It’s been more than a year since the Loyola men’s basketball team fell to University of Michigan in the NCAA Tournament Final Four and changed campus. High school seniors started looking to attend Loyola more, and some committed because of that Cinderella run.
But for the Ramblers, specifically head coach Porter Moser, the run was life-changing.
The dynamic around the program changed. Two years ago, a National Invitation Tournament (NIT) berth would’ve pleased fans of a program that hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1985. This year, Loyola’s NIT appearance seemed like a disappointment after the Ramblers busted March Madness brackets last year.
Moser’s life hasn’t slowed down, though.
The Ramblers’ early exit from the NIT meant a longer offseason. Rather than use that time to relax, Moser has appeared on television as a March Madness analyst, took his annual trip to the Final Four as a fan and even turned down job offers from St. John’s University in New York and University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“I remember last year saying, ‘I’ll sleep in April,’ then I said, ‘I’ll sleep in June,’” Moser told The Phoenix. “Right now, I’m hoping to get some in May, but that might get moved to August. We’ll see.”
‘That Wasn’t My Endgame.’
News broke April 15 that Moser was interviewing for the head coaching job at St. John’s. The offer, reportedly worth $16 million over eight years, wasn’t easy to walk away from, he said.
On the plane ride home, he wrote two letters: One thanking Loyola for eight years and another announcing he was staying put. He released the latter on Twitter.
He said it was a matter of how he felt after writing each one, and it came down to what he’s been building over the last eight years.
“I don’t know what made me do it,” Moser said. “I wrote one letter [that said] ‘Dear Rambler Nation, thank you for eight amazing years.’ … It was about a page and a half and at the end, I just said I’m ready for a new journey. Then the other one I penned was the one I sent out that [said], ‘I’m all in.’ … I felt awesome with that one. It was just kind of a sign of what I felt. I didn’t feel good saying that I’m ready for my next chapter yet.”
Upon his announcement, social media lit up with support. Fans and former players sent out their support for Moser’s decision. Later that day, he said he walked through the Damen Student Center and ran into a group of students who saw the news.
They greeted him with high-fives and thanked him for staying, which he said reassured him he made the right decision.
“It was overwhelming,” Moser said. “Everywhere I went and the amount of people that hit me up, it was really cool. It’s that family atmosphere, one of the things why I wanted to continue building this thing.”
When he was hired at Loyola in 2011, Moser said his top goal was to “make the program relevant” and be at the top of the MVC. Now that he’s achieved that — and led Loyola to back-to-back conference titles for the first time in program history — he said he realizes he’s going to get other job offers like the one from St. John’s, but said that’s not where he’s always wanted to get.
“I was just focused in on building a championship program and [getting job offers] is just a byproduct of that,” Moser said. “That wasn’t my endgame.”
‘God, This Was Us Last Year.’
Every year for the last 20 years, Moser and a group of friends have made a trip to the Final Four as fans. Last year, his friends joked Moser “ruined” the trip because of his role as a coach instead of a fan.
He said it was different sitting in the stands this year. The Ramblers led Michigan 32-22 just with 19:40 to go in the Final Four matchup and would’ve played in the national championship if they would’ve held onto the lead.
Because he got so close to coaching in that title game, he said it wasn’t easy for him to sit in the stands this time around.
“I remember walking to the game [this year] and just seeing the massive amount of people coming in [and] going, ‘God, this was us last year,’” Moser said. “I was really kind of taking it all in and going, ‘Man,’ because it hurt. It hurt because … we were up 10 [points] in the second half to go to the national championship game. I still think about it all the time. But it was hard, the Final Four this year, going, you know?”
Moser also said he got a better understanding of what the coaches of this year’s Final Four teams — University of Virginia, Texas Tech University, Michigan State University and Auburn University — went through to make it there.
“The magnitude of that stage, to get there, I sat back and appreciated just how incredibly hard it is to do what we did,” Moser said. “That’s what I had, the most overwhelming response from coaches. … Coaches, players, teams go lifetimes without getting to that stage, so I did appreciate that a little bit seeing how incredibly hard it is to get to there.”
Even a year later, Loyola was still present in some ways during the Final Four. CBS aired previews for next year’s installment, and the Ramblers made appearances despite not even making it to March Madness.
Moser said he saw those commercials and knew just how special the run was, especially because people were still talking to him about last season in Minneapolis at this year’s Final Four.
“They can never take it away from us,” Moser said. “Everywhere I went you’d hear the same thing: ‘That was the most incredible story.’ That feels good.”
‘If Expectations Are High … That Means You’re Relevant’
Only one news outlet was at Loyola’s 2017-18 home opener: The Phoenix. As the year went on, more publications from around Chicago began covering games games and when the Ramblers got to San Antonio, every major media outlet in the country was writing about them.
The spotlight was on Loyola — a stark contrast to previous years. Social media lit up with highlights of Loyola’s buzzer-beaters and thrilling victories. Team chaplain Sister Jean became an overnight, international celebrity.
The attention stayed into the 2018-19 season. Publications including the Chicago Tribune, The Athletic and the Washington Post covered games at Gentile Arena throughout the year, meaning the limelight hadn’t completely faded.
“We embraced the highest level of media [during the Final Four],” Moser said. “So, how the guys handled it … it didn’t affect us at all. We loved it. We were on national TV … 18 times. That was great. It’s great for the program.”
With increased exposure came increased expectations. Although the Ramblers repeated as MVC regular-season champions, the loss to Bradley in the Arch Madness semifinal meant they’d miss out on the big dance. While they still made the postseason two years in a row for the first time since the 1962-63 and 1963-64 seasons, an NIT appearance didn’t feel like enough.
But Moser said he’s fine with that because he enjoys the challenge of exceeding high expectations. Since he arrived at Loyola, his goal has been for fans and media to set a high bar for his team.
“We made turnovers last year, we made mistakes last year, we had tough losses early last year, but you regroup and you move on,” Moser said. “And I’m not complaining. I want to make that very, very clear because I wanted this program to be relevant. If expectations are high, if people care, that means you’re relevant. That’s what I want.”