Everything is sunshine, lollipops and Sister Jean for Loyola right now.
Not since 1963 has the Chicago school been such a hot item on the national sports scene.
Beating Northern Iowa, Bradley and Illinois State to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship, then beating higher-seeded Miami and Tennessee to reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament has made folks giddy with recollections of 1963 national champions Jerry Harkness, Les Hunter, John Egan, etc. Why, it’s even possible the late, aptly named coach George Ireland might start doing a jig in the sky if this victory march continues.
Then, too, a Catholic nun probably has not gotten as much publicity as 98-year-old team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, who is always courtside with her prayers and petitions, since Joan of Arc.
So engaging has the good woman been in her TV interviews that the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the religious order she has belonged to for more than eight decades, might even get a bump in novices.
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Yep, it’s all sweet for Loyola. The school has become Chicago’s favorite Catholic university, at least for now.
It wasn’t always like that, you know. Not even a few years ago.
As recently as 2014, a lot of Ramblers fans wanted coach Porter Moser fired for being a dud, a guy who had failed at Illinois State, then came to Loyola and produced a dismal 32-61 record in his first three seasons.
But he turned things around when he went 24-13 the next season, and his success this season — 30-5 and counting — speaks for itself.
But the flip side to this North Side success is the reflected gloom Loyola aims down at the other large Catholic university in Chicago, DePaul, some 40 blocks south as the pigeon flies.
DePaul has been mired in an unrelenting morass of basketball failure for nearly as long as the Meyer family empire has been gone. There was a brief bump in 2004, when coach Dave Leitao led the Blue Demons to a 22-10 record and the second round of the NCAAs.
But since then? Despite three more coaches (including interim coach Tracy Webster) and then the odd return of Leitao in 2015, DePaul is stuck at the bottom of the Big East, where it has won 18 games in five seasons.
Almost all of DePaul’s critics are blaming athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto for somehow not getting the one revenue sport at the school blasted into the big time.
Lenti Ponsetto was a star athlete at DePaul and has been affiliated with the school in some capacity for 33 years. She is almost like DePaul royalty. She is married to former Blue Demons basketball star Joe Ponsetto, and her brother Eugene Lenti is the women’s softball coach at the school.
Just recently, it was brought up by student journalists at the DePaulia, the school newspaper, that the recent naming rights to DePaul’s new home court, Wintrust Arena, were helped along by Wintrust executive vice president Kandace Lenti, who is married to Eugene. Thus, Kandace is Lenti Ponsetto’s sister-in-law, and something about it all just seems rather, well, Chicago. This is the town, after all, where back-scratching is the political game of choice.
There might be nothing wrong with the naming-rights deal, which involves Wintrust becoming the official campus bank for 22,000 DePaul students and has been estimated to bring in millions of dollars to both the bank and the school. But there is that odor.
Neither Lenti Ponsetto nor Kandace Lenti agreed to talk with DePaulia reporters, and the PR staffs of each institution sent the journalists obfuscating responses. They don’t have to talk to kid writers, of course, but they ought to. DePaul teaches investigative journalism, you know.
The gleaming new arena that is way off campus is a white elephant in many ways. Attendance is terrible, the Blue Demons won only one conference game there in its inaugural season and Chicago taxpayers partially have paid for it.
Loyola, for its part, plays its games in Gentile Arena, in the center of campus, a gym that might hold 5,000 people with a shoehorn. DePaul’s shiny bauble near McCormick Place is much larger and newer, but so what?
‘‘We asked if they would answer our questions at a sit-down,’’ said DePaulia news editor Jonathan Ballew, who co-wrote the Wintrust/Lenti story with sportswriter Shane Rene. ‘‘So far, all we’ve gotten are email answers.’’
Maybe that’s wise for DePaul and the athletic department right now. Maybe hiding until the basketball season is long over is the best response around.
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