Loyola-Chicago athletic director Steve Watson knows that when all of this ends, a potentially expensive conversation is imminent. The Ramblers are headed to the Final Four, and Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser is the toast of college basketball. O.K., 98-year-old nun Jean Dolores-Schmidt is the toast of college basketball, but Moser is a close second.
The man who took the Ramblers from 1–17 in the Horizon League in his first season to NCAA South Region champ this year is going to be a hot commodity. Every wealthier program with a job opening will at least take a sniff, and someone with deep pockets could put on a full-court press. Watson knows he may need all of his fundraising prowess to keep Moser. “That’s part of the business,” Watson said on the court following the Ramblers’ Elite Eight win against Kansas State in Atlanta. “We’ve been talking about that for a few weeks now. His popularity is going to keep growing and growing.”
Twenty years ago, Moser’s choice would have been simple. Just take the best big program offer he could get, because he’d never be hotter. But Mark Few’s transformation of Gonzaga into a national power and Wichita State’s financial commitment to coach Gregg Marshall (a $3.5 million annual salary beginning this year) show that a coach doesn’t necessarily have to jump to a Power 5 conference job to succeed on the court and on the balance sheet. Add in Moser’s history—he grew up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville—and continuing to build at Loyola-Chicago could be a very attractive choice. So what will Moser’s options be? Let’s examine the possibilities.
It might be difficult to jump from a Missouri Valley Conference school to a blueblood program like North Carolina or Kansas, but that’s not relevant to this discussion because no such job is expected to be open. Of the schools with jobs open now—and the ones that will have openings when their coaches move to the current openings—no job is so big that Moser would get squeezed out by better qualified candidates or so prestigious that the jump might seem too big. This isn’t football, where a move like the one Jim Tressel made in 2001 (from I-AA Youngstown State to Ohio State) probably wouldn’t happen today. Athletic directors are much more willing to reach down multiple levels for a basketball coach they believe can win. Case in point: Andy Enfield jumped from the Atlantic Sun Conference to the Pac-12 when his Dunk City run at Florida Gulf Coast in 2015 landed him the USC job. Going from the Valley to a high-major job wouldn’t be as big of a jump.
After discussing Moser’s situation with several Power 5 athletic directors (who don’t need basketball coaches), it’s clear he is held in high regard in the business because he built the Loyola-Chicago program and because his teams win using a formula (excellent offensive spacing and disciplined defense) that can be replicated on any level with the right roster. The fact that Moser assembled this team from the ground up is especially attractive. This is not a case like Stan Heath, who took over Kent State in the 2001–02 season, made the Elite Eight that season and parlayed that success into the Arkansas job. Heath had coached well during that season, but he hadn’t built Kent State to that point. He had been a Michigan State assistant while Gary Waters was building Kent State and took over when Waters left for Rutgers. At Arkansas, Heath never made it out of the first round of the tournament and was fired after five seasons. Moser already has proven he can take an underperforming program and turn it into a winner, so he would be a less risky hire.
The issue is there might not be any such job available when Moser’s season ends either Saturday or Monday. The two biggest jobs that were open when Tuesday dawned are both in the ACC, but one was filled Tuesday and another may be filled later this week. Pittsburgh’s next coach will be due some patience as the fallout from one of the worst hires in college basketball history continues to consume the program. Following the firing of Kevin Stallings, who went 0–19 against ACC opponents this season, the Panthers granted nearly every player on the roster a release from their scholarships should they choose to transfer. While some may choose to stay, it’s possible the next coach could inherit a completely gutted roster. Moser calls what he did at Loyola-Chicago a “grassroots rebuild,” and Pittsburgh would be essentially the same task—except in what is arguably the nation’s best conference. Pittsburgh went after Dan Hurley, but Hurley opted to leave Rhode Island for Connecticut instead. Another reported candidate was Buffalo’s Nate Oats, but Oats told The Buffalo News on Saturday that there was “nothing going on” and that it would take something “life-altering” to keep him from returning next season. On Tuesday, the Panthers hired Duke assistant and former VCU and Oklahoma head coach Jeff Capel. So strike Pittsburgh from the list of potential Moser suitors.
Louisville fired Rick Pitino shortly after the FBI investigation broke, and the school didn’t retain interim coach David Padgett. This is pretty close to a blueblood job, but the Cardinals just got punished by the NCAA for hiring strippers/prostitutes for recruits and could be on the NCAA hook for whatever comes out of the FBI investigation involving the previous staff and signee Brian Bowen, who has since transferred to South Carolina. With all that said, Louisville remains a great job*. And that’s why Louisville could be filled very soon. Athletic director Vince Tyra had the interim tag removed Monday, and he expects to have a coach by the end of the week. The Cardinals are reportedly waiting on a decision from Xavier coach Chris Mack.
*In an odd way, Louisville might be just as attractive even in its current state because the next coach will be the beneficiary of an abundance of patience. That wouldn’t be the case at any other job on this level. A huge salary plus patience equals a very desirable situation.
If Mack were to take the Louisville job, Xavier would need a coach. That might be a fit for Moser. Xavier is a Jesuit school in the Midwest, and Moser played for a Jesuit school in the Midwest (Creighton) and has had his best professional success at a Jesuit school in the Midwest (Loyola-Chicago). But the Musketeers tend to promote from within. After Thad Matta left for Ohio State, they promoted Sean Miller. After Miller left for Arizona, they promoted Mack. Current Xavier assistant Travis Steele would be next in line if Xavier athletic director Greg Christopher decides to continue the tradition.
The remaining jobs are at lower levels. Rhode Island must replace Hurley, but would one of the best jobs in the Atlantic 10 be that much better than what could be one of the best jobs in the Valley? Drake must replace Niko Medved, who left for Colorado State, but why would Moser move within the same league if his program is better at the moment?
It’s also possible Loyola-Chicago and Moser decide they want to work together to turn the program into another Gonzaga or Villanova or Wichita State. Dan Monson left Gonzaga for Minnesota following an Elite Eight run in 1999, but his successor Few has turned down all such overtures and built a power in Spokane, Wash. Last year, the Zags played for the national title. One Power 5 AD said Few’s decision to stay was only one component of Gonzaga’s rise. The other equally important component was a financial decision by the school to fund the program at the highest level. Gonzaga players travel on charter flights like Power 5 players. They eat like Power 5 players. They dress like Power 5 players. Their experience isn’t all that different than if they’d chosen to play in the Pac-12 or Big 12. Few’s paycheck, meanwhile, isn’t all that different either.
“We talk about that sustained success,” Loyola-Chicago AD Watson said. “One of the most important things is having that continuity in leadership. So in order for us to sustain success, we’ve got to retain our players, We’ve got to retain our coaches and keep moving forward with what we’ve started.”
One AD estimated that even if Loyola-Chicago tripled Moser’s pay, it still might not match what a Power 5 school could offer. But such a gesture might convince him to stay for a while. The job market is fairly shallow this offseason, and Moser should be excited about the roster he has returning. He loses senior starters Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson, but he’ll bring back guards Clayton Custer and Marques Townes and center Cameron Krutwig. Freshman Lucas Williamson is ready for a bigger role, too. The future is bright at Loyola-Chicago as well.
The Ramblers’ run will be over by this time next week. They’ll either be the most improbable national champ in college basketball history or they’ll have made one of the most inspired tournament runs in hoops history. When that run ends, it will be up to Watson and Loyola-Chicago’s administration to prove to Moser that his future might be brightest in Rogers Park. “[The board of trustees] is very supportive, and they understand that we’ve got a little bit of work to do,” Watson said. “I’m confident that we’ll do what we need to do.”