CHICAGO — In the wee bookstore at the entry of Damen Student Center, the table out front boasted piles of Final Four T-shirts on Tuesday, as if to suggest that Loyola Chicago in the Final Four might even be true. The purchase line from the desk stretched back to the wall, then continued around a sales rack and along the wall, then reached the corner, then continued back out toward the door.
At the larger Loyola University Chicago Lakeshore Campus Bookstore out on the major Sheridan Road, things have gone even, okay, madder. On a routine day, Mani Pillai, the store manager, estimated she might require eight to 13 employees; these non-routine days, it ranges somewhere from 25 to 35, including people who don’t actually work there but work there for now because the owner, Follett Higher Education Group, has called in reinforcements.
“The entire region has been called in, and Follett has called in all its troops,” said Pillai, who called the week “hectic but for a very good reason. It’s been really great not only for us as a bookstore but certainly for the Loyola brand. The neighborhood’s been very supportive. We’ve had online orders from places as far away as Thailand, Japan, Italy.”
Shipments come in daily; there’s serial replenishing of supply. There’s a pop-up store downtown where certain skyscrapers have sported Loyola maroon and gold, and Pillai speaks words largely unforeseeable even a month ago.
“People have been very, very hungry for Ramblers gear,” she said.
What fellow No. 11 seed George Mason University learned in 2006 and what fellow No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth University learned in 2011, Loyola Chicago knows now: Sudden, mad recognition whooshes in with an unexpected Final Four run and brings with it all the capitalism therein. Even though Loyola has been around halfway to forever, founded in 1870 as St. Ignatius by Father Arnold Damen — who sits in front of the West Quad in statue, his face expressionless even during last-minute frenzies — it has visibility anew.
“The administration, I think, should be prepared for more [general public] interest in applying,” said Rodger Smith, a communications professor who has been at George Mason since 1994. “The admissions department will be busier. I think they will because [people will say], ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about Loyola Chicago.’
“They’re the hot university now.”
The statistics provided by Robert Baker of George Mason and by associate vice president Michael Porter of VCU are, of course, striking. Start at the George Mason bookstore, which reaped $625,000 in sales for the entire academic year 2004-05 and $800,000 during March 2006 alone. Loyola Chicago, which averaged 2,404 home fans this season, might expect a hike, if George Mason’s rise from 1,262 season tickets to more than 2,500 is any indication. (Attendance went from 4,533 to 6,834 per game.)
What else? There was that 350 percent increase in inquiries about applying, a 54 percent bolt in out-of-state applications. The average GPA of applicants ticked upward. Student services reported “significant declines in counseling appointments.”
VCU, still the only Final Four team to sprout from the so-called “First Four,” the two-night event in Dayton, Ohio, that whittles the field from 68 to 64 teams, had 30,000 visits to its homepage the quarter before the 2011 NCAA tournament, almost 65,000 per day during. Facebook “daily news feed impressions” ticked from 1,167,051 that February to 2,770,481 that March. Requests to add alumni chapters came from 25 new cities.
The kind of new life that began for Loyola Chicago on Saturday in Atlanta with a 78-62 win over Kansas State felt, in 2006, like “trying to survive a tsunami with a straw in my mouth,” said Kevin McNamee, George Mason’s deputy athletic director and chief operating officer. The amount of detail, starting with travel agents and streaming on from there, proved “massive,” he said, especially for a school unfamiliar with Final Four reality.
McNamee recalls the university president at the time, Alan Merten, as “very, very clear-eyed” about the opportunity for a school founded only last century, telling university staff, “It’s about us telling our story . . . and making sure our mission in this basketball venture was the mission of the university.”
As McNamee puts it, “Our story is that we’re an underdog institution. Trying to get out of a local-regional thing and into more of a national identity. When I read all these Cinderella stories, everybody’s got a different story. Loyola’s been there a long time.
“And it is a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to get your story out,” he said, calling it “a quick, intense opportunity the likes of which few schools ever have.”
As Baker put it in an email, “Purposefully seizing the opportunities that present themselves is critical.” He also noted that, 12 years on, George Mason has 37,000 students, the largest university in Virginia, with “50 percent of the recent growth in Virginia higher education attributed to George Mason.” At least a smidgen of that, of course, would owe to the Final Four.
March 2006 has, of course, faded. Sometimes Smith has to remind his students, 6 or 7 or 8 or 9 years old at the time, that George Mason reached a Final Four. Still, 2006 lingers in a few areas of life. There’s the eternal identification Smith pointed out as, “What’s happened is, I think, in sports media, if there’s a discussion about a Cinderella team, instead of saying ‘Cinderella,’ you’ll see some media folks say ‘George Mason.’ ‘They’re the George Mason of 2018.’ ” And there’s one of his memories, capable of forging goose bumps. Overseeing the campus radio and its broadcast of the 2006 East Region final against No. 1 seed Connecticut, Smith and his students would know what happened three seconds before the thousands of people watching upstairs in the student center.
They would wait the three seconds for the roar.
“I get a chill thinking about how it galvanized this university and brought disparate aspects of this university together,” he said.
On Saturday, Loyola Chicago students had their turn in the student center, and the TBS broadcast featured them regularly as they cheered. For Loyola Chicago, this recognition brings a different kind of valuable byproduct, that of a reflective recognition upon its 1963 national championship team and all the social and racial progress that team represented, with its coach, George Ireland, having noticed that the unwritten rule about playing only two black players at a time was, in fact, stupid.
“Since these [current players] have been in the program,” Coach Porter Moser said, “these guys [the 1963 players] have been around. And you know, they’re a high-character group. They’re winners. And what they went through, their story, they’ve shared with our guys. And we at Loyola know the story, I think basketball historians know the story, and I’m loving that the conversation of what they meant to the country for integration is being told again. Because the youth of America, they need to know what that generation went through. And they need to carry the baton in this society.
“I love, I get chills talking about it, that this conversation has sparked so much with the ’63 national [championship] team. I’m very proud that that is a huge byproduct of our journey.”
“They’ve been nothing but supportive with us,” point guard and leader Clayton Custer said. “I mean, they’re an inspiration. They come in. Coach always welcomes them to practice. They can come watch. . . . They were really ‘Glory Road’ before ‘Glory Road.’ Obviously, we still have a ways to go in this country as far as things like that are concerned, but it goes to show that we have made it a long ways.”
The reach of the NCAA tournament remains, of course, mad.
“It can make stars, and you’re not limited to having stars being basketball players. They also can be the 98-year-old nun who has been around for World War II and is also around to see her team make the Final Four,” Smith said.
“I mean,” Pillai at the bookstore said, “when Sister Jean’s on your side . . .” And she let the words trail off right there. By now, everybody knows what that means.
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