When Loyola athletics director Steve Watson arrived on campus in 2015, Loyola was two years into its transition into the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) and it had been decades since the men’s basketball team had seen much success.
Three years later, the men’s basketball team is the MVC regular season champion and has its best record in more than 30 years.
Watson said he’s proud of how the Ramblers have played this year and of how the student body presence has grown at games. The final home game of the season Feb. 24 against Illinois State University filled all 4,963 seats in Gentile Arena.
The sell-out for the game against the Redbirds surprised people all around campus. Loyola’s admissions office was holding an event for admitted students and had originally requested 500 tickets to the game and asked for more the week prior, but the athletics department had to say no, according to Watson.
“It’s a great problem to have, trying to figure out how to wedge more people in there,” Watson said.
The admissions office wasn’t the only group on campus competing to get inside, as for the first time since Gentile Arena’s renovation in 2011, the number of students allowed into the game had to be capped. The student support this season has been an important part of the team’s success this year, according to Watson.
“[The students] have been so good this year,” Watson said. “The way they’ve come out and supported it this year has been unbelievable. It’s been unreal. It’s been great.”
The increase in student involvement with the men’s basketball team has a variety of causes, according to Watson.
“It’s a combination of things, winning obviously plays a huge part of it,” Watson said. “I think the fact that our guys are the way they are and play the way they play makes it fun to watch. They’re not a bunch of jerks walking around campus, thinking they’re cooler than everyone else. [Head coach] Porter [Moser] does an amazing job before the games, during the games and after the games. He’s so appreciative of everything and he works so hard and does everything he can to get people to come to the games.”
The attendance numbers aren’t just because of what happens on the court, but also what happens on the third floor of the Norville Intercollegiate Athletic Center in the athletics offices.
“I think moving the student section has been a huge success,” Watson said. “I think the students love sitting over there. Our marketing people are doing everything they can as well. The giveaways have all been home runs and the promotions have been real popular with the students. It’s like it’s a perfect storm.”
This season Loyola has given away hats, scarves and Chick-Fil-A at men’s basketball games.
Watson has overseen the athletics department’s social media overhaul and communications strategies and plans for a new practice facility, in addition to the increase in the student body’s attendance at men’s basketball games. At his previous job as athletics director of St. Bonaventure University, the men’s basketball team made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 12 years and won its first Atlantic-10 Conference championship.
Watson understands there are parallels between his two jobs, but the reason the men’s basketball teams at both schools have thrived is because of finding the right guy to lead the team, according to Watson.
“It’s all about the leadership. You’ve got to have the right coach. The head coach is the key piece,” Watson said. “I’ve said it a million times, [Moser’s] the perfect fit. With his background, his enthusiasm and his passion, he’s the perfect fit for Loyola. We had the same thing at St. Bonaventure, it’s the right guy for the job. That’s what makes it all go. My job is to get out of the way and support.”
When Watson arrived on campus, Moser was two years into adjusting his team to the higher level of competition in the MVC. Moser and Watson spent a lot of time talking about how it’s a process that takes time and they have to build a team the right way, according to Watson.
“When he got here it was a rebuild, but it was a Horizon League rebuild, and then all of a sudden we’re in the [MVC]. So you really have to press reset again and start over because we’re playing at a higher level,” Watson said. “We talked a lot about patience and doing it the right way. We’re not in a hurry, we’re committed to the long term. We aren’t making decisions for tomorrow, we’re making decisions for years down the road. We were on the same page with how he was going to build a program.”
The Ramblers were picked to finish third in the MVC preseason poll, behind Missouri State University and University of Northern Iowa (UNI). With the regular season finished, Missouri State is in seventh and UNI is in ninth. The Ramblers weren’t underestimated this year, though, according to Watson; the team has just clicked at the right time.
“I think we were probably picked where we should have been picked,” Watson said. “We’ve got a lot of new faces out there who are just playing at a really high level. When a team meshes the way it does, that doesn’t always happen. We’ve got guys who have sacrificed in a really big way.”
This season is just one in what Watson said he hopes is the start of a new MVC powerhouse, such as Wichita State University or Creighton University — two schools who became perennial NCAA tournament teams in the MVC.
“That’s the goal,” Watson said.