Meet Sister Jean, Loyola-Chicago's not-so-secret weapon

March 23, 2018, 9:40 PM

DALLAS -- The first time Clayton Custer encountered Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, it was during a team prayer.

It was Custer's first game at Loyola-Chicago in 2015, a redshirt season after transferring from Iowa State. Before the Ramblers ran out of the tunnel for the game, they huddled around Sister Jean.

"The way she prayed just stuck out," Custer recalls. "In the middle of her prayer there's a scouting report mixed in. She tells us who their best players are and what to watch out for. Sometimes she'll pray for the referee to make the right calls.

"And at the end, she'll literally pray that we come out on top."

That's vintage Sister Jean, Loyola-Chicago's team chaplain, a 98-year-old nun and the Ramblers' not-so-secret weapon.

"She's the biggest Loyola basketball fan I've ever met in my life," junior guard Marques Townes said.

While fan is one way to describe her, it's only one part of what she does. Her team chaplain duties date back to 1994 and she has witnessed more than a half-century of the team's basketball history.

Her story is well-documented:  A basketball player in her youth, Sister Jean was part of the sport at a time when the court was divided into separate sections for women, with players restricted to specific roles. She later became a nun, then a grade school teacher and started girls sports programs. She is best known, however, for her relationship with the Ramblers. From 1961 to 1990, she taught at Mundelein College, an all-women's Catholic school that neighbored Loyola. After the two schools merged in 1991, she joined Loyola as an academic advisor before moving to her current role. She prays for the players, their health, for the referees to call a fair game and, of course, a Ramblers victory.

"It's amazing," Ingram said. "I hope I'm like that if I make it to 98. She has so much knowledge, she has so much wisdom. She shines bright. Her spirit is so warm and loving."

Said Townes: "I think that's one of our competitive advantages. Having her here blessing our team and blessing our coaching staff, giving us a warm prayer before the game, having her bless the team right before the game, it just means so much."

Rarely has she missed a home game until this season, when a hip injury disrupted her attendance. Even in her absence, she continued to send regular e-mails to coach Porter Moser after games, applauding the team's performance (or providing encouragement after losses). Players say she leaves individualized notes for each of them at the bottom of those emails. The Ramblers say it makes their day, especially the encouragement after tough games.

Nothing was going to stop Sister Jean from being present in Texas this weekend for the Ramblers' first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1985. When Ingram hit a game-winning 3-pointer to lead 11th-seeded Loyola to an 64-62 upset win over sixth-seeded Miami on Thursday, Sister Jean was at the American Airlines Center to witness it. Soon, she was thrust into the spotlight as the subject of a postgame television interview.

Since that moment, Sister Jean has been busier than usual. Her name became a popular topic on Twitter, to the point that even former President Barack Obama gave her a shoutout.

On Friday, less than 24 hours after the Ramblers' thrilling victory, she fielded one interview after another at the team hotel. During a brief stretch on Friday afternoon, she did three interviews in succession: one with a television crew, a one-on-one with then a phone interview with the Washington Post.

BIll Behrns, Loyola's basketball sports information director, estimates that he received "at least" 15 interview requests for Sister Jean this week, and that doesn't count other interviews that he might not have known about, likely bringing the number closer to 20. The New York Times profiled her earlier this week.

"My phone keeps ringing," Sister Jean said. "That's fine with me. ... Whatever it is, whatever channel it is, it's fine with me. I love it for the young men, because this means a lot to them, too."

For the Ramblers, the nation is just now discovering what the team and university have long known.

"We've known how much of a blessing she has been to us for years, since I got the job," Moser said. "To see her get the national spotlight, it's fun."

Don't be fooled by the wheelchair that she's currently using. Sister Jean is as active and as sharp as they come. The hip injury might have slowed her down some (she's doing physical therapy twice weekly) but before that she was, as Moser said, "booking around campus, on ice, rain, sleet, snow, whatever, getting to practice. She's energy. That's the Sister Jean we know."

Her passion for the school is unrivaled. She lives in the dorms on campus and holds an office there that "is literally always open," freshman forward Cameron Krutwig said. "Anyone can walk in there, not just us. She's not just for basketball, obviously. She's for the whole university. She's a celebrity around the university and everyone loves her." She works with regular students and the school's other sports teams as well.

She can recall watching the Ramblers' 1963 national championship team and the celebration that ensued (she watched it on an 11-inch black-and-white television on tape-delay). She also can tell you what the Ramblers' RPI was last season, this season, and that maybe it should cease to be a criteria for evaluating tournament-worthy teams.

"We have to advance with time," Sister Jean said. "We have to consider things that the bracketologists don't think about."

As the Ramblers bask in tournament glory for the first time in 33 years (they went to the Sweet 16 in their most recent appearance in 1985), Sister Jean is enjoying every minute of it. She has filled out two brackets, one that she calls "realistic" and has this current Loyola squad going to the Sweet 16. They can accomplish that with a win over Tennessee on Saturday.

Her "Cinderella dream" bracket has the Ramblers going all the way to the championship game. To be able to bear witness to history once again is something she's grateful for.

"It just means so much," she said. "I didn't expect to see this happen in my lifetime."

Oh, and she has a message for the Ramblers' next opponent. "Tennessee," she said, "watch out."