At Loyola, losing isn't everything

Nobody is jeering the 1-26 Greyhounds

March 04, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

"While we place all our confidence in God, we must always act as if success depended on our own exertions. ... Be ever ready to praise, to encourage, to stimulate, but slow to censure, and still more slow to condemn.

- M. Catherine McAuley, R.S.M., founder of the Sisters of Mercy, 1831, as quoted on a plaque at Loyola College of Maryland

Some 330 miles north of Mark Broderick's Baltimore office, a 10-team college basketball tournament is about to begin, and you can hardly blame him for indulging in a little gallows humor.

In his 18 years at Loyola College, his beloved Greyhounds have never been quite good enough to break his heart, but this year - this infamously, epically frustrating year - has left the school's director of student activities wondering who, exactly, will be paying attention when the team tips off the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament in a 4:30 p.m. game in upstate New York tomorrow. After all, it's spring-break week at Loyola.

"Let's put it this way," says Broderick with a rueful laugh. "If you had to decide between spending a week in, say, Cancun or Acapulco or Ireland, and traveling to Albany to see the Greyhounds tomorrow, which would you pick?"

It's not that the "long, long suffering" Loyola hoops fan is turning his back on his team. He was there 10 years ago when they rode three straight wins to a conference-tourney title and their only NCAA Tournament appearance; he has been there this year watching them limp to a 1-26 overall record, draw national attention with a 31-game losing streak and come within two games of equaling the Division I record for consecutive defeats.

Tomorrow, he'll be anxious for word on the team's first-round game against Rider University of New Jersey, the tournament's fifth seed. "On a neutral court [like the one at Albany's Pepsi Arena], in college basketball, it's hard to predict," he says, hopefully.

But win or lose tomorrow, Loyola's 2003-2004 season has been more than just another basketball road bump sandwiched between school titles in lacrosse. The prospect of setting an ignominious national mark brought the school community face-to-face with a stark question: Just how important is it for a college to win?

"Everybody saw the players' courage," says Broderick, at work on a campus where, during spring break, things are as quiet as an empty gymnasium. "They never did throw in the towel. But it's more than the basketball players. The way everyone here came through this season says a lot about what Loyola stands for."

The glory years

College sports are usually, in part at least, about winning. Broderick got a taste of that in 1993-1994, when five Loyola teams, including both men's and women's basketball, made it to NCAA tournaments. The highlight came when the men's basketball team finished with a school-best 17-13 record and seized a ticket to March Madness.

Ten years and three head coaches later, the school, still waiting for anything close to a repeat, is mulling its failure to do so. The near-record losing streak flushed a lot of long-tacit questions into the open. Alumni wondered why fourth-year coach Scott Hicks had only one player from the Baltimore-Washington area, and whether Loyola's high academic standards made recruiting good players too difficult.

"We're still stronger academically than any other school in the MAAC," says Marty Kelly, associate director of athletics for external affairs and promotions at Loyola. "That's who we are. I'm not going to say that makes it impossible to succeed in athletics, but if you're asking whether we face athletes on other teams who would not have been accepted at Loyola, the answer is yes."

To Broderick, that is both the community's strength and its weakness.

"Do some schools make exceptions for athletes?" he says. "I can't speak for them, but this year shows very clearly that no, we do not. There's pride in that. Students feel that no one here is a part-time, semipro athlete. They're all students."

Still, athletic success at other Jesuit schools - St. Joseph's of Philadelphia and Gonzaga in Washington state, for instance, are both in the national top five in men's basketball - suggests that big-time sports and studies can mix. And Loyola can't help but think of its own potential.

"Everyone knows us as a lacrosse school," says Broderick. "`Little Loyola' always competes with bigger powers. Now, for better and worse, this year brought basketball into the spotlight. And the question we'll face over the next two or three years is, what kind of commitment are we willing to make to winning in men's basketball?"

The big game

For a complement of students, the answer is already clear: a big one.

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