CHICAGO — As March begins to blossom into March Madness this week, the one-time Cinderella Loyola basketball team has again played its way into what, in recent years, has almost become a yearly conversation.
But no discussion about the Ramblers seems complete without the presence of Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, who has become as big of a fixture of the annual college basketball tournament as any of its perpetual participants.
Now at 102 years of age, the longtime chaplain of the Loyola program is again along for the ride, which has taken Sister Jean and the Ramblers to Pittsburgh. But even before the team arrived at what it hopes is the first of several stops in the coming weeks, Sister Jean’s name has been dropped into the chat by everyone from late-night host Jimmy Fallon to Las Vegas prognosticators who factor the good sister’s presence into the betting lines of games to be played.
And four years after being introduced to the world, Sister Jean is still loving every minute of it —even though she has gone from a local campus personality to a celebrity that is now known the world over.
Sister Jean is still constantly asked for many things, including photos from fans who may approach her to say hello, but who come with their phone in their hand — which has been a dead giveaway to someone who has become accustomed to the attention.
In fact, the priest at her parish wonders about the financial gains that could have been made if Sister Jean ever decided to charge for photos. She continues to do it with a smile, however, for free, and admits that she still has difficulty saying no to requests for prayers and for her time.
“I’m still the same Sister Jean I was before all this popped up,” Sister Jean said Wednesday on a Zoom call from Pittsburgh, where the Ramblers face Ohio State on Friday. “People said to me, “Is this going to your head? No, it’s not going to my head. I have just tried all the time to try to make people happy, to be happy myself. If I make people happy and it’s good for my congregation what I do, it’s good for Loyola for what I do, then I’ll do it.
“I have a lot of fun doing what I do, and that’s part of what makes me happy.”
Sister Jean’s popularity has grown along with that of the school she represents. Ever since the Ramblers made an improbable run to the Final Four in 2018, Loyola has gone from an unknown Mid-Major to the Missouri Valley Conference’s representative in three of the past four years. The Ramblers are making their first back-to-back tournament appearance since 1963 and 1964 when Sister Jean was only in her 40s.
But ever since the Ramblers’ 2018 NCAA tournament win over Miami on Donte Ingram’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer kick-started Loyola out of obscurity, the belief in the program has only grown. Now, under first-year coach Drew Valentine, the Ramblers will attempt to make another run a year after Loyola stunned No. 1 seed Illinois to reach the Sweet 16.