Back in 2010, Loyola was a member of the Horizon League. The men’s volleyball team still played games in Alumni Gym. The Norville Center for Intercollegiate Athletics wouldn’t be completed until March 2011.
Ten years later, that seems almost like a different world.
Alumni Gym was torn down in 2011 to make room for the Damen Student Center. The university unveiled a new practice facility in August 2019 — a project that was talked about “for a long time.” But arguably the biggest move of the decade came in 2013 when Loyola left the Horizon League to join the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC).
All these events are part of a vision that started in 2010. That’s when the “Reimagine Loyola” campaign was starting up. “Reimagine” was an initiative started by former university president the Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, S.J., that aimed to improve student life.
Tom Kelly, the administrator that Loyola Athletics Director Steve Watson reports to, said growing athletics was a big part of that. As the new decade begins, that vision is starting to pay dividends.
“From my vantage point, we made a decision … to reinvest in athletics as part of our ‘Reimagine the Loyola experience,’” Kelly told The Phoenix in a phone interview. “I think we’re in a very good place [now].”
The 2010s: A Rollercoaster of a Decade
The first few years of the decade were rocky. No Loyola team made an NCAA Tournament until the men’s volleyball team rattled off three straight appearances from 2013-15 — including two national championships.
M. Grace Calhoun, PhD, was hired as athletics director in 2011 and left the university in 2014 with two years remaining on her contract to take the same position at the University of Pennsylvania, The Phoenix reported. In 2016, The Phoenix reported allegations of player misconduct against women’s basketball coach Sheryl Swoopes. She left the program that summer.
The last half of the decade was a different story. The men’s soccer team made the 2016 NCAA Tournament and the men’s basketball team put Loyola on a national stage with its 2018 Final Four run.
But 2019 — Watson’s fourth full year as athletics director after taking over for Calhoun — was when the entire department turned a corner.
Both Loyola soccer teams made the NCAA Tournament and the women’s cross country team won the MVC title. The women’s volleyball team turned in its best record in 16 years, the women’s basketball team got off to the best start in program history as it enters the final stages of a total program rebuild and the men’s golf team won its first tournament in five seasons.
Now, Kelly and Watson said the department has to maintain that success, and a big part of that is keeping coaches around — an area where Watson has seen success.
Keeping Coaches on Board
Only three Loyola head coaches have been around longer than Watson: men’s basketball coach Porter Moser, women’s soccer coach Barry Bimbi and men’s soccer coach Neil Jones. Moser and Bimbi were both hired in April 2011 and Jones came on board in December 2012.
He said sustainability is an important factor in success across Loyola’s 13 Division I sports. Since he took over for Calhoun in December 2014, Watson has replaced every head coach except Moser, Bimbi and Jones.
“We’ve had continuity with our coaches, which is huge,” Watson said. “We’ve got great staffs here. … We’ve had some really good hires, coaches who have done a really, really good job. Women’s volleyball is a good example.”
The Gonzaga Effect
As part of their goal to maintain the athletics department’s success, four Loyola administrators took a trip. Kelly, Watson, university President Jo Ann Rooney and former chairman of the Board of Trustees Bob Parkinson headed to Spokane, Washington early in the 2019-20 school year to speak with a Jesuit school that has seen sports succeed: Gonzaga University.
Watson said Gonzaga was a comparable model because it’s a Jesuit school that capitalized off the success of its men’s basketball team. Gonzaga’s team has made five straight NCAA Tournaments, including the 2017 Final Four, and has had the same head coach since 1999.
Since Loyola’s men’s basketball team made a bracket-busting run in 2018, Watson said Gonzaga became an even better comparison. But the path to sustained athletics department success isn’t an exact science.
“There isn’t a blueprint or a map for how to get there,” Watson said. “If there were, I think a lot of schools would be plugging that in. … You’ve gotta get a little lucky. At the same time, the harder you work, the more you invest, the luckier you’re going to get.”
As for the department’s goals for 2020, Watson said they’re simple: each sport to win or finish in the top half of the MVC. Only the women’s basketball and softball teams haven’t achieved that goal, but women’s basketball appears poised to make a run at a top-five finish this season. Watson also hired his first softball coach this year as Alicia Abbott prepares for her first season at the helm.
But while Watson said he hopes the teams continue to succeed on the field, the athletes need to continue performing well in the classroom.
Loyola Athletics has posted a 99 percent graduation rate each of the last four years. Watson said he’s most proud of that statistic and doesn’t want it to change as the teams start winning more.
“Again, we’re not going to compromise what we’re doing academically or what our programs are doing off the field in the community and on campus,” Watson said. “But at the same time, I think we can continue to improve from a competitive standpoint not just within our conference, but nationally, as well.”