ATLANTA — The past couple months make it seem that Porter Moser is a college basketball coach whose career is on a straight upward trajectory.
He has Loyola Chicago within one victory of its first Final Four berth since 1963, when it won the national championship.
His team is 31-5 and hasn’t lost since Jan. 31, and has captivated a previously dormant fan base by underscoring what’s possible in the men’s NCAA tournament despite being a No. 11 seed from a mid-major conference and without a stable of future NBA draft picks.
He even has the darling of March Madness on his side, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, 98, who both leads the Ramblers in prayer and serves as an honorary assistant coach to help scout the upcoming opponent, which in this case is ninth-seeded Kansas State (25-11) in the South Region final on Saturday night at Philips Arena.
Only Moser is 49, and on his third head-coaching job. When he took over at Loyola in 2011, he was trying to reboot his career. The protege of both Tony Barone and the late Rick Majerus long had been familiar with Loyola while growing up in Naperville, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, and playing high school basketball at Benet Academy roughly 45 miles west of the Loyola’s campus. But the Ramblers weren’t exactly a plum job, with one 20-win season in the 26 since their previous NCAA tournament appearance, in 1985.
Four years earlier, Illinois State had fired Moser following consecutive losing seasons. On the even of the biggest game of his career, Moser recalled leaning on Barone for support and guidance. Barone had coached Moser at Creighton from 1986 to ’90, when the scrappy guard started only a handful of games but made multiple winning shots.
After graduation, Moser served as an assistant for the Bluejays in 1990-91.
“Coach Barone was a huge influence on my life,” Moser said. “When I worked for him, he wouldn’t allow you to think that any task was too small or too big. It was about getting it done, getting it done the right way, and the work ethic of working and doing things. Coach Majerus was the same way.”
Moser also received a morale boost following his dismissal from Illinois State from Majerus, who hired Moser to his staff at Saint Louis. Moser would spend four seasons there, until he was hired by Loyola.
Majerus died of heart failure at 64 during Moser’s second season at Loyola. Majerus is the professional mentor Moser still affectionately refers to as a bona fide “genius” when it came to basketball strategy.
“Sitting in a boardroom with Coach Majerus for a couple days preparing for a game was like nothing else,” he said.
There’s plenty of Majerus’s influence embedded into the Ramblers’ playing style, particularly on defense, where the outsized former coach was a stickler for detail.
So too is Moser, who crafted a game plan that limited No. 7 seed Nevada to 26 percent shooting from three-point range and created 12 points off turnovers during Friday night’s 69-68 triumph in the round of 16.
The outcome became all but certain when Marques Townes made a three-pointer with seven seconds to play for a four-point lead.
Sitting in her wheelchair off to the side of the Loyola bench, Sister Jean raised both her hands in jubilation as she watched Townes’s shot swish through the net, later saying her bracket had been busted after picking the Ramblers to lose in the round of 16.
“I’m so grateful to the young men and to Porter, of course, for doing this,” said Sister Jean, the 98-year-old nun who has become the most recognized member of the Loyola community during the Ramblers’ improbable run.
“I’ll probably remember it for the rest of my life,” said Townes, who, during the postgame news conference, apologized to Sister Jean for ruining her bracket. “I mean, it doesn’t really get any better than that.”
Townes is among many players on the roster Moser recruited in part because of their winning backgrounds. Seven of his players won high school state championships, and Aundre Jackson helped his junior college team reach the national championship game.
That “winning gene,” as Moser calls it, has put Loyola in position to become the fourth No. 11 seed in tournament history to reach the Final Four, after LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 .
The coaches of the latter two teams, Jim Larranaga and Shaka Smart, ultimately went on to accept positions at major-conference programs, but Moser at the moment isn’t addressing speculation in that regard.
“It’s just kind of been who we are, about the next game,” Moser said. “When we got into the tournament, it was like we didn’t just want to be here. They have this edge to them that they believe, and they want more. Some of these meals back at the hotel after these wins are priceless, when everybody is not around, and it’s just us, and those moments are unbelievable.
“And the next day, it’s like today, it was all about Kansas State. It’s just how they’re wired with that.”