a parochial school in Southern California. She was born less than 30 years after James Naismith invented the game of basketball, and her spectating predated the creation of both the National Invitation and the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournaments. The joy that Sister Jean found in watching basketball and the contentment in her voice when noting that Loyola is the only team from Illinois ever to win the NCAA tournament (“We’re very proud of that”) were both unmistakable. She’s also been impressed by what she’s seen from Catholic programs more recently and from Villanova in particular.
Consider one pocket history of 21st-century Catholic college basketball: Villanova won two NCAA titles, Gonzaga reached the national championship game, Loyola Chicago made its run to the Final Four, and Marquette and Georgetown appeared in national semifinals in their own rights. During this same span, Xavier earned a No. 1 seed and reached no fewer than three Elite Eights, while Saint Joseph’s also received a top seed and entered the tournament with a 27–1 record. Wooden Awards have been won this century by players from St. Joe’s (Jameer Nelson), Creighton (Doug McDermott), Villanova (Jalen Brunson), and Dayton (Obi Toppin). Nor will we ever know what might have transpired in a 2020 NCAA tournament that was never played, one in which Gonzaga and, potentially, Dayton might have earned top seeds.
Perhaps the first element to note in such a thumbnail is that so many of the programs named—all of them, actually, except Villanova and Dayton—represent Jesuit institutions. This prominence is a feature not only of Catholic basketball but perhaps additionally of Catholic higher education as it’s commonly perceived. While they are a populous and visible presence, Jesuit institutions, or indeed those of any one order, do not constitute a majority of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. Nevertheless, the frequent conflation of “Catholic” with “Jesuit” persists among the general public, and college basketball is likely one significant contributing factor.
There are nearly 250 Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States, of which less than 20 percent play Division I basketball. For Jesuit colleges and universities, conversely, that figure is closer to 80 percent. With but a few exceptions, like Rockhurst in Kansas City, Regis in Denver, and John Carroll near Cleveland, a “Jesuit campus” tends to be synonymous with “men’s team that plays D-I basketball.” The 11-member Big East conference alone includes no fewer than four Jesuit programs. Jesuits are far less ubiquitous in the halls of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities than they are on ESPN. When Loyola faces DePaul or when Fordham plays Manhattan, there are priestly bragging rights on the line in these clashes between different Catholic orders.
Today’s successful Catholic programs might fairly be said to stand on the shoulders of 20th-century giants: Mikan, Cousy, Gola, Russell, and Baylor, not to mention Gavitt, Thompson, Massimino, Ewing, Mullin, Gathers, and Kimble. The story of that success is by turns inspiring, surprising, troubling, and illuminating. It is, above all, a story that is both American and Catholic, despite its setting within a sport invented as a means of proselytizing by a Presbyterian from Canada. Catholic colleges embraced Naismith’s game in its infancy and never looked back.
Hundreds of colleges of all types, sizes, and affiliations did the same, of course. It’s a mark of Naismith’s genius that he created a sport whose numerous and dissimilar adherents competed so avidly to be seen as its foremost disciples. In this rivalry dating to the sport’s earliest years, we can glimpse the emergence of two distinct traditions of college basketball that have proven to be remarkably durable. These differing variants within the game may be termed the “parish” and “plains” varieties of the sport. They are far from the only such traditions within college basketball, and these nominal opposites are in fact alike and ultimately constricted by the fact that both were uniformly white in their origins. The two traditions are the direct result of a creation story that is itself dichotomous. Naismith invented what is, among its many perfections, the perfect city sport. He was inspired in part by a game he played in the great outdoors as a child on a farm. Parish and plains.
At first glance, the two traditions may appear to have reversed their respective “real-world” roles. The Catholic Church dates back two millennia. Yet within the confines of a mere game invented just 100-some years ago, it is the plains tradition that holds pride of place. In basketball terms, it beat the parish tradition to the spot. The sport itself was created under the auspices and, indeed, at the specific behest of the Young Men’s Christian Association. No less a plains giant than Kansas head coach Phog Allen himself took the lead in establishing the National Association of Basketball Coaches in 1927. No less a college basketball landmark than the NCAA tournament itself was proposed by Ohio State coach Harold Olsen, with Allen’s enthusiastic and crucial backing, as a response to the parish tradition’s inaugural National Invitation Tournament. It is the plains tradition that can claim the closest thing college basketball has to a recognized apostolic succession dating back to the creation: Naismith, Allen, Adolph Rupp.
The plains tradition embraced baroque administrative hierarchies and ex cathedra dictates to an extent befitting Rome in the time of Pope Leo XIII. In place of bishops, cardinals, and a pontiff, the plains school of thought installed athletic directors, conference commissioners, and, at the pinnacle of the edifice, NCAA executive director Walter Byers. All the while, in the bounded earthly sphere of college athletics, Catholic programs were displaying as much iconoclasm and independence as any 17th-century Puritan. For years, Catholic programs eschewed membership in the NCAA, and for even longer, they held off on joining conferences.
Notre Dame still fights that second battle in football, of course, but even the proud acolytes of Fighting Irish exceptionalism were brought to heel eventually in basketball. The NCAA rather quickly mopped up all resistance with what became its irresistible tournament. As late as 1970, Al McGuire and Marquette famously loosed one last elegiac blast of rebellion by turning down a bid and choosing the NIT instead. It was a doomed gesture of defiance. Within seven years, McGuire would secure his place in the coaching pantheon by winning the tournament he once spurned. In college basketball terms, all souls now profess fealty to the church of the NCAA.
Naturally, the distinction between the “parish” and “plains” traditions isn’t always tidy. Early NIT champions included Colorado, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Utah. Georgetown and Holy Cross both reached the national title game in the NCAA tournament’s first decade, with the latter winning it all. In this same vein of stubborn facts, there is Saint Louis University. As early as 1937, the Billikens were members of the Missouri Valley Conference. With SLU’s 1948 NIT title, the Jesuits had forged a winner west of the Mississippi, with a coach who was a native of Reynolds, Nebraska.
Nevertheless, a cognizance that college basketball was in large part built on plains foundations endures to this day. That recognition may nourish the persistent differences in styles and emphases between the traditions. Plains coaches pontificate and wax infallible on occasion. Parish coaches are regarded as being more prone to quips and tall tales. The plains school of thought was the first to avail itself of what would much later be termed “analytics,” with a former player of Allen’s, Dean Smith, leading the way as early as the 1950s. At the opposite extreme at that same moment was the New York Times sports section, comfortably situated within the parish tradition and a faithful chronicler of the NIT from that event’s inception. Well into the 1950s, the Times would print box scores that still listed guards and forwards as “lg,” “rg,” “lf,” and “rf.” These were hieroglyphics from a lost age, cryptic markings that referred to left and right guards, and left and right forwards, as though it were still the 1920s. Basketball-obsessed house organs of the plains tradition, like the Indianapolis Star, had put away such childish things decades before.
Additionally, the plains tradition has long been fond of portraying opposing coaches as being engaged in chess matches, a descriptive proclivity that at first glance would seem related to this same analytic impulse. Certainly, it’s true that, for whatever reason, parish coaches like McGuire and John Thompson would seldom be limned as masterfully shuttling pawns and rooks this way and that. Motivators, recruiters, leaders, inspirations, legends, yes. Chess masters, the conventional wisdom ran, not so much. Be that as it may, both coaches won national titles. The chess metaphor itself can be limiting, and a more catholic definition of coaching excellence may serve us well, particularly if said definition extends beyond the habits and reflexes of both traditions. As Thompson pointed out with his usual acerbic accuracy, the style of play pioneered by Tennessee State coaching legend John McLendon “was considered to be undisciplined—until white coaches started doing it.” Amen.
Coaching excellence spans traditions and assumes many forms. In the 1970s, one admiring sum-up of McGuire held that the head coach was a fearless competitor and an exceptionally charismatic gym rat whose X’s and O’s at Marquette came from his longtime right-hand man, Hank Raymonds, and from his brilliant assistant, Rick Majerus. Among the more cerebral figures produced by the parish tradition, Majerus would be named Saint Louis head coach exactly 30 years after the 1977 national title with MU. At the press conference introducing the new coach, SLU’s president, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, noted that the name Majerus was doubtless derived from the Latin “Magnus, meaning great.” To which Majerus, that rotund and perpetually besweatered Sheboygan native, beloved in basketball circles, broke in without missing a beat: “The name is really from Luxembourg, and I think it means ‘sausage eater.’”
The parish tradition also produced its own version of the Naismith-Allen-Rupp line of succession. This particular line of descent is more recent in its establishment and unmistakably humble in its origins, yet it has been extraordinarily influential in its own fashion.
Alvin “Doggie” Julian was born in 1901, the same year as Rupp. Julian coached basketball and football at Muhlenberg College before landing at Holy Cross, in Worcester, at the close of the Second World War. His 1947 national championship team included not only celebrated figures like Bob Cousy and George Kaftan, but also a war veteran named Joe Mullaney. Julian coached the Boston Celtics briefly before being replaced by Red Auerbach, whereupon the ex–Holy Cross coach returned to the college game at Dartmouth. What his tenure in Hanover lacked in affiliation to the mother church, it more than made up for in repercussions for Catholic college basketball. Julian gave Al McGuire his first coaching job, tasking the then 26-year-old with overseeing the Dartmouth freshmen. One of the players McGuire had for a year before sending him along to Julian’s varsity was Dave Gavitt, who in turn got his start in coaching as an assistant to Mullaney at Providence when the Friars’ best player was Thompson. Gavitt then coached under and eventually succeeded Julian at Dartmouth. When Mullaney repeated Julian’s sequence and left the college game to coach Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers, Gavitt became the head coach at PC. The innovations he rolled out as a combination coach and athletic director to build media exposure for Providence in the early 1970s are emulated to this day, including by the major conference that Gavitt, almost Naismith-like, brought into being ex nihilo.
All who adore the sport happily pick and choose from both traditions, like the cafeteria basketball fans we all are. Sister Jean, for one, eagerly related that she loved watching Kentucky. Fans of the Wildcats earned points in her book by sticking around in Atlanta after their team lost in the 2018 Sweet 16 and supporting Loyola Chicago against Kansas State in the regional final. She also had a soft spot for a certain Indiana legend. “Of course, when Bobby Knight was still coaching, I loved watching him, even though he was rough-and-tumble. He knew how to coach.” There is no need or wish to define one true church of college basketball. Everyone goes their own happy way, enjoying Kansas one day and Villanova the next. The traditions consist of tendencies, not border walls.
On occasion, even the blurriest and most tentative boundary lines between the traditions fail completely. The state of North Carolina is where the parish and plains traditions either joined forces or fought to a draw. Tobacco Road’s excellence in college basketball was enriched not only by North Carolina State’s hiring of peerless Indiana high school coach Everett Case in 1946, but also by North Carolina’s success in prying head coach Frank McGuire away from St. John’s in 1952. A Greenwich Village native, McGuire famously built his 1957 national championship team at UNC with players from the New York City area. When one recruit’s parents voiced apprehension about their son attending college down south in “Baptist country,” McGuire had to promise that he would convert the state of North Carolina to Catholicism in short order. After he had successfully brought his haul of New York talent to Chapel Hill, the coach found that several of his UNC players were making the sign of the cross before shooting, and too often missing, free throws. Finally, McGuire had to inform his players that he had heard from the bishop, “You guys have to stop doing the sign of the cross or improve your foul shooting.”
Tracing the story of college basketball’s parish tradition confronts today’s reader with one wrinkle regarding the game itself. Over the last four decades, the sport has achieved consensus on a preferred set of rules, even as polemical trench warfare over the business model continues into its second century. This on-court status quo dates back to the catalytic moment when the shot clock, the three-point line, and an expanded 60-something-team NCAA tournament field all arrived more or less simultaneously. Call this the modern game.
Before that, the story of college basketball centered on a righting of a systemic wrong, as, quote/unquote, “major” programs at last opened their doors to African American players. That epoch might be termed the “early modern” form of the sport. Going back further still, the rise of intercollegiate revenue sports as a mass-spectator business took place against a backdrop of secularizing evolution, if not revolution, in the academy writ large. When basketball was invented, Catholic institutions of higher learning stood out because of their particular religious affiliation. Soon, the same schools would be seen as anomalous because they had preserved a religious affiliation, period. In this respect the parish tradition’s present-day players and coaches carry at least one spark from the Naismith torch.
“Catholic college basketball” here refers to Division I men’s teams situated within institutions of higher learning affiliated with the Church by name, by tradition, and, to a lesser extent as time passes, administratively. The players themselves, naturally, have always professed all manner of evolving beliefs, agnosticisms, skepticisms, and disbeliefs. Asked in the 1970s why Marquette’s Bo Ellis always seemed to play so well against the Catholic likes of Notre Dame, DePaul, and Detroit, Al McGuire hypothesized, “Maybe it’s because Bo is Baptist.” This same ecumenical spirit defines the population of coaches at Catholic programs, to say nothing of the students supporting the teams.
That leaves the Catholic institutions themselves. As of the late 1960s, and in response to the Second Vatican Council, many Catholic universities for the first time made provision for lay representation on their boards of trustees. As of 2001, even Georgetown itself, the nation’s oldest Catholic university, had installed its first lay president, a move that would have been unthinkable to the prior 150 years’ worth of Catholic educators and, no less, to their critics. Yet somehow, “Catholic college basketball” endures, coheres, and even flourishes as a meaningful signifier well into the 21st century. The mystery of the basketball faith, as it were.
What is it, exactly, that ties Catholic colleges and universities so indelibly to, of all things, basketball? When the question was put to Sister Jean, she admitted that the subject had received her contemplation.
“I’ve tried to think about that myself,” she said, “and I only know what we do here. We have a good coach who teaches these young men not only basketball skills but life skills…I wouldn’t even be able to tell you what religion some of the team members profess, because I don’t say to them, ‘Are you a Catholic?’ We don’t talk about that. We talk about God…We pray hard, and we pray before every game. Sometimes it’s only a prayer. Sometimes I give the scouting report then.”
North American Originals
Basketball was invented to save Protestant men’s souls.
By the dawn of the 1890s, the Young Men’s Christian Association had established what it somewhat grandiloquently termed “International Training Schools” in both Chicago and in Springfield, Massachusetts. James Naismith was drawn to Springfield because the novel and still somewhat heterodox vision of the YMCA meshed perfectly with his aspiration to, in effect, evangelize through sports. Naismith was a pious Presbyterian who never swore or touched alcohol yet had played football at McGill University in Montreal. Born and raised in Ontario, he was 30 years old in December of 1891, and his nominal supervisor at the Springfield training school, Luther Gulick, was 26. They were young iconoclasts in charitable yet determined revolt against a lingering remnant of puritanism: the idea that games, contests, and sports were a dangerous and, indeed, sinful diversion.
Gulick labored at length to find an activity specifically adapted for the gym that would go beyond calisthenics, something that would engage the clientele just like outdoor sports did. He asked his students in Springfield to develop such an activity, and Gulick’s program statement specified what he was after with laudable concision:
We need a new game to exercise our students—a competitive game like football or lacrosse, but it must be a game that can be played indoors. It must be a game requiring skill and sportsmanship, providing exercise for the whole body and yet it must be one which can be played without extreme roughness or damage to players and equipment.
When the students failed to come up with anything suitable, Gulick turned to Naismith personally and assigned him to teach a class specifically charged with meeting this need.
The rest is history. Naismith’s seminal innovation was to not only import the idea of a goal from lacrosse and from the then new sport of ice hockey but to elevate the target. Installing the goal at a height of 10 feet was a necessity born of the training school’s particular gym (there happened to be a gallery at that height where baskets could be mounted), but the choice has stood the test of time. Naismith also realized that scoring would summon true skill—in shooting, as opposed to mere throwing—if the ball had to drop into the target instead of going through a vertically oriented goal. A soccer ball was drafted into service (it was, in the vernacular of the era, an “association football”), dribbling was neither allowed nor yet envisioned, peach baskets served as literal baskets, and the first game was played with nine men on the floor for each team in the gym at the corner of State and Sherman in December of 1891.
Naismith’s invention was a relative latecomer to the intercollegiate scene, and by the time Iowa and the University of Chicago played a pioneering five-player game against each other in the mid-1890s, football and baseball were already well established as college sports. Educators tended to view this new and seemingly inexhaustible hunger for intercollegiate sports with a mixture of wonder and foreboding, a reaction that transcended religious affiliation. In 1899, for instance, a priest at Georgetown, apparently writing behind the back of his school president, sent an alarmed report on the baseball team’s doings directly to his superiors in Rome:
The base-ball “Team” went forth in May on its long tour, to conquer the country. Every evening at 4 P.M., the long-looked for telegram arrived: “Beaten Princeton,” “Beaten Yale,” “Beaten Harvard.” A Prefect had gone with the boys. While in New York they had the hospitality of our College, and were supposed to sleep there; in other places they lodged in hotels. One of the boys, while in New York, went to a…house, and himself related that there the woman drawing a pair of beads from his pocket, instead of money, exclaimed, “You are a Catholic.” For the one simpleton who told on himself, how many others did not tell on themselves.
The mention of “our College” in New York coming from a Jesuit at Georgetown in the 1890s refers to either Fordham or, perhaps more likely, St. Francis Xavier on West 16th Street in Chelsea. (The latter would become Xavier High School.) The Hoyas’ ecumenical itinerary, which included both games against nascent Ivies and fellow Jesuit institutions, highlights how early scheduling relied on a combination of proximity and familiarity. Eventually, this combination would be formalized by the birth of what today we recognize as conferences.
If early basketball was diffuse and even inchoate in its varieties, as well as global in its reach, it was also structured according to the racial discrimination of its time. There were occasional exceptions, and, indeed, no less a luminary than Paul Robeson played basketball for Rutgers in the World War I era, in addition to starring on the football field. Likewise, future Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche played for UCLA in the 1920s. Robeson and Bunche were preceded in college basketball by at least two Black pioneers that we know of, Wilbur Wood at Nebraska (1908–10) and Cumberland Posey at Penn State (1910–11). Nevertheless, college basketball was, in its essentials, no different from the larger society in which it operated. As a result, the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association was formed in 1912, which included Howard, Shaw, Lincoln, Virginia Union, and Hampton. The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, established in 1913, was also founded by and for African Americans, and took in Fisk, Talladega, Jackson, Morris Brown, Tuskegee, Clark, Alabama State, Morehouse, and Atlanta University.
"As someone who coached at a Catholic school, the University of Detroit Titans, I appreciate the in-depth look at the history of Catholic schools on the hardwood. John Gasaway does a masterful job of capturing the many miracles that have taken place. It is a fantastic read, 'Awesome Baby' with a Capital A!"—Dick Vitale
- “John Gasaway captures the essence of basketball as religion in MIRACLES ON THE HARDWOOD. From Bill Russell and USF to Mark Few and Gonzaga to Jay Wright and Villanova, Catholic schools have had tremendous success and are woven into the fabric of the game. My confession? I would have sinned if I hadn’t read this book. If you love the game, Gasaway illuminates its rich history in MIRACLES ON THE HARDWOOD."—Jay Bilas, ESPN
- "John Gasaway has always covered basketball with mathematical precision and religious fervor. That makes him the perfect author to lay out a historical narrative that feels both sweeping and intimate. It might seem like divine providence that has enabled so many Catholic schools to produce winning basketball teams, but Gasaway neatly lays out the cultural, economic and competitive factors that have allowed that to happen, with all the color and entertainment you would expect from this cast of characters. Whether you are a Don, a Zag, a Hoya or a Rambler, this book will send you on a heavenly journey."—Seth Davis, author of WOODEN: A Coach's Life
- "Catholic colleges and universities became part of the fabric of the game soon after its invention by Dr. Naismith. Gasaway takes you on an entertaining journey through the history of the greatest teams, players, and coaches—not to mention characters—that have ever graced the hardwood. You’ll recognize them all and, like me, you won’t be able to put this book down."—Fran Fraschilla
- "The subject is close to my heart, and MIRACLES ON THE HARDWOOD gives it historical love that’s long overdue. Meticulous, comprehensive, and erudite in true Gasaway fashion, fans of the underdog will fly through this narrative and be better for it."—Joe Lunardi
- "Of hoops, hopes, holy orders, and habits...mysterious and sometimes miraculous...Fans of college roundball, parochial or not, will enjoy Gasaway’s lively history."—Kirkus
“An ambitious historical re-telling of the whole of college basketball history…MIRACLES ON THE HARDWOOD is a great book.”—Ball & Order
- “MIRACLES ON THE HARDWOOD will serve as a vital reference on the topic.”—Booklist
- On Sale
- Mar 16, 2021
- Page Count
- 320 pages