The president stood in front of the football team and heaped more shame on an already miserable year, the kind that could alter goals and dreams and lives much more than any of those eight losses in 2004.
William E. Cooper, then the University of Richmond president, said the Spiders football team would play in the Patriot League, which offers far fewer athletic scholarships. He even told the players, according to tight end Joe Stewart, that, heck, they couldn’t even beat Lafayette, a Patriot League school. The Spiders had lost to Lafayette by five points in 2004.
“He tried to talk over us a little bit,” said Stewart, then a freshman. “We were scared.”
To understand the magnitude of Richmond’s berth in tonight’s NCAA Division I national championship game against Montana at Finley Stadium, you must first understand the Spiders’ past. For the first time since 1937-40, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure as president of the United States, Richmond has posted four straight winning football seasons. The Spiders went 0-11 in 1979, 0-10 in 1982 and a combined 2-20 in 1989-90.
The day Cooper held his meeting with the football team, the Spiders had just completed a winless 2004 season in Atlantic 10 play. They won one conference game the previous year. The A-10 was beginning the process of shutting down football operations, which meant Richmond needed to find a new conference.
The Spiders seemed to fit the model of a Patriot League school: a small, private institution with high academic standards. Scholarships in the Patriot League are awarded by need. New coach Dave Clawson and assistant Russ Huesman saw their rebuilding project potentially intensify.
“Dave had just brought me here, we’d just finished our first year, and then this kind of explodes in your face,” Huesman said. “Fortunately, there were quite a few people, alums and supporters, who were against it, and there was enough pressure that it never really went too far. It was a pretty wild couple or three days.”
Athletic director Jim Miller said the school was simply evaluating its options when the Atlantic 10 planned to pull out of football following the 2006 season. RIchmond was the last of the A-10 schools to join the Colonial Athletic Association in football, triggering nervous moments among the coaches, players and fans.
But very few outside of the locker room knew about talented players such as Stewart and defensive ends Lawrence Sidbury and Sherman Logan. They didn’t understand the vision of Clawson. And in 2005, just months after that humbling speech by the president, Richmond went 9-4 and won the A-10. Two years later, the Spiders made the national semifinals.
“Our goal every year is to win the national championship. It might have been a little far-fetched our first year,” Sidbury said. “But a lot of the guys came in like Sherman, and we’ve done a good job trying to make ourselves better off the field during the summer and doing the things necessary to make ourselves better athletes.
“Our preparation and focus is a lot better than what it was when I first got here. The combination helped us get to the point where we are right now.”
Where they are is the national championship game, four seasons after a winless year in conference and an uncertain future. Sidbury, Logan and Stewart are all major contributors, part of a senior class that changed the culture. New coach Mike London helped take the Spiders one step closer to a title and away from the past.
“Thankfully for us when all of that was going on, all of our alumni came back and the supporters of the university sided with us and said that we could be a team that has the potential to go to the national championship,” Stewart said. “With Coach London coming in, we just bought in to what he was selling. We rode him the whole way here.”
Under Miller’s direction, the Spiders increased scholarships, boosted coaches’ pay and raised money for a new on-campus stadium. The past is definitely the past.
“I guess everybody here,” Huesman said, “showed them.”