For those who may not already know this, I’ve been doing studio operations for VCU basketball for the last 7 years. I was part of the last 4 years of Terry Sisisky’s VCU career, and the first 3 of Robby Robinson’s. And yes, this season has been a blast.
This particular story stars with that awful stretch in late February when VCU couldn’t beat a conference opponent – but did beat eventual NIT champion Wichita State in the ESPN Bracketbuster. At the radio station, we went into the CAA tournament in March just hoping the Rams would have a good showing. After those 4 conference losses, we figured that getting through a couple of games would be good. But then the Rams avenged the Drexel and Mason losses… and roared back against Old Dominion, falling a little short after giving ODU too much of a headstart.
It was after that ODU game that I made a prediction that, fortunately, Robby has been kind enough not to remind me of. I was talking to Robby at the Coliseum after watching Blaine
Soprano Gotti Taylor’s Monarchs cut down the net and said something like “Well, at least there’ll be a couple of home games in the NIT and the guys could go back to New York” (where they’d lost to Tennessee and beaten UCLA in November).
Flash forward 6 days to Selection Sunday. I’m at the studio doing some other production work when I get a text asking me to watch the show and get the game dates/times for the Richmond Spiders (which our group of radio stations also carries part-time). I did that, and left the selection show on in the background while going back to production… which is why it took a second for it to sink in that Greg Gumbel had just announced that “the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth” were in the tournament – and in the First Four in Dayton. It took a moment to recover, hastily scribble down the dates for their games, and text our Traffic Manager (and informal Executive Producer for VCU and Richmond basketball) to let him know that our week had gotten REALLY busy…
Like a lot of folks, I thought the Rams could beat USC. Going into that game, I asked Robby (as I had, semi-jokingly, all season) what song he wanted to hear before he opened the game. He asked for the original “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens – so I found it and played it before throwing to Dayton. When the Rams won, Robby asked for, and got, the song again two nights later.
I had no illusions that they could beat Georgetown – I mean, Georgetown was a power in the Mighty Big East (*cough*)… but, again, I got that one wrong. Not only did VCU beat Georgetown… the Rams blew their doors off. At this point, there were two things we were certain of… the Rams were going on to play Purdue, and we were going to play “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as the last song before the broadcast.
I was actually somewhat confident against Purdue, for a very odd reason. Back in November, the Richmond Spiders had gone to Chicago to play in a tournament (the Chicago Invitational at the Sears Centre). They won the first game, then faced – and beat – Purdue in the second game. Now, in March, the Rams were in Chicago to play a tournament (the NCAA Tournament at the United Center). They won their first game in Chicago, then faced Purdue in the second game. Now I’m not superstitious, but there was a pattern there. Purdue may have let down against Richmond. There was a good chance they could again let down against VCU. They didn’t… instead, VCU put up 94 points and blew their doors off. There were now two things we were certain of. The Rams were going to San Antonio, and we were going to play “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as the last song before the broadcast. No, I’m not superstitious. But why take chances?
So the Rams go to San Antonio, against another low seed (Florida State), and have their toughest game so far, having to go to overtime to beat the Seminoles. The Rams were going to the Elite 8, and we were going… yeah, you know the rest.
Once again, I said something like “it was a good run, but Kansas just ran Richmond out of Texas, so I just want to see a good game”. Wrong! The Rams won, Robby uttered the line that will probably be the lasting legacy of this tournament (“ROCK SHAKA JAYHAWK… The Rams are going to the Final Four!”), we started making plans for the national semifinal game, and we booked at one more playing of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.
Which brings us to tonight. The Rams started well, but their long-distance shooters went cold at the wrong time. They put up a good fight, but the dream ended against Butler. To close out the season, I played “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” again after the game. That song, for me (and probably for Robby as well), will always bring back memories of 6 games in 2 1/2 weeks that made VCU a national headline.
It was a hell of a ride. My only affiliation with the school is the studio operations role – and that’s a loose affiliation as I do it for the radio station. However, Robby (and Terry before him) always have gone out of their way to make the production staff feel like part of the “VCU family”, and I’m proud of the association. That said, VCU’s students, staff, and alumni have a lot more to be proud of.
Keep in mind that (as Robby and color man Mike Ellis noted tonight), VCU is now not only a part of history, they’re a benchmark. From now on, any time a team comes out of the First Four and beats their second-round opponent, they’ll start hearing the questions – “are they the next VCU?” Right now, VCU is the first VCU (not the second George Mason!). They went from the First Four to the Final Four in the first year of the First Four. They’re the most successful team to come out of the Dayton play-ins in the decade-plus history of the extra round (yes, that’s because before this year, Dayton winners got mangled by a #1 seed).
There are plenty of memories. And no matter how you feel tonight, no matter the results tonight, VCU “won” a couple of weeks ago. After Georgetown, this has all been house money. It’s like going to Colonial Downs, hitting longshots 5 races in a row, then losing by a nose in the sixth. You’d probably make a good-sized profit. In their own way, VCU did just that. So did the CAA. VCU fans won, too, with a story they’ll tell for a lifetime. And next March, at the CAA Tournament, next to George Mason’s 2006 Final Four banner, the Richmond Coliseum’s going to have to make room for VCU’s 2011 Final Four banner. They’ll be doing it for as long as the CAA plays tournaments. Every March, we’ll all look up there, and remember.
No matter what, we’ll have the memories of 5 terrific wins.
And I’ll have “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.
Well, that, and this…