The star of this men’s NCAA Tournament is a 98-year-old woman. Ain’t it wonderful! You can’t make this stuff up. If Central Casting is looking for heartwarming, their options might include a coach in a wheelchair as he recovers from recent heart surgery, or perhaps a balding 33-year-old sixth man who just took up basketball two years ago.
But you’re not going to top the face of Cinderella being the smiling, delightfully wrinkled visage of a nun and team chaplain born when Woodrow Wilson was president, just after the end of World War I and just before the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
University of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga happens to have a unique vantage to all of this. First because his Hurricanes’ 64-62 loss to Loyola 11 days ago kick-started this run to the Final Four. Also because Larrañaga has been in the middle of all this — the Cinderella, the “it” team that in a fortnight becomes the darling of the nation. He did it in 2006 coaching George Mason, also a No. 11 that reached the Final Four.
“There’s so much joy,” Larrañaga recalled Monday of the feeling, the merry frenzy. “It’s not just how the players or coaches feel, it’s the whole country, your community, your student body, your alumni. That joy is shared by so many. Everyone wants a piece of it.”
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George Mason’s campus bookstore typically did $11,000 in business per week. The week leading up to the Final Four the registers rang up $876,000 in sales, including 30,000 T-shirts.
Twelve years later, the face of amazing Loyola-Chicago isn’t the coach or any one player. It is Sister Jean Delores Schmidt. She has become such the star of the team’s run to the Final Four that the school asked if her name and likeness could be licensed on merchandise. She agreed — as long as she got none of the money. So there are T-shirts now with her pet motto: “Worship, Work & Win.” There are Sister Jean bobblehead dolls. A media tracking company, Apex Marketing, monitors news stories related to the NCAA Tournament. Over the past two weeks 5,681 stories had mentioned Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. There were 20,526 that referenced Sister Jean.
“Be careful, San Antonio, the Ramblers are on their way!,” said Sister Jean into a phalanx of media the other day, shock of white hair above large-rimmed glasses. Then, as an aside to reporters: “All of you have been very conscientious about your jobs, giving great publicity to us.”
Ramblers. Even the nickname screams lovable underdog. And nobody ever compliments the media. The nun is a saint!
Loyola’s run has lifted the entire sport in capping a tumultuous season overshadowed by the ongoing national FBI probe into corruption in recruiting. Perhaps because that dampened interest, brackets entered in ESPN’s 21st annual Tournament Challenge were down from last year’s record 18.8 million, although this year’s 17.3 million still were second-most ever. On a broader scale, alluding to our national divisiveness in the wake of Saturday’s Parkland-led March For Our Lives in D.C. — we can’t even all seem to agree there is no place for assault weapons in civilian hands — Sister Jean also noted, “We need something to boost us.”
Loyola’s run has done it. Maybe simply as a diversion. Or maybe as a reminder miracles seem to happen in sports more than anyplace since the Bible. Didn’t the Cubs finally win the World Series two seasons ago? Now, across town, not far from Wrigley Field, sits Loyola, whose team is two more wins away from a feat just as great — and far more unexpected.
This also was the March Madness that saw a No. 16 seed (Maryland-Baltimore County) topple a No. 1 (Virginia) for the first time ever. Ever.
Now, Loyola is tied for the lowest-seeded team (No. 11) to ever reach a Final Four, and would be the lowest seed by far to win it all, if they can win two more starting with Michigan this coming Saturday.
Loyola is only the fourth No. 11 to get this far, joining LSU in 1986, Larrañaga’s George Mason in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011. But those three schools all had around double the student enrollment of Loyola’s 16,422. So I propose that its much smaller size and its 98-year-old inspiration and grand marshal make Loyola college hoops’ most Cinderella-y team of all to reach los ultimos cuatro.
Wait. What? Whoa. Update: Mary Belle Hicks, the 100-year-old grandmother of ESPN personality and former Michigan star Jalen Rose, has taken to Instagram with some fightin’ words: “Sister Jean, it’s been a good ride. But it’s over Saturday. Go Blue,” wrote the newly minted centenarian.
I’m not sure what’s funnier/weirder. A 98-year-old woman with a bobblehead leading the NCAA Tournament. Or a 100-year-old woman on Instagram. I have seldom felt younger!
This Final Four, for me, is the perfect 3-1 blend of major, pedigreed programs and an out-of-the-blue non-blueblood. Kansas and Villanova are No. 1 seeds with a combined five national championships. Michigan has but one title (Glen Rice’s 1989), but nobody questions the school’s national stature. Loyola also won one national title, but it was 55 years ago — with a team best-known for accelerating the integration of the sport in ’63 by breaking the coaches’ “gentlemen’s agreement” at the time to have no more than two black players on the court at once.
Kansas, Villanova and Michigan have a combined 108 March Madness appearances. This is only Loyola-Chicago’s sixth — and first in 33 years.
Only Loyola is experiencing the “joy” Larrañaga described that comes from going from nowhere to this close to the top of the world in two dizzying week.
The Ramblers haven’t stopped being the underdogs; Larrañaga picks Villanova to win it all.
But — sorry Grandma Hicks — only one of the teams still standing has Sister Jean. So we’ll call it even.