When Steve Watson first walked into his new office at Loyola University Chicago, where the Western New York native was hired as the director of athletics in 2014, he couldn’t help but notice an envelope on his desk.
Inside, he found a single sheet of paper. Typed.
“It was one page,” Watson said recently, recalling his first assist from Sister Jean. “She’s very meticulous. She printed something up for me, a scouting report on the different people in the department.”
Jean Dolores Schmidt, or “Sister Jean” as she’s commonly known, is the 99-year-old nun who has served as the Loyola men’s basketball team chaplain since 1994. She became an international celebrity in March during the Ramblers’ stunning run to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.
Sister Jean delivered the pregame prayer before Loyola’s season opener last week at Gentile Arena, addressing the crowd from her courtside wheelchair as the school unveiled a banner to commemorate last season’s success. Loyola (1-1) hosts Niagara (1-0) on that same court Wednesday for a game that’s part of the Fort Myers Tipoff.
(And on an unrelated note, the Canisius men’s basketball team plays No. 8 Villanova on Nov. 22 in Orlando, Fla., meaning Big 4 schools play two of last season’s Final Four teams in a span of eight days.)
Watson, who was raised in Franklinville, served as the athletics director at St. Bonaventure for more than seven years before taking the reins at Loyola. But as he quickly learned from that envelope on his desk – in much the same way men’s basketball coach Porter Moser found out when he was hired in 2011 – that Sister Jean is in charge.
“She gave him a scouting report on the team that he inherited, and she did the same thing with me,” Watson said. “I had an envelope in my office, and it talked about all the different folks in the department. And she scheduled a meeting with my assistant, and we sat down and talked about where the department was and different things that we needed to do going forward.
“And then we had a department meeting very early on when I got here, and I was putting the agenda together, and when I got to the conference room where we had everybody, she came up to me and said, ‘Just so you know, these meetings start with my prayer.’ And I just said, ‘OK.’ You learn real quickly, you may think you’re the boss, but we’re all working for Sister Jean when it’s all said and done.
“It was classic. And that’s who she is. She’s the best.”
Back for another season. pic.twitter.com/W9MHXTSK8U
— Loyola Men's Basketball (@RamblersMBB) November 7, 2018
Watson had a front-row seat during last season’s tournament run, when the men’s basketball program he helps oversee and the school’s matriarch stepped into the national spotlight.
What it revealed was authentic.
“Sister Jean is Sister Jean,” Watson said. “She hasn’t changed because of this, because of the run last year. She stayed true to herself and it was almost like we were able to introduce this unbelievably special person that’s been a part of Loyola for a long time to the rest of the world. And the rest of the world was able to see what a neat lady she is. The impact was phenomenal. Obviously, it was just another part of our story that really resonated with people across the country and internationally.”
Watson recalled one particularly stunning development at the Final Four.
“Our guys laughed when we were in San Antonio and they had the media day,” Watson said, “and they had different breakout rooms for different coaches and players and when they walked by Sister Jean’s room – Sister Jean had her own media room – and they said it was like Tom Brady at the Super Bowl. There were just hundreds and hundreds of media folks there to talk to Sister Jean.”
There was the undeniable uniqueness of a then-98-year-old, basketball-loving nun, whose Aug. 21 birthday becomes a monthlong celebration on campus.
But it’s Sister Jean’s magnetic personality that helped turn her into a beloved figure, well beyond Loyola and the city of Chicago.
“She’s very intelligent,” Watson said. “She can speak basketball. And so you want to talk Xs and Os with her, she’ll break stuff down for you. And you really don’t expect that from a little old lady.”
Watson said Sister Jean, who was unavailable for an interview this week, never made the national attention about her during last season’s Final Four run, choosing instead to talk about Loyola’s players, coaches, the university and her order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“And yet that just makes her all the more attractive to people,” Watson said.
But as the Ramblers continued to win, Sister Jean’s celebrity continued to spread.
She leveraged that stardom to benefit the school, agreeing to license her image.
More than 10,000 Sister Jean bobbleheads were sold nationwide.
“On our campus, everybody knows Sister Jean,” Watson said. “And that’s been the case for years. When the alums come back, that’s one of their stops. They want to stop in and see Sister Jean. So we’ve known about her here at Loyola for a long time. I would say probably in the last five years, her celebrity here in Chicago really started to grow.”
Sister Jean began to draw attention with her NCAA Tournament bracket, making the rounds to discuss her picks with local media outlets.
Sister Jean was always well-known in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“She says a prayer over the PA before all of our games, all of our home basketball games,” Watson said. “And so the visiting teams and coaches and media have all gotten to know her. But it wasn’t until we won a few games in the NCAA tournament that it got national. And then, as you know, it really snowballed.”
Sister Jean handled Loyola’s national semifinal loss to Michigan relatively well, Watson said.
She delivered a message to the players and staff.
“She talked about all that they accomplished,” Watson said. “A number of folks mentioned that the run the basketball team had – and while it didn’t end the way that we wanted it to – it really changed the university, and as she said and many people said, it’ll never be the same here because of that.”
Of course, Sister Jean remained the same.
“It didn’t take her long,” Watson said, “to start talking about next year. I can tell you that.”