When Queen Elizabeth II stopped in San Francisco on a U.S. tour in 1983, a tall, affable Jesuit priest stood in the receiving line to greet her at a formal event.
Father John Lo Schiavo, then president of the University of San Francisco, told the queen that he was honored to meet her. The queen, hearing his name, beckoned him closer so she could ask him a little something in private: "When are you going to bring back basketball?" whispered her majesty, head of the Commonwealth and defender of the faith.
Lo Schiavo (pronounced lo-skee-avo) had made global headlines by pulling the plug on his school's celebrated basketball program after the NCAA and several publications had found repeated ethical violations.
FOR THE RECORD:
John Lo Schiavo obituary: In the May 19 California section, the obituary of Father John Lo Schiavo, former president of the University of San Francisco, said that his school's basketball team had an 88-game winning streak from 1971 to 1974. In fact, that was UCLA's streak. USF set the previous record, 60 straight wins, from 1954 to 1956. Also, the USF Dons had one undefeated season, in 1955-56, not two. —
It was a question of principle, he insisted, as critics of the move clamored for his resignation. Even the concerns of a queen, as Lo Schiavo later described them to an alumni group, would not immediately restore the nationally ranked USF program.
Lo Schiavo, who triggered a debate about morality and college athletics as he sparked an era of unprecedented growth at a school that had struggled for its financial survival, died Friday at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos. He was 90.
His death was caused by the effects of end-stage dementia, university spokeswoman Anne-Marie Devine Tasto said.
Lo Schiavo was president of USF from 1977 to 1991. When he took office, the university's endowment was just $4.6 million. At his departure, it was $38.7 million and administrators had started degree programs in Asia Pacific studies, hospitality management, Judaic studies, sports management and nonprofit management.
Lo Schiavo also initiated the school's biggest-ever expansion with the purchase of 23-acre Lone Mountain College in 1978.
"I was bound and determined to not let this possibility pass us by," he told the USF magazine in 2009. "I didn't want my successors 50 years from now to think, 'Who was this jackass who passed up the opportunity to buy the most valuable piece of real estate in San Francisco?'"
But Lo Schiavo is best known for terminating — and later re-establishing — the basketball program that over decades had racked up a string of stunning achievements. From 1954 to 1956, the USF Dons won 60 consecutive games, holding a record until UCLA broke it in the 1970s. In 1955 and 1956, the Dons took home back-to-back NCAA titles. Over the years, they produced many All-American players and sent stars including Bill Russell and K.C. Jones to pro teams.
By 1982, however, USF had twice been taken to task for recruiting violations by the NCAA, collegiate basketball's governing body.
Then Quintin Dailey, an All-American USF guard, wandered drunk into a nursing student's room and later pleaded guilty to assault. During probation proceedings, he revealed that a USF booster had paid him $1,000 a month to do a nonexistent part-time job. Dailey left school to join the Chicago Bulls, but when similar infractions involving other players surfaced, Lo Schiavo and the school's trustees took action.
"It was an agonizing decision," recalled Father Joe Angilella, a retired professor who was USF's vice president of academic affairs at the time. "But he maintained very strongly that what we were about at USF and all Jesuit schools was terribly important for our society: that people should be trained thoroughly in ethical principles and be able to say, 'This is what we stand for.'"
On July 29, 1982, Lo Schiavo announced the program's indefinite suspension without awaiting another possible NCAA investigation.
"The basketball program was once a source of inspiration, respect and pride for the university and city," he said. "We have no responsible choice but to rid the university of the burden and the problems."
Editorial writers across the country applauded his move, but some USF alumni were disappointed.
"This school will cease to exist without basketball," one told the Los Angeles Times. "Our president should have stood up to the NCAA. He should have taken his beating like a man."
Three years later, Lo Schiavo allowed the Dons to play again — with a new coach, new athletic director and increased financial oversight of booster groups.
Born to Italian immigrants Anna and Joseph Lo Schiavo in San Francisco on Feb. 2, 1925, Lo Schiavo grew up around his father's downtown Italian restaurant and was a star basketball player at St. Ignatius High School.
He received bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and attended Alma College, a Jesuit theological seminary in Los Gatos.
He started at USF as a philosophy instructor in 1950. Over the years he also worked at prep schools in Phoenix and San Jose but returned to the university for a series of administrative positions. After leaving the presidency, he was named the university's chancellor.
His survivors include cousins in California, Arizona, Alabama, Florida, Rome and Salina, an island off Sicily that was his parents' original home.