RICHMOND, Va. – Not many people know it, but the roots of the University of Richmond are tangled with those of VCU.
On the corner of Ryland and Grace Streets, on the eastern fringe of Richmond’s Fan neighborhood and very much within VCU’s footprint, sits a gateway that marks the former location of Richmond College. The college picked up and moved out to the West End in 1914 and became the University of Richmond. Today, you can stand at the gateway and watch fans on the next block trickle into VCU’s Stuart C. Siegel Center.
VCU’s beginnings are also modest, from Richmond Professional Institute – once an arm of William & Mary – to the 1968 merger with the Medical College of Virginia that created the University as it exists today.
The origins of the VCU-Richmond basketball series, a rivalry that has often roused this city for nearly 40 years, are similarly humble. Separated by just eight miles, the two institutions might as well be worlds apart. VCU is a large, public institution located downtown, while Richmond is small, private and tucked away in a leafy neighborhood in the West End. For those and a number of other reasons, the rivalry has maintained its edge despite changes in coaches, administrators and conference affiliation.
Although the RPI-MCV merger produced VCU in 1968, it wasn’t until eight years later that it would meet Richmond on the basketball court. There are a number of possible explanations as to why VCU and Richmond didn’t face each other until 1976. Most agree, however, that Richmond, as an established member of the Southern Conference at the time, chose not to play VCU because it simply didn’t have to.
“We always wanted to play Richmond, but they were an established school. VCU had been an independent up to that point. The schools just never had a chance to play each other. We’d always see the guys in the summer time, and we’d go back and forth,” says Gerald Henderson, a VCU star from 1974-78.
Richmond hadn’t been particularly successful as a program (the Spiders didn’t have a winning record in any season from 1958-1973) but the Southern Conference was a solid Division I league that once included many of the flagship institutions of the modern-day SEC and ACC.
VCU, meanwhile, spent the early 70s transitioning from an NAIA independent to Division I.
“VCU wasn’t well known at all, and it hadn’t been too many years removed from RPI,” said Edd Tatum, who played at VCU from 1973-77. “It was more between the players. You knew those were the rich guys from the private school.”
“They were turning their nose up at us,” Henderson said. “We were the little guys. That didn’t last long, I guess.”
It wouldn’t be until the 1975-76 season that VCU and Richmond could finally come to a scheduling agreement.
Some believe that former Richmond Coach Lewis Mills, who left the Spiders in 1974 and became assistant athletic director at VCU under Chuck Noe (who was both coach and athletic director at that time) had something to do with thawing relations between the programs. Mills would become VCU athletic director in 1976. But former Richmond Coach Carl Slone says the series began in large part due to the sheer desire of the fiery Noe.
Noe took over as VCU coach in 1970 following stints at Virginia Tech and South Carolina. He did so with the intention of transforming the non-descript VCU program. He had some initial success, including a stunning upset of Big Ten foe Minnesota at Franklin Street Gym during his first season. Noe posted winning records in each of his six seasons as VCU coach and recruited future NBA players like Jesse Dark, Bernard Harris and Henderson, but respect was hard to come by and scheduling remained a challenge. That upset of Minnesota (a game scheduled by Noe’s predecessor, Benny Dees) likely didn’t help matters.
During Noe’s first five seasons, VCU played a total of four in-state opponents, all non-Division I schools: Old Dominion, Virginia Union, Virginia State and Norfolk State. Noe, Slone says, desperately wanted to earn respect by playing – and beating – in-state programs like Richmond, William & Mary, Virginia and Virginia Tech, but they didn’t reciprocate the interest.
“He was trying to move VCU onto the same level as Richmond,” Slone said. “He figured if he could play Richmond, he could play other state schools. We were the first one they played. He wanted to upgrade their schedule and move up.”
VCU players felt the same way, says Tatum.
“We wanted to play anybody,” he said.
Slone, who says he was once recruited by Noe – then at Virginia Tech – before playing at Richmond, was open to the idea of playing VCU, but not right away.
“I didn’t inherit much,” he said. “Back then I had kids that just couldn’t play on the level that I needed to play on. I was a little opposed to playing VCU right away because they had, on paper, some big-time players.”
Eventually, Slone says Noe practically willed the series into existence.
“Chuck Noe browbeat (Richmond President) Bruce Heilman,” Slone said. “He actually drove out and went into Heilman’s office. They were winning, but they weren’t playing much of a schedule. But he wanted to play Richmond because he was looking for credibility.”
Slone relented in 1975 and scheduled a home-and-home series. On Jan. 29, 1976, VCU and Richmond met for the first time in front of a crowd of 7,500 at the Robins Center. Despite Slone’s fears about matching up with VCU’s talent, Richmond squeaked out a 71-65 victory behind 25 points from Jeff Butler. Tic Price led VCU with 21 points, while Henderson finished with 14.
Richmond would win its first five games with VCU, all by six points or less. The two schools played three times in 1976-77, and the Spiders won all three games, two in overtime, by a combined eight points.
“I hated when Richmond would win,” said Henderson.
Noe, who lobbied for years in order to get the series off the ground, lost the only two games he coached against Richmond. Dana Kirk took the reigns of the VCU program in 1976.
VCU wouldn’t earn its first victory over its new rival until Nov. 26, 1977. However, despite Richmond’s initial five-game win streak, VCU leads the all-time series 46-25, heading into Saturday’s game at the Siegel Center.
“Oh yeah, that was a big thing, man,” Henderson said. “Beating Richmond and having the bragging rights was big. Because they were king of the hill for a while. But we kept plugging away, plugging way.”
Slone left coaching altogether in 1978 to launch a marketing career with Blue Cross Blue Shield. He still plays close attention to both Richmond and VCU, and has special appreciation Shaka Smart’s decision to coin his style of play “Havoc”. Slone can appreciate a good marketing pitch when he sees one.
Meanwhile, Slone says he’ll be in attendance Saturday at the Siegel Center, where he’ll sit with his son, a VCU graduate and season ticket holder.