Leading a double-digit seed to a Final Four berth fits Porter Moser’s career path. Loyola (Chicago) has become the talk of the NCAA Tournament and made Sister Jean the reboot of the Flying Nun. The Ramblers, like most successful teams, take on the personality of their coach.
Loyola, the No. 11 seed and winner of the South Regional, will be the underdog – again – when it faces Michigan Saturday in San Antonio. The Ramblers put the fun in fundamentals. They play defense like a pack of dogs outside a butcher shop and their offense is a five-man symphony of cuts, screens, passes and shot making.
In short, the Ramblers make the most of what they have. They’re like a walk on who studies the game, searches for every edge and plays each possession as if its his last.
Because that’s how Porter Moser started his college basketball journey.
After an all-star high school career in Naperville, Ill., Moser had a scholarship offer from Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point. But he thought he could play D-I. Creighton coach Tony Barone offered him a spot as a walk on and promised that if he proved himself, he would earn a scholarship.
While Moser’s doctorate in coaching came while a member of Rick Majerus’ staff at St. Louis University, his undergraduate work started with Barone.
Midway through his sophomore season, Moser earned his scholarship.
“He could really shoot the ball,” Barone said during a telephone interview from his home in Chicago. “I think he made four or five game-winning shots.”
Barone and his staff identified Moser’s leadership ability as soon as he arrived on campus. As a walk on and a member of the scout team, Moser would take the scouting report and organize his fellow scrubs to run the opponents’ offensive and defensive sets. Once his playing career ended, he became a graduate assistant.
“I thought he had the qualities that if he wanted to get into this goofy business he could have some success,” Barone said.
Success is now defined as an unexpected rocket ride to the Final Four. But until this particularly magical March Madness, Moser’s success in the coaching profession has been hard earned.
After the 1989-90 season, Texas A&M fired long-time coach and country philosopher Shelby Metcalf. Bitter rival Texas had just caught the basketball bug under Tom Penders and the Aggies administration tried to microwave success.
Kermit Davis – yes, that Kermit Davis – was hired but his one season in College Station resulted in an 8-21 record plus an NCAA investigation that led to three years of probation.
A&M hired Barone from Creighton. Moser came along as an assistant; actually, he was a restricted earnings coach, that short-termed NCAA folly that was eventually ruled as an anti-trust infraction.
The Aggies’ program was a wreck. Barone had five players on scholarship when he took over. The school played their games in G. Rollie White Coliseum, an oddly configured venue that was known as the Holler House on the Brazos. But the losing had reduced the fan interest so that Reveille, the school’s collie mascot, could be heard loudly barking during free throws – by either the home or the visiting team.
Moser was an assistant for Barone for the first two and the last two seasons of his seven-year tenure that produced one winning season. The last two seasons for Barone were the first two of the Big 12, a step up in class that the Aggies were ill-prepared for.
“I wouldn’t be in this without Tony Barone being my college coach and giving me a chance,” Moser said on the Final Four coaches teleconference. “That was a pretty special thing that he had enough trust and faith in our relationship to bring me along to start that journey, my coaching journey, at A&M with him.”
Moser’s coaching career could well have been the inspiration for HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.” At age 31, he got his first head coaching job at Arkansas-Little Rock.
He took over a 4-24 team and went 18-11 in Year One and won 18 games each of the next three seasons. That led him to Illinois State where he inherited a team that finished 8-21.
After four seasons and a 51-67 record, Moser had most of his top players returning from a .500 team. But athletic director Sheahon Zenger pulled the plug. That led Moser to St. Louis and his ability to study the methods of a master teaching coach.
“I’m very blessed to have two mentors who I think were great basketball guys that impacted my life and my career,” Moser said.
When Moser took over Loyola, the program was more a huffing and puffing steam engine than a train wreck. The Ramblers had posted double-digit victories in 10 of the last 20 seasons but had won more than 20 just once with the last NCAA Tournament appearance in 1985.
Now, four NCAA victories in two weeks have turned Moser’s seventh season at Loyola into an improbable story. The Ramblers are the fifth double digit seed to reach the Final Four. None of the previous four have played on Monday night. The city of Chicago is behind a basketball version of the Cubs.
“I enjoy watching them play because they do things the right way,” Barone said. “Porter has done a great job of building a program and getting the support of the students and the community. He’s recruiting quality kids and they’ve bought into the system. They’re a defensive oriented team that makes threes – kind of an odd combination. But I’ve think they’ve got a chance to go all the way.”