Sister Jean, campus celebrity and 98-year-old chaplain of the men’s basketball team, has a relationship with the Loyola men’s basketball program which dates back decades.
Teaching at Mundelein College in 1963, the Catholic, all-women’s school that neighbored and would later merge with Loyola, she watched on television as the Ramblers won the National Championship over Cincinnati 60-58 in overtime. An avid fan even then, Sister Jean was able to witness the greatest moment in the program’s history and take part in the campus celebrations that followed.
Since her start as team chaplain in 1994, she’s witnessed the team’s slow, sometimes painful development from up close. The program has only recorded five winning seasons during her tenure. But now, in Sister Jean’s 24th year as chaplain, she’s able to witness another great moment in Loyola history: the program’s reemergence.
“We’ve come a long way … I’ve seen our teams improve over the years and I’ve seen our recruiting improve,” Sister Jean said.
This season, the Ramblers (25-5, 15-3), won the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Regular Season Championship, making it the program’s first regular season conference title since it won the Horizon League in 1985. Now, the team heads to St. Louis as the No. 1 seed for the MVC Conference tournament, seeking its first NCAA tournament berth in 35 years.
Not many people have invested more time into the program or are more excited about the team’s success this season than Sister Jean.
As chaplain, she assists the team in a variety of ways, including checking up on players, praying with them before games and offering them her own in-depth, pre-game and post-game analysis.
“Porter gives them the [scouting report] of who we should look out for and everything and I kind of repeat that, not from Porter. I look it up myself,” Sister Jean said. “Everybody, even the fellas who sit on the bench, get an email from me.”
In the emails, Sister Jean offers encouragement and tells each player how they could improve and what they did well in the previous game. A basketball connoisseur, she intently watches every home game from the stands of Gentile Arena. When the team is away, she either watches them on TV or play-by-play.
Earlier this season, Sister Jean suffered a broken hip bone and femur that caused her to miss nine home games, but she still remained close to her Ramblers, offering as much help as she could from afar.
“When I was in the hospital and in rehab … I could only send them one [email] because it was too much for me … on my iPad to be putting their individual notes,” Sister Jean said.
Her scouting reports are indicative of a competitive spirit she brings to the job some might not expect from a 5-foot nun.
“I pray with them before every game and my prayer is not the same that I say to the fans because I say that ‘we really want to beat the team’ and, before the foul business became so watched as it has in the last couple years, I used to say ‘elbow them but don’t let the referees see you,’” Sister Jean said.
She said she wants a conference tournament title and NCAA berth for the team badly because she knows how much it would mean for Loyola.
“If we get [a tournament berth], we’re going to be so much more in the limelight of Chicago because now we’re on the TV all the time and people are going to respect us more,” Sister Jean said. “I think we’ll get more students if we — when we — get this’”
First and foremost, Sister Jean wants the accomplishment for the players she’s worked so closely with. Coming into this season, she knew the team was special. She said she loves its unselfish play and commitment to one another, traits she credits to the mentorship of head coach Porter Moser.
“This is a team with such great unity and sharing and they don’t care really, the way I look at it, who makes the basket as long as the basket is made,” Sister Jean said. “They just seemed to come together right away, and I know [Moser] had a lot to do with that.”
Going into the MVC tournament this weekend, Sister Jean’s scouting report firmly foresees the Ramblers capturing the title and punching a ticket to the big dance.
“I’m predicting that we’ll win it, I know we can, absolutely. I told the guys, ‘You gotta be like the Little Engine that said I could, I could, I could,’” Sister Jean said.
After Sister Jean watched the Ramblers win the NCAA Championship 55 years ago, she’s a main part of the engine that’s making history again for the men’s basketball program.