SAN ANTONIO — Among the hundreds of things that Loyola-Chicago and its suddenly famous chaplain have in common was the feeling that the latter, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, expressed before a packed news conference on the eve of the Final Four: “I wake up and say, ‘Is this real or is it a dream?’ ”
Sister Jean, 98-year-old subject of a third-edition bobblehead likeness, has become the symbol and soul of the small school’s surprising, exciting run to the NCAA Tournament semifinals. Mostly, she is the star of March Madness this year. Truth be told, she never even had dreamed of such a thing.
“This is the most fun I’ve had in my life,” she said in front of cameras, microphones, cell-phone recorders and about 150 people jamming a room at the Alamodome, where Loyola will face Michigan before Villanova takes on Kansas on Saturday. As Sister Jean would say, let the best squads win. “We have a little slogan that we say: Worship, Work and Win. God always hears but maybe He thinks it’s better for us to do the ‘L’ instead of the ‘W’ and we have to accept that.”
She has accepted decades of near anonymity, which has been fine with her. She was on campus when Loyola won the 1963 NCAA Championship, but was not part of the festivities. She was watching the tape-delayed telecast on an 11-inch black-and-white TV, she said Friday, and when she and the other sisters saw that the Ramblers had won, “Everybody got out of the house and walked down the line on Sheridan Road, men and women together.”
These days, she still lives in a residence hall, still holds bible study for students, still helps run an initiative called Students Moving Into the Lives of Elderly. She still advises and consoles the men’s basketball team, a mid-major that had not been to the Big Dance since 1985. So there she was on Good Friday, the most solemn day on the Christian calendar, talking life and basketball. It is part of her calling.
“We have to keep our minds in a quiet attitude, as well, and I think we make that space,” she said, seconds after having given her opinion that God is indeed a basketball fan, “And He’s probably a fan more of the NCAA than the NBA . . . These young people are playing with their hearts and not for any financial assistance.”
An FBI investigation into NCAA basketball abuses might suggest otherwise. But the fact that Loyola never is mentioned in the documents detailing corruption among big-time schools has fueled its rise as America’s favorite team. That, in turn, has made the Ramblers’ chaplain a celebrity.
“She’s an icon now, she’s more famous than us,” said Marques Townes, a guard from Edison, New Jersey. “Just to see the smile on her face, it lights up the room. We’re happy that she’s happy. She’s just a blessing.”
Ben Richardson, who scored 23 points in the Elite Eight shocker over Kansas State, said: “She was around when we were having down years. We were barely .500 and she was right there, supporting us, doing whatever it took to lift us up.” Donte Ingram spoke of her “bright aura” and was amazed at seeing her hold a news conference. “You would have thought she was one of the players, the way she was getting interviewed,” he said.
To which coach Porter Moser replied, “I thought it looked like Tom Brady at the Super Bowl.”
Michigan coach John Beilein, a Jesuit-educated devout Catholic, admires Sister Jean. But he added that he and his wife both have relatives who are nuns. “I will tell you I have heard from many religious [sisters] that I personally know that tell me their prayers are doing everything they can to counter Sister Jean,” he said.
Sister Jean was the only one, though, who publicly spoke of this ride as “magical” and told of plans for a team Mass here on Easter Sunday. “Because we hope to stay,” she said, “and we’re confident enough we will.”