The label may fit for only two weeks, but Loyola is finally Baltimore's Team.
That's what the Greyhounds wanted to be called a decade ago. That's what they were in the late 1940s, and everyone at Evergreen figures they won't have to wait another 45 years for a dose of basketball delirium.
Friday in Sacramento, Calif., when Loyola follows first-year coach Skip Prosser to its NCAA tournament opener against Arizona, the small, Jesuit school at Charles Street and Cold Spring Lane will get its first taste of March Madness.
Actually, the campus has been crazy since March 7, when fifth seed Loyola scored its third upset in as many nights to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament and an automatic NCAA berth. For those who remember Loyola's glory days after World War II, let's go to the source for some perspective.
"There was tradition at Loyola before I got there," said Jim Lacy, who set the school's all-time scoring record from 1945 to 1949. "Evergreen Gym was to Baltimore what Madison Square Garden was to New York. They would set up temporary bleachers, and we could squeeze in1,700 or 1,800 people. It doesn't sound like much, but it was the mecca for basketball in Baltimore.
"It was a very heady time, but everything changed last week," Lacy said. "The three games they won [at the MAAC tournament] are the three most important wins in Loyola history."
Before Lacy returned from World War II, no state team had won 20 games in a season. With Lefty Reitz coaching and Lacy scoring, Loyola won 20 games three straight times from 1946-49 and improved its record against Maryland to 5-0.
Forty-five years later, the Greyhounds are still looking for their fourth 20-win season and another win over the Terps. Between Lacy's departure and Prosser's arrival, the Greyhounds had four seasons in which they exceeded this year's 17 wins, the last coming in 1970-71. Their only previous NCAA appearance came in 1973, in Division II.
Then everyone in town passed them by.
Morgan State, two miles east on Cold Spring Lane, won the NCAA Division II title in 1974. The University of Baltimore vs. Towson State rivalry took center stage. Coppin State won the NAIA title in 1976. UMBC, which didn't start playing until 1968, wentto the NCAA Division II tournament in 1979 and '80, while the Greyhounds stayed home.
Tom O'Connor, the coach in the mid-1970s and the athletic director from 1976-86, oversaw the move to Division I in 1981 and a year later hired Mark Amatucci from Calvert Hall. When others in Baltimore were struggling with the move to Division I, Amatucci led Loyola to four straight winning seasons.
In 1985, his third season, the Greyhounds came agonizingly close to Baltimore's first berth in the Division I tournament, but they blew a lead at home in the final of the ECAC Metro tournament and lost in overtime.
A year later, the complaints of a disgruntled former player got the Greyhounds on NCAA probation, the program unraveled, and Loyola again fell behind. When Coppin State (1990, 1993) and Towson State (1990, 1991) were making two trips each to the NCAA tournament, Loyola couldn't even win a single conference tournament game.
The Greyhounds went 2-25 last year, their sixth straight losing season. Athletic director Joe Boylan, who was hired in 1990 specifically to fix the broken men's and women's basketball teams, found out just how bad the men's team was when he installed himself as interim coach after the resignation of Tom Schneider in January.
Boylan was an assistant coach at Rutgers for 11 years, but he also knew Baltimore basketball. He coached some of the best teams Lansdowne High ever had in the early 1960s. He played for Milford Mill High, and one of his earliest basketball memories is going to Evergreen Gym to see Loyola and Lacy.
"My dad taught science at Franklin High for 40 years, and he was a big basketball fan," Boylan said. "He took me to see Loyola play when I was 8 or 9 years old. I know Loyola had some good times before, but what's happening to us now has never happened before."
Last spring, Boylan hired Prosser even though the search committee wanted someone else. Prosser found a relatively new arena, full funding in terms of scholarships and an administration that, under the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger, the president from 1964 until his death last April, had room for players who were academic risks.
There's additional leeway in the MAAC, which is the third strongest conference in the East, behind the Big East and Atlantic-10. It allows its members to have two players who didn't meet the NCAA standards for freshman eligibility.
The Greyhounds received commitments from two high school seniors in the early signing period, and one of them is still waiting to get the necessary SAT score. Does Loyola accept athletes who don't meet the NCAA eligibility standards?
"Right now the answer is no, but it could be yes," Boylan said. "There's no doubt that it's a competitive issue. The fact that the A-10 has been successful with it [players affected by Proposition 48] has us thinking about it. . . . You need kids with an edge."
The MAAC models itself on the made-for-TV leagues, and it's hoping that the attention Loyola has received the past two weeks will translate into more interest next season.
There was no radio coverage of Loyola games in the MAAC tournament, and there will be none in Sacramento. The MAAC offered Home Team Sports tapes of Loyola's tournament games free of charge, but the cable channel couldn't fit in the Greyhounds.
Reitz Arena, with a capacity of 3,000, is rarely filled. Coming from Cincinnati, a pretty good basketball town, Prosser wondered what it's going to take for someone in Baltimore to average more than 2,000 fans.
"The ripple effect of us going to the NCAA tournament is something the whole school will benefit from," Prosser said. "It's not just that we won the right to play in the NCAAs, it's how we won it. I just hope we got people's attention."
ARIZONA vs. LOYOLA
* Day: Friday
* Time: 5:20 p.m. approx.
* Site: Sacramento, Calif.
* Region: West
* Seedings: Arizona No. 2, Loyola No. 15
* Records: Arizona 25-5, Loyola 17-12
* TV: Channel 11
* Radio: None