SAN ANTONIO — Porter Moser was a 29-year-old Texas A&M assistant when he saw Rick Majerus and his white sweater walk out of the tunnel at the Alamodome with his Utah Utes at the 1998 Final Four.
“I remember going, ‘Holy cow’ — how big that team was,” said Moser, now Loyola Chicago’s coach. “I remember that vividly.”
Just as clear in Moser’s memory is his future boss Majerus being stung by Kentucky in the national championship game.
The Utes haven’t been back, 20 years later.
“There’s nothing that stuck in his craw more,” Moser said. “It physically bothered him.”
Another two decades from now, Moser might look back on this Final Four run for his 11th-seeded Ramblers and feel a sting if it becomes his own missed opportunity. His Ramblers take on third-seeded Michigan in their Saturday semifinal. But no matter the outcome, the seventh-year Loyola coach and his players hope they aren’t writing their one and only hit.
The staying power for midmajor programs making deep NCAA tournament runs varies. Some turn into perennial top-25 teams, while others vanish from the college basketball consciousness.
Will Loyola Chicago become a Gonzaga, a Butler or a Wichita State? Or will it suffer the fate of fellow Cinderella teams like George Mason, Florida Gulf Coast or Virginia Commonwealth?
The answer probably depends on whether Moser stays or leaves.
“The overall feeling is we’re happy to be here, obviously,” freshman center Cameron Krutwig said. “But coach has made no mention of leaving or anything like that. He’s talking to me and saying, ‘Next year, we better be right back here.’ That just kind of makes me think like he’s going to stick around.
“You know, why wouldn’t he want to stick around? We have a great group of guys he recruited. It’s all his guys, every guy who he loves. I don’t see any reason for him to leave.”
Sure, the love of his players is one reason to stick around. But sometimes that isn’t enough. Jim Larranaga left George Mason to go to Miami (Fla.), Shaka Smart left VCU for Texas and Andy Enfield left FGCU’s “Dunk City” to coach Southern California.
Those programs were never the same once their coaches moved on to bigger opportunities. George Mason has made the NCAA tournament only twice since reaching the Final Four in 2006, and not once after Larranaga left in 2011. VCU hasn’t advanced beyond the NCAA second round since the Final Four in 2011. Florida Gulf Coast has made two NCAA appearances — first-round losses — since a Sweet 16 run in Enfield’s last year in 2013.
The biggest reason Moser might stay is he’s put so much effort in building Loyola from the ground up. “I’ve spent my heart and soul building this program,” he said, “From getting through all the tough times.”
You have to go back a half-century since the Ramblers’ last big Final Four moment. The 1963 team won the national championship, and in the process added a chapter in the conversation about racial equality in American sports. Their mostly black lineup competed with dignity and poise against all-white teams on the way to the school’s only title.
At this year’s Final Four, Moser has been using the big stage to sell his program, not himself. The Ramblers will break ground this spring on an $18.5 million practice facility.
“This journey has been a complete grass-roots rebuild,” Moser said. “I’m talking rock bottom, first stage. Finding a way with one gym with four sports has been one of the ways we’ve just had to [make it work] and control what we can control.”
Moser, who was hired at Loyola in 2011 after four seasons on Majerus’ staff at Saint Louis, suffered through three losing seasons to open his tenure. His record was 32-61. Moser’s administration saw his vision and remained hopeful for a turnaround, unlike Illinois State, which fired him after going 51-67 in four seasons from 2003-07.
“Adversity doesn’t have to define you,” Moser said. “I dove into this competitive reinvention process when [he was fired]. It was part of the business. I had to take what I felt I was doing right still and stay confident in myself.”
Recruiting local players has helped Loyola’s talent. When he got the job, Moser said the program had gone more than a decade without tapping into the Chicago public league. He reached out to the city’s high school and AAU coaches and invited them to campus.
The coaches told him they “had no idea Loyola’s campus was this nice,” Moser said.
Ramblers senior Donte Ingram is from Simeon Career Academy, the Chicago powerhouse Derrick Rose calls home. Joining Loyola from Jahlil Okafor’s alma mater Whitney Young was freshman Lucas Williamson this season. There are six Illinois players on this year’s roster.
“That’s something that’s going to be a big help in the recruiting process,” said Krutwig, an Illinois native. “I think our campus is really underrated, honestly. When people get out there they definitely can see it’s really beautiful. People just need to get out there and see it.”
Wichita State leaving the Missouri Valley Conference last year left an open throne for Loyola. The Ramblers have the facilities, the coach, the campus, the talent to sustain success beyond this run. Can they become the next midmajor power program? That’s the biggest question for Loyola — after this Final Four.
“If they were playing in a power conference, they might have been a 6, 7, 5, 4 seed,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “They might have won one of those conferences. They’re so good. They might win a national championship.”