The shocking celebration had barely started at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis. The Saint Peter’s Peacocks had just beaten the Kentucky Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. A story that had been unimaginable just a few hours earlier was unfolding, and all the instincts of my previous life as a reporter had been shifted into overdrive. I knew right away who I wanted to call.
Father Jim Loughran was president when the institution was still known as Saint Peter’s College. He became the school’s 21st president in 1995. As an assistant dean at Fordham University, his generosity of spirit had once helped eliminate doubts and sharpen the focus in my life. His outlook on the industry of college athletics had helped frame the questions I would raise in my work. His passionate distinction between the enduring value of the games we watch and the expanding dangers of the billion-dollar industry engulfing them had inspired our debates.
There could be no better perspective on the Mouse-That-Roared ascent of the Peacocks into a club normally reserved for institutions that belong through their investments of millions.
How would he react to the comparisons between his school’s entire athletic budget and a single year’s salary for John Calipari, the Kentucky coach? What would he say in response to the information posted by my former USA TODAY colleague Steve Berkowitz? Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway’s 2019 income was $266,344, while Hubert Davis, the first-year coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels, the Elite 8 opponent, will receive bonuses of $375,000.
And how would he feel about the decisions Saint Peter’s leaders will soon face regardless of the outcome of this gripping tournament run? How to manage the delicate and complicated balance between an institutional investment toward the goal of sustainable success – think Gonzaga – and the costly and damaging overemphasis he grew to abhor.
As a college president in the era of a national reform movement, Jim Loughran rejected the premise that it was possible.
He wrote in Trusteeship magazine: “Big-time college sports conflict not only with amateurism but also with academic integrity and the ideals of any good college; in the system that exists, this conflict is inescapable; and therefore, reform is impossible.”
I felt his understanding and appreciation of the games gave his criticism validity. He wasn’t merely rejecting the competition. He rejected the overemphasis, the spiraling coaching salaries, the spending that created stresses throughout universities, and what he felt strongly was the academic exploitation of athletes.
He rejected any concept of reform because he felt the effort was ultimately incomplete and insincere.
“Your efforts are doomed to fail if you take your mandate to be ‘reform,’” he wrote. “If you allow to continue the business-as-usual pattern of legislating more rules and calling for more vigilant enforcement while at the same time negotiating ever more lucrative TV contracts, million-dollar endorsements, and the like. You have a chance to succeed only if you acknowledge the contradiction built into big-time sports and force a choice between professionalism and amateurism, dollars and academic integrity….
“You will fail unless you separate winning and money.”
I worried about him during the 1990 season, when as president of Loyola Marymount he was there when Hank Gathers collapsed at the West Coast Conference tournament. I watched from a distance as he led the university response to the death of Gathers and became a defendant in a lawsuit that was eventually settled by the university. He dealt with the sorrow in his campus community and the national scrutiny of the decision-making process that had allowed Gathers to play after an earlier health scare.
Loyola Marymount’s trip to the 1990 regional final became a nationally-televised wake. The joy of this Saint Peter’s run could not be more different.
But more than anything else, the success of the Peacocks reminded me that I just wanted to say hi.
We met more than a half-century ago. He had been ordained as a priest a year earlier. I was headed toward a freshman year at Fordham University, wondering each day if I was doing the right thing. I was a public-school kid headed to a Catholic-school world. When I voiced my doubts one afternoon, my mother asked me to give it a chance. If I didn’t like it, she told me, I could always transfer.
Right. I can transfer.
The incoming freshmen were divided alphabetically into groups of about 20 for orientation sessions in Keating Hall. On a late July afternoon, I took a bus across the Whitestone Bridge and another to Fordham Road and the Rose Hill campus. We were given nuts-and-bolts instructions on registration – such as what to do when all your choices are unavailable – and at the end of the session there would be a one-on-one meeting with an assistant dean.
I expected to talk about expectations, and challenges, and the transition to come.
Instead, for about 15 minutes in the quiet of the late afternoon on a nearly-empty campus, in the small office of assistant dean Jim Loughran, I talked about … me.
I did that only because he asked. We discovered that we were already connected by basketball. I wanted to write for The Ram, the student newspaper. A little more than four months earlier, the Fordham Rams had completed a wondrous 26-3 season and had reached a regional semifinal in the NCAA tournament. I learned that he had grown up in Brooklyn, where his understanding of what Pete Axthelm’s book famously called The City Game inspired a passion for basketball.
He wished me luck, said he would see me soon, and sent one more nervous freshman out into a warm summer afternoon.
From that instant, I never – not once – thought about transferring.
These days, I guide students at IUPUI in their coverage of the NCAA tournament. When I first talk to prospective students about joining the Sports Capital Journalism Program, I always try to start by talking about them.
When Saint Peter’s chose a school motto under Loughran’s watch – “One Student at a Time” – I had already benefited from that approach.
He had been President at Saint Peter’s for 11 years when he died unexpectedly at his campus residence on Christmas Eve, 2006. He was 66, which used to be old. I am left to wonder what he would think about all the drastic changes that are happening in this complicated business. In the sudden joyride of this Peacock season, I am left to imagine the joy that cannot happen, the phone call I wish I could make.
By Malcolm Moran | @malcolm_moran