By Joe Henricksen
There is always a honeymoon period for any college basketball program when a new coach is hired. Everyone, including coaches, administrators, players in the program, media members and fans on message boards, talks a great game. They pledge, see and notice a "different attitude" or a "fresh feel" and that things seem to be "revived" and "the culture has changed." And depending on the program, you can stretch out that honeymoon for 12-18 months before any feathers are really ruffled.
But inevitably, the ruffling of feathers will happen -- unless significant changes were truly made to enhance the program's future.
Significant changes are happening at Loyola. And they're happening fast.
While Porter Moser is in that honeymoon period as the head coach at Loyola, he truly knows, after less than five months on the job, the attitude, focus and direction of the university -- and its view of the basketball program -- have moved forward. While the wheels of the rebuilding efforts started turning prior to the new coaching staff's arrival with long-range plans and rejuvenated campus projects, Moser has put some significant pieces in place to succeed since being hired in early April.
"The stars are aligned," Moser says of all the different parts coming together within the program, campus and university overall. "They are transforming the campus and putting so much into Loyola University. This is just a perfect fit for me all the way around."
Big changes have been made from the top down, with Loyola taking the steps necessary to help fully extend this honeymoon period for Moser and his program. This isn't to say it's going to be an easy fix; there will be some difficult times for the Ramblers. But the place is being completely revamped, with rapidly improving changes as well as a new university commitment in comparison to the past.
For starters, a new athletic director was hired, with Grace Calhoun taking over the athletic department in April. More importantly, Loyola has pumped major money into the school and, specifically, the basketball program since former coach Jim Whitesell was let go this past spring. These cosmetic changes have been influential in the recent recruiting roll of the Ramblers.
The state-of-the-art Norville Center is open. The three-story $26 million facility wraps around the Gentile Center, where the Ramblers play their on-campus home games, and provides upgraded facilities for both athletes and coaches. In addition to new offices for coaches and administration, players are now able to use and enjoy modern locker rooms and other perks in the beautiful facility, including strength and conditioning equipment, a student-athlete academic center, a sports medicine facility and a Loyola athletics Wall of Fame all under one roof.
Gentile Arena is also in the process of being completely renovated with significant upgrades, including chair-back stadium bowl seating and a completely different college basketball atmosphere. The arena will be one of the elite facilities in the Horizon League going forward.
Moser's first impact was felt when he hit an immediate home run with the staff he surrounded himself with, which includes a pair of assistants with strong Chicago area ties in Rodell Davis and Armon Gates. Both are Chicago natives, highly respected and understand what it takes to recruit the city and suburbs. Davis and Gates have both been instrumental in securing Class of 2012 commitments and establishing relationships between Loyola basketball and the players, coaches and families they are recruiting.
Earlier this month Moser hired Jason Gardner as his third assistant. Gardner, who was an All-American at Arizona, has a big and familiar name in Indiana, another area Loyola will target in recruiting. He won a state championship and was Indiana's Mr. Basketball as a prep star at North Central in Indianapolis.
What also has Moser excited is an ability to transform the roster sooner than later as a result of several open scholarships that were immediately available for current and upcoming recruiting classes. Moser, who in 2000 became the second youngest head coach in the country at the time he was hired at Arkansas-Little Rock at age 31, was initially hamstrung -- scholarship wise -- when he was hired as the head coach at Illinois State in 2003. This time around, Moser and his staff can immediately mold and shape their roster.
"We are fortunate that we are able to put our stamp and culture on the program pretty early due to the scholarship situation," says Moser, who added two high-major transfers and already has four commitments in the Class of 2012 and one from the Class of 2013.
Within two weeks of Moser being hired in April, he laid a big piece of the foundation by adding former Schaumburg star Cully Payne, a transfer from Iowa. Payne, who still has two years of eligibility remaining, will sit out this upcoming season and be a focal point when he becomes eligible to play in 2012-2013. In addition to Payne, a run-your-team point guard with some scoring ability, Loyola will welcome DePaul transfer Devin Hill, a 6-9 senior who will also be eligible for the 2012-2013 season.
And the Ramblers already have four highly-regarded commitments locked up in the Class of 2012, with the latest being guard Keith Carter of Proviso East. Both Carter and Darrell Combs, a smooth 6-1 scorer from Thornwood, are among the top dozen senior prospects in Illinois. Nick Osborne and Matt O'Leary, both prep players from Indiana, committed in early August and bring both size and upside. Osborne is a big-bodied 6-8 power forward from Muncie, Ind., while O'Leary, a 6-7 face-up power forward from Terre Haute, Ind., with terrific shooting ability, boosted his stock with an impressive July.
The recruiting roll continued last Friday with Loyola nabbing its first 2013 recruit -- and a big one. St. Charles North's Quenten Payne, a 6-4 junior and younger brother of Cully Payne, may be the biggest recruiting catch of all. Payne has the potential to be a Horizon League difference-maker.
If you're keeping score at home, counting transfer Cully Payne, Moser and his staff have already locked up four Chicago area newcomers in the Payne brothers, Combs and Carter. Chicago area talent is buying in -- even before Moser has coached a game.
Moser and his staff made it imperative that area prospects recognized all the changes taking place at Loyola and that Rambler basketball is a viable, close-to-home option. They are hammering home the school's proximity to recruit's homes and families, the school's academics, upgraded facilities, campus life on the shores of Lake Michigan and in Chicago, and an opportunity to play in the underrated Horizon League. And they're selling it well for being on the job for just five months.
Loyola hasn't had a taste of postseason basketball since the magical 1985 season. The great Alfredrick Hughes led the Ramblers to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. But going forward, Loyola basketball has never been in a better position to end that 25-plus year postseason drought.