For Jim Murray, spreading the gospel of Villanova basketball is almost as important as attending Mass every day. Fortunately for him, they work well together.

A 1960 graduate of Villanova, the former Eagles general manager supports his alma mater far and wide, including through his work with the Ronald McDonald House and other charities, all with a smile on his face.

That smile is especially broad this week because Murray's beloved Wildcats will play in this weekend's college basketball Final Four in Detroit. This will be his third Final Four trip with the Wildcats.

Now 70, Murray is as quick with a quip, a story or a Bible passage as he is in assisting any charity - religious or lay - that makes life better for children.

"I did an event where the monsignor referred to him as the pope," Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright said. "The guy is as passionate about anything that's good or Villanova. He's involved in any way. Sometimes he's a leader. Sometimes he's just there being supportive. He's an amazing guy."

As it happens, Murray mentioned, one of his greatest thrills was meeting Pope John Paul II during a Philadelphia visit in 1979.

Prayers will be in order tomorrow when Villanova plays North Carolina at 8:47 p.m. in the second of two semifinal games at Ford Field. Connecticut and Michigan State play in the other semifinal. The winners will meet Monday night for the national title.

Murray had been part of the broadcast team for the Wildcats' march to the 1971 Final Four in Houston, where the team defeated Western Kentucky in double overtime and lost to UCLA in the title game.

His basketball thrills had to share time with football for a spell since he was the Eagles' general manager when they reached the Super Bowl for the first time after the 1980 season.

His second Final Four trip with Villanova occurred in 1985 in Lexington, Ky. The eighth-seeded Wildcats were set to play top-seeded Georgetown for the national championship.

At 4 a.m. the day of the title game, Murray left his hotel in Lexington and drove with a friend to the Gethsemani Abbey, a Trappist monastery in the central part of the state which gained some attention when acclaimed author and poet Thomas Merton made it his home for a time.

Murray's mission was to attend a Mass and say a couple of prayers for Villanova's basketball team. And a little more than 18 hours after Murray's pilgrimage, Villanova was celebrating the most unlikely of titles, having beaten the defending champion, 66-64.

In the postgame euphoria, local sportscaster Joe Pellegrino asked Murray to say a few words about one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.

"I said, 'Two words - nuclear prayer,' " Murray said. "What does that mean? I told him my buddy Corky and I drove up to the Trappist monastery, and there were no Georgetown stickers in the parking lot. There was only one V there. So I'm giving those monks a whole lot of credit."

Rollie Massimino was the coach who guided the 1985 Villanova team. Wright, the current coach, is a former Massimino assistant.

"Jay's probably converted more people to Villanova than St. Augustine," Murray said of the well-dressed Wright. "You're never just a coach. You're a coach, a teacher, a mentor. I don't know anybody who wears those hats as well as Jay Wright. They kid him about his attire, but the point is not about how he looks, it's about who he is."

Murray, who lives in Rosemont, said he believes not only in Villanova - the team and the university -- but also in the role of sports in healing. He recalled a recent visit to Corr Hall on campus, where he saw a stained-glass window honoring 15 victims of the Sept. 11 attacks who had attended Villanova.

"I'm thinking, every one of their parents is going to be rooting for Villanova," he said. "Now, it's not going to bring their child back. Nothing can replace losing a child. But that's the power of sports, to take people from a really hard place and not just distract them, but bring them love.

"Sports are so emotional. Looking around campus and seeing all the TV trucks . . . if you're a marketing man, you ask, 'What's this worth?' Well, there is no price for making people smile."

Murray's son, Brian, one of five children in the family, is the business manager for athletics at Villanova.

"He has such faith and he really believes in the power of the good of sports," Brian Murray said. "Villanova is one of those places of faith and sports, and that's the greatest thing for him."

That's also why Murray wasn't going to miss the Final Four in 1985.

"I went over to my kids' school and I said, 'We don't have any tickets, we don't have any rooms, but we're going to Lexington, Ky.,' " Murray recalled. "They were saying, 'What do we tell Sister?' I said, 'Holy game of obligation.' "

Murray remembers 1985 with sadness as well as joy, particularly the night that involved former basketball coach Al Severance, whom Murray met when he was sports editor of the Villanovan in the '50s.

"They said Mass the day before the game and the priest ran out of Holy Communion," Murray said. "Al was the last guy in line. I can remember Al catching my eye and shrugging, 'I don't know, Murr.' That night he was in heaven. He died that night. I remember Rollie saying, 'Big Al was up there putting ours in and keeping theirs out.' "

Murray couldn't contain his excitement Saturday night watching on television as Villanova defeated Pittsburgh on a last-second shot by Scottie Reynolds. Since then, he has worn a perpetual smile.

When he showed up the other day for a business meeting, he wore a Villanova basketball T-shirt under his sports jacket, and a baseball cap with the university's V logo.

"I'll tell you what, right now, the V is for being very, very appreciative, very happy, and vulnerable," Murray said. "I want to win the darn game."