On a sunny day between opening-round games of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in Dallas, Loyola’s 98-year-old team chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, planned to go for a simple lunch down the street.
“We couldn’t do it — everybody knows her,” said Tom Hitcho, the university’s longtime senior associate athletic director for operations, who has been pushing Sister Jean’s wheelchair during the tournament.
They were stopped so frequently by adoring fans on the sidewalk, it was nearly impossible to make it more than a few steps before another one approached. They opted to return to the hotel for lunch.
Even at the hotel, people in town for a convention — not for basketball — knew Sister Jean. She’s in so many selfies, she now prepares to pose.
Ah, the life of a national celebrity.
Actually, let Sister Jean correct that.
“International celebrity,” she quipped to a TV news reporter Sunday. She mentioned being the subject of news segments in Mexico and Britain.
Darren Rovell, ESPN’s sports business reporter, said Sister Jean has been tweeted about more than any other person connected with any team during the NCAA tournament. (Sorry, Donte Ingram and Clayton Custer, the Loyola players who hit game-winning shots in the first and second rounds.)
NBC’s “Access” interviewed the California native Monday and called her the “biggest star of the tournament.”
In an interview via Skype with the entertainment program, she deflected praise and lauded the team: “I think the stardom rests with the coach and with the team. I’m sort of in the background doing the hard pushing. They’re the ones that do the playing and get the credit.”
Sister Jean plans to travel again with the 11th-seeded Ramblers to the Sweet 16 in Atlanta, where they will face No. 7 seed Nevada on Thursday night in a South Region semifinal.
“We picked up so many fans,” she told reporters Sunday at Gentile Arena. “I think they were happy for us.”
Loyola’s popularity during this tournament isn’t due only to dramatic shots and impressive upsets. Sister Jean, the team chaplain since 1994, has had a TV camera trained on her during games and has been mic’d up for her pregame prayers.
A former player and coach, she knows her basketball and provides comforting words and feedback to players after each game. She grew up in San Francisco and joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary convent in Iowa after high school. She returned to California, where she taught school and coached basketball for 20 years, before taking a teaching job in 1961 at Mundelein College.
Not long after the all-women’s school merged with Loyola in 1991, Sister Jean retired from the education department. She was asked to replace the retiring chaplain of the men’s basketball team and has held the post for 24 years.
Loyola has been cognizant of Sister Jean’s health on the trips.
After missing nine games this season — a rarity during her tenure — because of a broken hip, she returned late in the season to watch home games in the tunnel from her wheelchair.
She insisted on traveling with the team to St. Louis for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, which the Ramblers won to earn their NCAA tournament berth. A nurse accompanied her to St. Louis, and a wellness center employee traveled with her to Dallas.
She said all the attention is deserved for the team and good for Loyola.
“I think everybody is a celebrity in his and her own way,” she told “Access.” “No matter what we do, if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, then each one of us is a celebrity, each one is bright in the eyes of God.”
About 500 fans greeted the Ramblers on Sunday as they returned to campus from Dallas. Sister Jean was cheered as loudly as any player when coming off the bus.
“I think it’s wonderful that they were there,” she said. “I was hoping some of them would be there to greet the team because the team deserves that. And the students deserve to celebrate. And when I saw them there, I just became so emotional. … That shows the spirit of Loyola, and we want to continue that.”
Loyola has received dozens of national media requests for Sister Jean. Local reporters are rushing to catch up with a woman who has been a campus icon for decades.
A Loyola student started a petition to get Sister Jean on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” As of Monday, more than 2,300 people had signed it.
Sister Jean, who lives in a freshman dormitory, is popular at Loyola but isn’t treated like a novelty. She’s just beloved.
Cheerleaders wave to her. Students pop in for chats at her office in the student center. Campus administrators recognize her for her years of selfless service to the community. Athletes from multiple sports shower her with hugs.
“You brought that magic,” Custer told her on the court at the American Airlines Center after the Ramblers beat Miami.
Sister Jean said she will continue to pray for the well-being of the players and, yes, for more Loyola victories.
And she’ll enjoy the Ramblers’ ride.
She had the same thought that likely popped into many Loyola fans’ minds the morning after Custer’s shot with 3.6 seconds left beat Tennessee and sent the Ramblers to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1985.
“Oh,” she said she told herself. “It’s not a dream.”