By Patrick Engel
Two white charter buses turned east on Loyola Avenue off Sheridan Road, with the blue lights of police cars leading the way, and pulled into a driveway in back of Gentile Arena.
About 500 fans and students had congregated on an adjacent turf field in the previous hour, waiting for this very convoy. Around 4:15 p.m. on a mild but windy Sunday in Rogers Park, as “All I Do Is Win” fittingly blasted over temporary speakers, a momentary lull came over the crowd. Heads turned. Arms waved. Phones became cameras. Everyone cheered and clapped.
The carriages carrying one of this year’s best Cinderella stories had arrived.
Loyola was returning home from an unforgettable five days and two NCAA tournament games in Dallas, which yielded two buzzer-beating shots and a trip to the Sweet 16 Thursday in Atlanta. The No. 11 seed Ramblers defeated Miami Thursday on Donte Ingram’s 3-point prayer. Two days later, they beat Tennessee on Clayton Custer’s 15-foot jumper that bounced off the rim, hung in the air for an eternal second, then plunged through the hoop.
The Ramblers are Chicago’s biggest sports story so far this year. They’ll appear in One Shining Moment next month. They trended on Twitter last weekend – twice. Their 98-year-old chaplain became a TV and internet sensation. Former President Barack Obama gave them a shout-out in a tweet. So did Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the Chicago Blackhawks, Chance The Rapper and a host of others. Fans flocked to Dallas to watch them. Sunday, they came to get a glimpse for less than 10 minutes.
“Chicago people support Chicago people,” junior guard Marques Townes said.
Just a few months earlier, though, the support looked nothing like this. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Townes can explain.
“In the beginning of the year, we had to go pass out fliers to try to get students and people to come to games,” he said.
Promotion is the challenge for nearly every mid-major school like Loyola, which before this season, hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1985. Athletics aren’t an important part of the student life for these smaller schools with little reputation of success in them. There are few die-hard alumni fans, much less many T-shirt fans. The urgency for tickets has to be built among students and alums, and that’s not easy to do, especially in a Big Ten town that has a fleeting interest in college basketball. It’s why Moser speaks at freshman orientations and goes around to dorms trying to drum up support.
Standing in an empty Gentile Arena facing a hoard of cameras Sunday afternoon, Loyola coach Porter Moser recalled those sparse crowds.
“I’ve been in this arena for games when it’s like this,” Moser said, pointing to the group of about 10 reporters. “That’s how many people were here.”
Desperate to change that, Moser and players embarked on “grassroots” efforts such as handing out fliers. Occasionally they gave out food, a smart way to build equity with college students.
“I remember one time we were passing out hot dogs, saying ‘Please, we have a game tonight. Come. Here’s a hot dog,’” Moser said.
He and his players have done the last of that. No more bribery by food. Fans had just traveled 900 miles from Chicago to Dallas to support his team.
Moser followed his players off the buses as they paraded through a sea of maroon and gold, eventually ascending on a podium. He looked around, then summed it up: “Wow!”
“To see the grassroots efforts to the point where we’re pulling up in a police escort,” Moser said afterward, “everyone’s honking, coming all the way down Sheridan, people were honking, out of their cars, taking pictures, it’s just fun.”
A little credit can go to the chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, whose charming bluntness, scouting reports, unwavering support and presence at last weekend’s first and second rounds made her, in her own words, an international celebrity.
“They told me I’m appearing in Mexico and in Great Britain, so I guess that’s pretty true,” she said with a grin.
Sure enough, the flight crew on the team’s charter back from Dallas knew of Loyola not because of Ingram and Custer’s heroics, but because of Sister Jean, who was featured in The New York Times last week.
“The flight attendant is welcoming us,” Moser said, “and all a sudden she comes flying and running, saying, ‘This is the team with the nun.’”
Sister Jean will include her notes on Thursday’s opponent, No. 7 seed Nevada, in her weekly scouting report email, before yet again jet-setting with the team, this time to Atlanta.
“I don’t know how they do that frequent-flyer stuff. It probably goes to the institution,” Sister Jean said. “Which is fine, because it helps the others. I have my own frequent-flyer miles.”
Sister Jean said she has heard from fans who have saved their miles to travel wherever Loyola’s NCAA tournament journey takes them. Which, if true, makes Moser’s one request to the fans easier to fulfill.
“Please,” Moser told the crowd, “buy your tickets to Atlanta.”
This time, there were no hot dogs.