Seventy-seven years is a long time.
So long that no one huddled inside the Barrell Proof Tavern to watch Loyola attempt to win the school’s second national championship on Tuesday night was alive the first time it happened in 1945.
The fifty or so Loyola alumni, staff, former athletes and supporters had gathered at the popular Lower Garden District bar to watch the Wolf Pack men’s basketball team attempt to enter the story. And they weren’t going to let a storm, no matter how threatening, derail the festivities.
When a severe weather alert from the National Weather Service swept across the room 20 minutes into the game, most of those gathered glanced at their phones, silenced the alert, and returned their attention to the screen.
The only tornadoes that worried them that night were the Talladega College basketball team.
“There was no way I was going to miss it,” said former Loyola standout Jason Mitchell, who was one of several former Wolf Pack players in the crowd. “I was not afraid of the wind. I have insurance.
As ominous clouds and howling gusts of wind swirled outside, the focus inside Barrell Proof was on the Wolf Pack as they attempted to complete a historic 37-1 season and win the school’s second national title. Loyola picked up a dominating 71-56 victory in Kansas City, and when the clock expired on the ESPN broadcast, he sparked a series of happy high fives, fiery hugs and celebratory group selfies inside the bar dimly lit.
Loyola New Orleans men’s basketball caps banner year by winning the NAIA championship https://t.co/Di2NcTA0fL #GeauxPack
— Loyola Athletics (@LoyolaWolfPack) March 23, 2022
The watch party was one of those classic New Orleans experiences. A community gathering of old friends, old acquaintances and curious strangers inspired by a common cause. Nothing, not even the ominous forecast or dangerous driving conditions, could stop him.
The wolf pack, not the weather, was on everyone’s mind at Barrell Proof.
“None of us really saw (the news of the tornado),” said Robert Leblanc, a former Loyola forward who agreed to host the watch party for his friends and former teammates at the bar he owns. and has been operating since 2014. “We literally got these (news) feeds on our phones with six minutes of play, so we had no idea what was going on. Everyone was glued to the game.”
For such a historic occasion, the gathering was relatively subdued for the first hour or so. Maybe it was the nerves. The top-ranked Wolf Pack were trying to win the school’s first national title in decades and were heavily favored to win. Maybe it was the adversary. Talladega, a longtime Southern States Athletic Conference rival, had caused problems for Loyola in three previous meetings this season. Or maybe it was anxiety about the storms approaching the area. High winds buffeted the city throughout the day and dark, ominous clouds swirled across the sky just before the denunciation.
Loyola’s on-screen heroism was celebrated with a handful of applause and the occasional high five, but no one ripped off his shirt or walked down Magazine Street. Eventually, however, as Loyola gradually began to drift away, the anxious expressions gave way to expressions of elation, pride, and relief. Finally, Loyola was back on top. The school that the Jesuits founded on a former plantation site in 1904 had much to be proud of in addition to its highly respected academics.
Loyola University’s original 1944-45 NAIA National Championship banner hangs above the north baseline of the University Athletic Complex…
“It’s been magical for all of us,” Leblanc said. “We all love Loyola and thought it might be possible one day. But I think everyone is quite pleasantly shocked that it happened.
Few enjoyed the evening more than Jerry Hernandez, the former Wolf Pack coach who led the program for 13 seasons from 1991 to 2004.
When Hernandez took the job in 1991, Loyola Athletics had been disbanded for two decades. More than a third of the student body was against sports at school, and the only funding came from a small student levy. Hernandez has no scholarships to offer, so his first team was made up of 12 guys he recruited from the existing student body. Unsurprisingly, they finished 0-17.
“It’s been an odyssey,” said Hernandez, wearing a white Loyola Basketball t-shirt. “For us guys who started this thing in 1991, we couldn’t be prouder. For the entire Loyola community, this is simply a tremendous achievement. I am so delighted.
Even Loyola clergy joined in the celebration. Father Nathan O’Halloran stood out in the maroon and gold crowd with his traditional black shirt and white clerical collar. He arrived late and had to seek a seat near the back of the room, but was all smiles as he emerged from the old wooden doors of Barrell Proof and waved goodbye to Hernandez on the damp sidewalk of Magazine Street.
“I love sports and I love athletics,” said O’Halloran, who is in her second year as a theology professor at Loyola. “I didn’t want to watch the game alone. I wanted to rub shoulders with Loyola alumni and experience it with Loyola people. It’s exciting to be part of this experience.
And everyone at Loyola strongly believes it won’t take another 77 years to happen again.