Mike Litos relays a fond, albeit embarrassing memory from his freshman year at VCU. It was 1986, J.D. Barnett had already packed up and left for Tulsa. Although they did not know it at the time, the Rams were sliding into an extended period of mediocrity. Like Haley’s Comet, the program would emerge to win a conference title in 1996 before heading back into another orbit of so-so basketball around the sun, or something like that.
Litos grew up on Tobacco Road, where basketball is religion and your affiliation with Duke or North Carolina (no offense, N.C. State) is akin to being a Hatfield or a McCoy. Schools always packed the house and you had to get to the game at least an hour ahead of time to get a seat in the student section.
Those experiences are what caused Litos to convince his roommate and a couple of other guys to catch the first bus down to the Richmond Coliseum for the Rams’ home-opener that season. After much prodding, they relented.
“When we got there,” he says sheepishly. “We joined the other four students in the building in the student section.”
The atmosphere Litos witnessed during VCU’s 73-51 win over Richmond on Dec. 9 might as well be light years away from that first game. That night, the Rams played before their seventh consecutive sellout of more than 7,600. Some 2,000 students packed the end zones to form what he calls – and many agree – the best atmosphere in the CAA. He knows it wasn’t always this way. He also believes he knows the night when it all began to change, when the gods of basketball fanaticism began to favor VCU. It was when the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center (formerly the Alltel Pavilion) went from a nice, functional building to a “weapon”: It was Feb. 26, 2005. Some fans refer to it as “The Michael Doles Game”.
The Siegel Center opened in 1999 as a raucous, sellout crowd watched the Rams upset Louisville. But by 2003, the novelty had worn off. The Rams hadn’t really won anything since the mid-nineties, and even that was fleeting. During the 2002-03 season, Jeff Capel’s first as head coach, the Rams’ average home attendance was 4,108. VCU’s first three home games that season drew a paltry 2,111, 2,341 and 2,090 fans. Even home games with Richmond (5,695) and Old Dominion (5,077) didn’t fare demonstrably better.
However, in 2003-04, Capel led the Rams to their first CAA crown since 1996. Upstart VCU even put a scare into Chris Paul and Wake Forest before dropping a 79-78 decision in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But the Rams’ newfound success didn’t necessarily translate at the box office. Attendance climbed slightly, to 4,640 in 2003-04 and 4,815 in 2004-05.
At the time, Litos said the building could get loud, but he referred to it as “standard loud”, almost as if it were a perfunctory gesture by the crowd.
On Feb. 26, 2005, UNC Wilmington, in the midst of its most successful string of seasons in program history, rolled into the Siegel Center. It was Senior Day at VCU, and while the Rams were a relatively young team, they were bidding farewell to elder statesmen Michael Doles and Derrick Reid.
A crowd of 7,283, the largest of the season, packed the house. Not only were the Seahawks one of the CAA’s main attractions at the time (you’ll have to trust me on this), but Doles was a beloved Ram.
The game couldn’t have gone worse for VCU for the first 34 minutes. UNC Wilmington was every bit as good as advertised, while the Rams were awful, shooting 29 percent (9-of-31) in the first half. With 5:25 remaining, the Seahawks led 58-39. Get out your keys. The crowd, Litos says, “was just about moribund”.
The comeback started slowly, almost unnoticeably. Doles missed a 3-pointer, but junior Nick George grabbed the rebound and laid the ball into the basket. Capel put on the full court press. With 4:44 left, B.A. Walker’s 3-pointer slammed off the front of the rim, bounced two feet in the air and fell into the hoop.
The press started to work. The normally sure-handed Seahawks began to get sloppy. Turnovers piled up and the Rams chipped away. With just over a minute remaining, Walker hit a three to make it 66-59.
Then things really got crazy.
The Seahawks just needed to hold onto the ball, bleed the clock and knock down free throws. They couldn’t do any of that. Halston Lane missed two free throws and VCU’s Jesse Pellot-Rosa drove and scored with 36.0 left, 66-61. Doles tipped the ensuing inbounds pass off of UNCW’s Ed Spencer and out of bounds. Now the crowd is really into it. Can this be happening? The odds are still long, but…
By now, Doles was fully in a zone. Think Michael J. Fox as “Teen Wolf” zone. Seconds later, Doles stopped two feet inside the 3-point line and buried a 17-footer. Wilmington, in full panic mode by now, turned the ball over near midcourt. Doles calmly dribbled to the top of the arc and buried an inconceivable game-tying 3-pointer with 25 seconds left. At that point, the crowd came completely unglued. Roof-rattling, foot-stomping, hands-on-head bananas unglued.
The Rams would eventually win the game in overtime 72-71. Doles finished with 22 points and four steals and Litos says the building never felt the same again.
“When Doles got that steal and hit that three, I never remembered a singular moment where that building exploded like that,” Litos says.
Over the next six years, the Rams built a consistent winner. In 2007, fan interest spiked when Eric Maynor’s “dagger” felled Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Another NCAA berth came in 2009, as well as 2011’s stunning Final Four run.
VCU made winning 20 games or more, as well as the postseason, the norm. Fans began flocking to the Siegel Center. Students, whose presence could be considered enigmatic at best previously, took a real interest in the program. The Rowdy Rams, VCU’s student fan organization, has grown from 220 members to 1,110 in the last year alone.
The Rams averaged a Verizon Wireless Arena record 6,645 fans per game last season. That record is in already in serious jeopardy this year. VCU sold out its first three games of the 2011-12 season and is hoping for another when UNC Wilmington visits again on Dec. 17.
After years of so-so crowds, the Siegel Center is legitimately a scary place for the opposition.
“It would get loud and get frenzied before, but it was the standard loud and standard frenzied that you’d expect from a college basketball crowd. But that was the first night it exploded,” Litos says. “Now they’ve just taken it from that step. Now that level is the norm. It’s only gotten better from that moment.”
If you’re coming to see the Rams this weekend, just make sure you catch that first bus down to the arena. We mean it this time.