Monday, March 28, 2011
The Virginia Commonwealth University campus erupted on Sunday when the men’s basketball team completed its remarkable run to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament – an improbable series of upsets that has captured the country’s attention and delighted Rams fans around the world. The Rams, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, are “the sudden darlings of all of college basketball.” And people who do not already know are asking “who is VCU?”
VCU finished its defiant rush through the tournament field with a 71-61 defeat of a formidable Kansas squad, the top seed in the Southwest region and the second-ranked team in the country heading into the tournament. It was the fourth time in five games that the Rams had defeated a tournament opponent by a double-digit margin, though VCU was the underdog in every one of those contests. In the Alamodome in San Antonio following the Kansas game, the hardy band of VCU fans on hand were “hugging each other, jumping on each other, screaming, crying, cheering, laughing,” said Adele McClure, president of the VCU Student Government Association, who was at the game. “You name it, we were doing it.”
Simultaneously, back home, the more than 1,000 students who had been watching the game in the Siegel Center spilled onto Broad Street to dance, chant, cheer and scream with thousands of other members of the VCU community in a spontaneous and boisterous celebration that eventually made its way through the streets to Monroe Park, a dense mass of people moving and celebrating as one.
Freshmen Drew Tolley and Chris Peck were among those enjoying the moment.
“It was crazy,” Tolley said. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Peck said the sense of camaraderie among the assembled masses was contagious.
“If you held your hand up in the air, five people would hit it right away,” Peck said, shaking his head with a grin.
Later that night, spurred on by adrenaline and each other, fans packed the Siegel Center starting at midnight – many students waited outside for hours until the doors opened to get a prime seat – to welcome the conquering Rams home in a deafening, 4,000-person-strong rally that reached its crescendo when the team strolled onto the court around 1:30 a.m.
Tolley and Peck agreed that the Final Four berth and the campus-wide glee in the aftermath have been unifying experiences for all of VCU. Many analysts at major media outlets called into question VCU’s credentials at the outset of the tournament and even as they devoured the competition, further strengthening the bond within the VCU community. Tolley said the sense of university togetherness that has been forged in recent weeks, alongside the external attention VCU has received, will ensure that this moment in VCU’s history will prove to be a seminal one.
“I think the school’s going to change forever after this,” Tolley said.
The spotlight that focused on VCU after the victory has been unprecedented for the university. VCU and Virginia Commonwealth University were the top two trending topics on Google, respectively, and the VCU website received more than 11 million hits on Sunday – about 8 million more visits than it receives on a typical Sunday. The university heard from alumni and fans from all over the world through social media and other means, proud members of the VCU community reaching out to share their excitement with anyone they could find.
McClure said she’s talked to family across the country who tell her that everyone’s talking about VCU. McClure flew to the San Antonio game, after receiving an offer of a free plane trip and tickets from Josee Covington, the president and CEO of Covington International Travel, and she was on the road back to Richmond on Monday on one of the buses that carried about 100 students to San Antonio. Wearing her VCU gear, she’s been approached by people both in San Antonio and along the way who express their admiration for the Rams basketball team. In San Antonio, VCU fans taught the school fight song to some VCU converts from Canada, and McClure spoke to a Kansas fan before Sunday’s game who admitted to her, “VCU scares us.”
On the long ride back to Richmond on Monday, McClure said that students had yet to take off their VCU clothes and had kept the televisions tuned to ESPN, cheering every time VCU returned to the screen.
“The atmosphere here is just phenomenal,” McClure said. “We’ve created a bond with each other on this trip. This is something that we’re always going to remember.”
Now, VCU turns its collective attention to Houston, site of the Final Four. Like many other VCU fans, Taylor Early, a 1994 alumnus and season-ticket holder for 17 years to men’s basketball games, said he started to look into tickets to the Final Four games soon after the Kansas contest ended. In fact, he’s on a listserv with other alumni from his fraternity, Theta Delta Chi, and he said 18 of his fraternity brothers from across the country had already said by Sunday night that they were planning trips to Houston.
“There’s nothing bigger than this,” said Early, who has been coming to VCU games since he was 12 years old. “It’s just completely a dream come true.”
Through his New York-based company Vector Media, Bill Schwartz, also a VCU alumnus, helped organize the production of two, 800-square-foot mobile advertisements that were displayed on two New York City tourist buses last week after the team reached the Sweet 16. Schwartz updated the signs after Sunday’s victory, adding “Next Stop: Houston.”
Schwartz said the impetus of the bus signs was to combat the lack of awareness he found in New York about VCU. However, he does not believe that will be an issue anymore.
“I think the gentlemen out in San Antonio fixed that for everybody,” Schwartz said.
At the rally early Monday morning at the Siegel Center, VCU coach Shaka Smart listed the teams from power conferences that VCU has dispatched this post-season – Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas – but noted that his team was still not feeling satisfied. No one connected with the team or the university believes the climax to this historic season has arrived.
“Here’s the best part,” Smart told the Siegel Center crowd. “We aren’t done yet.”