Road To San Antonio: Moser, Loyola and Sister Jean basking in Final Four
CHICAGO (AP) — The black-and-white photo on the back wall of his office serves as a constant reminder and inspiration for Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser.
Les Hunter, Jerry Harkness and John Egan are standing with the 1963 NCAA championship trophy, the net draped over it. Coach George Ireland has his right arm extended in front as he shakes hands with someone whose face is not in the picture.
Hard to believe the photo was in a closet, yet that’s where Moser found it a few days after he got the job seven years ago. There was another photo of the championship celebration in Chicago.
“I’ve had them both in there as a reminder of just where I wanted this thing to go,” he said. “This is what you want. I saw the excitement of the people in the streets. I saw them holding a national championship trophy.”
Everything he envisioned is playing out. A captivating Final Four run has made a celebrity of a 98-year-old nun and shined a light on a program that went mostly unnoticed for decades.
With Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt by their side, the Ramblers will face Michigan in the national semifinals in San Antonio on Saturday. It’s the first trip to the Final Four for Loyola since that 1963 team with four black starters helped break down racial barriers.
The Ramblers were never ranked in the AP poll. They needed a few last-second prayers, winning their first three tournament games by a total of four points, before easily handling Kansas State in the South regional final.
That made them the fourth No. 11 seed to get to the Final Four. And now, the Ramblers (32-5) will try to do what LSU (1986), George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011) could not — advance past the semifinals.
Take out the Wolverines, knock off the Villanova-Kansas winner and Loyola becomes the lowest seed to win it all. Villanova with a No. 8 beat Georgetown for the championship in 1985. But whether Loyola can pull out another historic title victory or not, it has been quite a run.
While the other three teams in the Final Four are no strangers to playing deep in the NCAA, Ramblers fans aren’t used to scrambling for Final Four tickets. Their school hadn’t even made the tournament since Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas knocked them out in the 1985 Sweet 16.
“It is kind of strange,” said Jessica Vera, who earned her nursing degree from Loyola last year. “But it is nice.”
She and a friend were planning to drive to San Antonio on Wednesday. Though she’s watched the Ramblers on TV, this will actually be the first game she attends this season.
Loyola figures to have a large cheering section in the stadium and in front of televisions. After all, the Ramblers and Sister Jean are the darlings of the tournament.
The bobbleheads of Sister Jean the school distributed a few years ago were selling for more than $300 on ebay. A new model unveiled Friday in conjunction with Loyola quickly surpassed Clemson’s national football champions as the top seller ever for the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, according to co-founder and CEO Phil Sklar.
Sales for the latest Sister Jean bobblehead were at 9,760 as of Wednesday afternoon. The $25 collectible — which will be delivered to customers in June — uses a variety of images to show the team chaplain smiling as she holds a basketball with two hands.
About 65 percent of the orders were from outside Illinois, and they had come from every state and Washington, D.C., plus Canada and the United Kingdom. Someone in Arizona had placed several orders totaling 80 bobbleheads.
“They either have a lot of friends and/or grandchildren or think that the Sister Jean bobbleheads are a safer investment than the stock market (they might be on to something),” Sklar wrote in an email.
Longtime Loyola fan Richard Miller of Lincolnwood, Illinois, ordered four.
“We got to visit with her different times out in the hall (at games),” he said. “What a wonderful, wonderful lady. It’s just so nice to see her being honored like this. It’s the pinnacle of her life right now.”
It’s also a high point for Loyola, decades in the making. The program struggled for years after that Sweet 16 run and went 14 seasons without a winning record at one point.
Moser got off to a tough start, with a 32-61 record and a switch from the Horizon League to the Missouri Valley Conference in his first three years. Since then? They are 89-49, with a program record for wins this season.
They even had their first sellout in 15 years, packing in 4,963 for the regular-season finale after drawing crowds of about 1,100 to 1,500 earlier in the season.
What a difference for a coach who in his early years handed out hot dogs to students and asked them to come to games. Moser also surprised the crowd at Midnight Madness by dressing up as the school’s mascot — LU Wolf.
He never lost sight of the ultimate goal. And if he needed some inspiration, it was there in black and white.
“It was reminder to me every day of my energy, my passion, of getting this thing going, and I haven’t let up,” Moser said.