Guest Column: Loyola Chicago – A stint in the Valley
Excited to share a listener submitted column featured here on the marchtothearchpodcast.com.
–Sam Donets @CptnDonuts
I will admit – I was mad online the moment I saw “The Athletic” news alert. It caught me and I’m sure every Missouri Valley Conference fan off guard. Not even the Loyola fans I follow on Twitter knew about their interest in joining the Atlantic-10 conference.
The news hurts. But should I be mad that they are leaving for possible greener pastures? No. Why? Because Loyola’s administration at the time made a comment about their commitment to better the Rodger Park campus when they replaced Creighton University in 2013. That administration had a plan and executed better than anyone would have thought by putting emphasis on creating a culture around a strong athletic program that would eventually compete at a national level. Not just basketball, but all sports.
Think about it – Joining the A-10 makes absolute sense for the Ramblers. Since joining the Valley, they spent wisely on facilities, coaches, and its student athletes. Thus, creating a juggernaut that has major conference afraid of scheduling them during the regular season.
In 2012, The Valley was still at its absolute best with nationally ranked Creighton, and the renaissance Wichita State was going through with future NBA talents Fred Van Fleet and Ron Baker. Indiana State was also looking good coming off a tournament appearance the year before.
But with the expectation of the Big East splitting into two conferences, Creighton was a clear-cut favorite to help establish the city-based Jesuit league that will feature the likes of Butler, Xavier, Depaul, and Marquette.
Several years later it was Wichita State’s turn to move up the college basketball ranks and bolted for the expanding American Athletic Conference that also featured similar school profiles. Creighton was poached and never looked back. Wichita State was poached, but a case can be made on if it was really the right move. In my opinion it was.
It was 2012, we as Valley fans hated that Creighton was leaving, but didn’t bat an eye because of the Shocker’s success mixed with an up-and-coming Indiana State team and Northern Iowa squad that was trending upwards. Once it was announced that the Shockers were leaving in 2017, it was a slightly different story. Since the replenishing options shall we say – not the best?
It came time for the committee to start looking for a 10th member of the Valley. Schools from all over the country were calling Doug Elgin’s office to hear more about the MVC’s newly established ESPN TV deal and how they can join. The list was narrowed down to several decent options with plenty of pluses and minuses. The Ohio Valley’s Murray State Racers, The Horizon League’s Illinois-Chicago Flames, Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers, and eventual invitee and HL celler dwellers- Loyola University Chicago.
On April 19th, 2013, Doug Elgin and the MVC Presidents announced that they had extended an invitation to the Ramblers, which they gladly accepted. Little did we know that an exciting new era was about to begin the following season.
Loyola had big shoes to fill replacing Creighton. By no means were they like the Blue Jays. They weren’t really known outside of the Horizon League or Chicago circles. Cult following to the highest degree that dreamt of returning to greatness they once had in early 60’s.
They had somewhat outdated facilities and were struggling to bring students to campus. From a MVC fan prospective, NOTHING was expected from them other than being the new guys everyone can beat up on. In the back of our heads we all thought Loyola was only brought in for the market they play in and to cater to the high concentration of Valley school alumni in the area.
Since joining the Valley in 2013 –
The Ramblers recently made a big-time name hire for their women’s basketball program with WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes. On the Men’s side, they were fully committed to a familiar Valley face in former Illinois State head coach Porter Moser. The women’s team wasn’t much to write home about during Swoopes 3-years as head coach of the Ramblers.
Moser often the butt of many jokes after only winning six total Horizon League games the previous two seasons brought back bad memories for the many Illinois State faithful that disliked him. It was just so easy to root against him. Especially if you personally knew how great he is as a person.
It felt insulted, by Doug Elgin and the MVC presidents to the point that we were being dupped by The Onion. We couldn’t believe the MVC school presidents turned down a solid Murray State program that had geographical and educational fit with the league.
We mocked Loyola for having the smallest gym in the league and the lack of modern amenities you’d see at other Valley schools. We mocked them for having Porter Moser leading their men’s basketball team. We bashed them for having the smallest gym that was comparable to some Southern Illinois high school field houses that featured bowl seating for 2,500 fans.
On many of the fan forums, everyone agreed that Loyola was going to be the Valley’s version of Northwestern. A chance for Chicago based alums from Bradley, Drake, Illinois State, and Southern Illinois to see their team play in person without having to drive several hours. A chance for visiting school fans to come watch a league game and party like they were in college in again and leave with a road win.
At my first game at the Gentile Arena, the Salukis dominated the Ramblers. My friends and I, maybe a year or two out of school were clearly the loudest people there. We were by far the most inebriated and probably outnumbered their fan base. We chanted Bryan Mullins name every time the Ramblers went to the free throw line. We heckled the Rambler’s miniscule student crowd, poked fun at Porter’s coaching career with the Red Birds and showed our love for attending a public school.
After that game and every SIU/LUC game after that, Porter Moser himself would come up us and commended us for our passion and genuinely thank us for coming out to support the Salukis.
We left that first night feeling really good and excited that Loyola was now part of the Missouri Valley tradition.
Over the next few years, you can see what was happening in Rogers Park. The Rambler’s Athletic Department followed through with their plans to build a new culture on campus. They were committed the Men’s basketball program and gave Moser the keys to the Kingdom.
Year by year he would recruit higher talent. Chicago native and Kansas transfer Milton Doyle was the first step. Clayton Custer, Ben Richardson and Maruques Townes came in via the transfer portal. And then it happened – the greatest signing class in school history brought in Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson.
Year by year they moved up the ranks. The Gentile Arena was quickly filling up. In the first-year post Wichita State, the Ramblers made its mark surprising everyone on its way to the Final Four.
The Valley thought it lost a cash cow in Wichita State. Out of nowhere Loyola that was brought in to replace Creighton in 2013, was in the tournament and outperforming the MVC’s previous cash cows with a storybook run on the biggest stage in March.
Loyola did everything it could to keep Porter Moser around, and re-invested every dollar they made off their Final Four and NIT appearances.
The Facilities on campus were improved, and so was the attitude of the student body and administration. Something some other MVC schools should take note of.
Let me repeat – Loyola’s admin reinvested every dollar they earned and made sure they weren’t a one hit wonder.
Fast forward a few years later and now Loyola is considered the crown jewel of MVC basketball. The team that was a joke coming in, turned out to be the peacock that wanted to fly.
In a wild era of NCAA conference re-alignment, the Valley had to make a move to keep up and stay competitive. Newly installed Commissioner Jeff Jackson made a big splash within a month of taking over by bringing in Ohio Valley Conference powerhouse Belmont University as the 11th member of the MVC. Everything was trending upwards for the Valley as it posed to become the 7th best basketball conference in the nation behind the Power-5 and the Big East.
The 2020/21 season was supposed to be signature year. The high return rate of star players coming back thanks to a one-time eligibility rule change that granted an extra-year of eligibility due to the pandemic. This with the addition of Belmont next year, the Valley became a force in Division-1 basketball.
But this is a business and Loyola was ready for its next challenge join the realignment carousel when the Atlantic 10 came calling. The A-10, a conference with mostly urban based private schools made its case to lure Loyola out of the small pond it was in and to join a basketball centered league with similar profiles. The A-10 has more nationally recognized schools then the Valley and feature a bevy of teams that routinely compete at the highest level every year. It’s the multi-bid league Loyola needs of they want to grow their desire to be a national brand through athletics.
Do I blame Loyola for joining the A-10, no because it is the right move for them. As a fan of the Valley whom lives in Chicago, I absolutely hate it. But only because I won’t be able to make a yearly trip to the north side of Chicago to see the Salukis in person.