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Maguire University is fake — but the laughs are real

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Dan O’Donnell Jr. arrives at a welcome party in Maguire University gear in San Antonio, Texas, on March 29. Maguire, a fictional university, has sent its “students” to every Final Four weekend since 1963.

SAN ANTONIO >> With all the catcalls, cheers and interruptions, it took a while for the roll call to proceed at the three loudest tables on a bustling restaurant patio along the Riverwalk here Thursday night.

But one by one, the 30 attendees stood and announced their name, hometown and class at Maguire University. Some wore T-shirts with the Maguire logo; others had pins or branded pullovers. They ranged in age from 25 to 81. There was a freshman, a junior and even several members of Maguire’s hall of fame.

Then the next round of beers arrived.

“There are no rules at a fake university,” Meg Comer said.

Rules have never gotten in the way of a good time for this raucous group of basketball fans who have been attending the Final Four since the 1960s as members of a club — or, ahem, a “university” — called Maguire, named after a bar in Chicago, where its founders made it out of whole cloth.

The plot began in 1963 when some bar patrons (and basketball fans) drove to Louisville to watch Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four, loved it and made a pact to return every year. The problem was they had no money and no access to tickets, and more and more people were asking to join their traveling party. So they dreamed up a fake university, applied to the NCAA for membership and made their pitch so convincingly that tiny “Maguire University” of Forest Park, Illinois, (enrollment: 1,200) received a complimentary block of Final Four seats.

Loyola won the national championship that first year. Now the Ramblers (32-5) are back and, 55 years later, the legacy of the Maguire University hoax lives on.

While the original perpetrators were eventually discovered by the NCAA, which gives away tickets only to legitimate schools, a club was formed to keep the Final Four trips alive. The members maintained the university theme — Maguire has a chancellor, an admissions director, a dean of its nonexistent law school and a coach of its nonexistent swim team — and enrollment has swelled to more than 1,000, at least according to the email list.

Four trips to the Final Four with Maguire are considered enough to graduate, with a degree in bracketology and a minor in intoxicology. But there were plenty of alumni eager to visit San Antonio for this year’s 56th meeting; Comer reserved a block of 60 rooms at the Drury Plaza Hotel almost two years ago. Some were Loyola-Chicago fans; others were rooting for Villanova. Still more were here for other, more social reasons.

“It’s like getting thrown into the deep end of a pool,” Rudy Fasciani of Croton-on-Hudson, New York, who described himself as a fifth-year senior, said, “that’s full of beer.”

Though they call themselves the Jollymen, Maguire officials and graduates finally ceded to Title IX in 2003 and began accepting women, like Comer, who serves as treasurer. There are no dues, but there is tuition, which goes toward financing the annual Final Four pilgrimage, which this year ran around $2,000 for a five-night hotel stay. That does not include airfare, or the lengthy bar tabs, or even a ticket to the games. In fact, most of the attendees won’t step foot inside the Alamodome.

“We’ll watch the game,” John Kurek, 81, said as he nursed a glass of wine. “But it will be from the bar.”

Kurek, a member of the Maguire hall of fame (he has the emerald cubic zirconia ring to prove it) making his 25th straight Final Four trip, was sitting next to Charlie Hounihan, a Loyola graduate who remembers watching the 1963 team in action. They both live in Chicago and frequently attend Kelly’s Pub, which replaced Maguire’s as the main campus in 1988.

Pointing to the far table, full of New Yorkers, Hounihan said, “That’s the East Coast campus.”

Indeed, few of the attendees had any connection to Maguire’s, or to Loyola, or even to Chicago. The club’s founder, Len Tyrrell, died in 2015, and none of the other original pranksters were able to make it to San Antonio this year. But their ranks keep growing. Al Naclerio, 67, of White Plains, said he enrolled six years ago, in New Orleans, when he stumbled upon a Maguire party at a hospitality suite one night.

“It was like, Why am I knocking my head against the wall trying to get a hotel room?” Naclerio said. “These people are great people, they find a great place and they’re fun to be with.”

It seems there is no end to the recruiting. At the restaurant Thursday, by the time the chipotle chicken and spicy shrimp arrived, even the waiter was wearing a Maguire University pin.

The school does have a smattering of other organized events throughout the year, such as a burger cooking competition to raise money for Operation Support Our Troops. And when the New York Athletic Club honors a college basketball coach with the annual Winged Foot Award, Art Duffy, the current Maguire chancellor, presents that coach with an honorary Maguire University graduation certificate behind the scenes.

“Coach K has graduated twice,” Duffy said, referring to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “He’s got his undergrad and his master’s.”

But the welcome dinner, Comer said, is “probably the one time we’re going to sit down and have a civilized meal — other than pub food.” A freshman, Betty Sharples, 43, chimed in, “Civilized is the opposite phrase.”

At around 8:25 p.m., Duffy stood for a toast.

“This is a little more special than most,” Duffy said, adding that the Maguire story had “come full circle.”

As in 1963, few expected Loyola-Chicago to compete for a national title. This year, the Ramblers became only the fourth team seeded No. 11 to reach the Final Four, so it seemed the team was the sentimental favorite.

But Chicago is only a part of the connection now. Comer, 46, said there was something else besides camaraderie and alcohol that kept the 100 or so people who attend every year coming back.

“We all love basketball,” she said. “We enjoy the games. We love the Final Four. If you bring people together that all love the same thing, it’s pretty easy to build momentum.”

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