Hearts of Gold

May 2018 View more

Character, determination, humility. The team culture that catapulted the maroon- and gold-clad 2018 Loyola Ramblers into the NCAA Final Four was first cultivated here in Naperville, Coach Porter Moser’s hometown.

Minutes after Loyola clinched its first Final Four berth in 55 years at Philips Arena in Atlanta, coach Porter Moser made eye contact in the euphoric crowd with Illinois State Senator Michael Connelly, an old friend.

Connelly, a Loyola graduate who represents the 21st District, played against Moser’s older brother Matt in high school and got to know Porter after the coach took over the Ramblers program in 2011. During a visit to campus that first year, Connelly and his son Matthew, then a Loyola sophomore, stopped by Moser’s office to see how the new job was going.

“Porter said to me, ‘This thing could be a gold mine,’’ Connelly says.

The comment revealed Moser’s indefatigable optimism: When Loyola University hired him, the men’s basketball team had recorded just one 20-win season since 1985.

Fast forward seven years. Connelly and his son drove 200 miles from La Grange to Gerald Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to board the nearest flight that would get them to Georgia in time for Loyola’s Elite 8 game against Kansas State. There they witnessed Loyola’s 78–62 rout, setting off a celebration that included Moser venturing into the sea of maroon-and-gold euphoria full of Ramblers fans.

“We looked at each other and Moser immediately remembered what he told me that day years ago in his office,’’ Connelly says. “I went, ‘This is like the gold mine you promised.’ He just smiled and said, ‘Yep, it’s all coming together, isn’t it?’’

That everything culminated a week later in San Antonio, the site of the Final Four, only made it more special. Moser’s late father, Jim, was a local philanthropist and developer who, in 1981, patterened Naperville’s Riverwalk after the famous one in South Central Texas. When Jim Moser returned home from his trips to San Antonio, he would bring a vision of the future and blueprints to spread out on the family’s kitchen table.

“I remember vividly my dad at our house saying, with all those plans laying everywhere, ‘This is what I want to do in Naperville,’’ Moser recalls.

A life-sized sculpture of Jim Moser and former Naperville Mayor Chet Rybicki stands at the site as their legacy. The chance to make history—in the same city that inspired his father—made Moser emotional on the eve of Loyola’s game at San Antonio’s Alamodome, blocks away from the River Walk.

“It’s symmetry,’’ Moser said the night before Loyola lost to Michigan, 69–57. “My dad was a builder, a developer. And here I am at the Final Four in San Antonio, the same place that had a big impact on him and on my hometown, with the program I built and developed.’’

Moser stopped talking before his voice cracked. Earlier that day, he had tweeted a picture of his parents’ gravesite in Naperville, taken by his brother, Mitch. In front of the headstone sat two signs. One said: “Loyola Basketball” and the other “Final Four.’’

Jim Moser died of cancer in 1998, two years before Porter became a head coach for the first time. Jim’s older brother Harold, known to many as “Mr. Naperville,’’ built nearly 3,000 homes and developed 7,000 housing sites in town before his death in 2001. Sandy Moser, Porter’s mother, passed away in December 2014. “My parents are such a big part of this,’’ Moser says.

A family atmosphere permeated Loyola’s historic 2017–18 season. After each NCAA tournament victory, Moser joyfully crossed the court to embrace his wife Megan and their four children: Jordan, Jake, Ben and Max. Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the team’s 98-year-old chaplain who became America’s darling during the tournament run, ensured every Loyola player experienced pregame prayers and postgame hugs. Loyola guards Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer, best friends since third grade growing up outside Kansas City, Missouri, exemplified a tight-knit team that led the country in closeness.

“These guys are like my brothers,’’ senior reserve Carson Shanks said after his last game. “We all love each other.’’

That openness and affection is reflected in Moser, who never has met a stranger and has seemed over-caffeinated since he was a boy shooting hoops with kids in his Cress Creek neighborhood. Pat Ambrose, the Stevenson High boys basketball coach who grew up down the street from the family, says the enthusiasm that Moser naturally exhibits has always been evident.

“He was just the way he is now [back then]—so energetic and positive,’’ Ambrose says.

From Benet Academy to Creighton University, where the walk-on earned a scholarship through sheer hustle, Moser has never changed. The passion for the game that distinguishes him as a coach defined him as a player. Tony Barone, who coached Moser at Creighton and later gave him his first job in the coaching profession, loves the story about Moser taking a jumping class after his freshman year to improve his vertical leap.

“He was a very disciplined player—not immensely talented with great speed or jumping ability—but he was tough and, boy, he could shoot,’’ Barone says.

As a head coach three successful seasons at Arkansas-Little Rock and four so-so years at Illinois State, Moser recruited players in his likeness: smart, hard-working guys who loved the game.

Getting fired by Illinois State in 2007 with three years left on his contract was a blessing in disguise when he joined the late Rick Majerus on the St. Louis University staff. Moser was heavily influenced by Majerus, a meticulous planner who stressed scouting and details before he passed away in 2012.

The Wall of Culture inside Loyola’s locker room is full of basketball catchphrases that echoed in Moser’s ears long after Majerus uttered them. When Loyola made the NCAA tournament, Moser dialed Majerus’ former number, which he had saved in his cellphone.

“It’s hard to quantify all the things I got from him,’’ Moser says.

The likable Ramblers played smart and selfless basketball on the court and acted humble and kind off of it, appreciating everything they accomplished without taking anything for granted along the way. They represented everything good about the often corrupt world of college sports, and proved the hyphen in student-athlete actually applies. They set an example and altered perception of a Loyola program that will never be the same. They lost in the NCAA semifinal, but won a nation’s respect.

And when it all came together, they helped turn Loyola into the gold mine Moser predicted all those years ago.