Richmond well-represented at Sweet 16
RICHMOND, Va. -- John Sweeney packed up his bags and his life in 1978, shedding his New York City skin for a little more tranquility in Richmond.
Twenty years ago, he opened a sports bar in town, and in 1996, he relocated Mulligan's to the downtown neighborhood known as the Fan.
The rambling establishment goes on like a maze, from bar to patio to eat-in spot to a sprawling rooftop deck.
A week ago, Sweeney surveyed all that he owned and grinned a Cheshire cat grin. The place was stuffed to the gills, a veritable mob scene of celebrants who were exactly that -- celebratory.
"I don't know if I've ever seen it that crowded," Sweeney said. "You couldn't move. Everyone was having a great time."
There is much to celebrate in this otherwise sleepy Southern city.
On Friday night, its two Division I schools -- the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth -- will play in the Sweet 16. The 12th-seeded Spiders face top-seeded Kansas, and the Rams, an 11-seed that took the long road in via the First Four, meet No. 10 seed Florida State.
Since 1980, only one other city has produced such a double-double: The slightly larger metropolis of Los Angeles has pulled it off three times in the regional semifinals. (Villanova and Temple played in the Sweet 16 in 1988, but Villanova is technically outside the Philadelphia city limits.)
And if VCU and Richmond win, they would be the first teams from the same city to meet with nothing less than a Final Four berth on the line -- and an improbable Final Four berth, at that.
"I told Paul Pierce, 'Richmond is the mecca of college basketball right now, not Lawrence, Kan.,'" Boston Celtics assistant coach Kevin Eastman joked. Eastman, a graduate of Richmond, spent three years as an assistant coach at VCU and still calls Richmond his offseason home. "[Pierce] just shook his head and said, 'Yeah, for four days.' This doesn't usually happen to us for even four days."
No, this is quite a coup for a city with a population of just 204,000 and a sports history devoid of much actual history.
In 1991, Richmond became the first 15-seed to beat a 2-seed, knocking off Syracuse and inspiring the memorable Syracuse Post-Standard headline, "Arachnophobia."
And, in 2007, VCU guard Eric Maynor's buzzer-beater stunned Duke in the first round.
Otherwise, Richmond is unaccustomed to basketball riches. In 2005, Virginia Union won a Division II national title in basketball, an esteemed accomplishment but not one that registered for most D-I fans.
The most popular professional franchise in town is the Richmond Flying Squirrels, a far-flung Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, and the biggest sports draw is the Richmond International Raceway, where gearheads flock every spring and fall for the NASCAR races.
"This is our Super Bowl," said Richmond Times-Dispatch sports editor Steve Trosky. "People here root for the Redskins. The Redskins don't play here. We have the minor league team, but they don't play their championship here. This is a really big deal."
What adds to the intrigue is that the two schools share a hometown and little else. Separated by just five miles -- closer than those two slightly more famous warring universities in North Carolina -- the schools couldn't be more different.
VCU sits in the middle of downtown, its campus framed by Broad Street, its buildings folded in among the rest of the city. The university draws heavily from the city for its student population, people attracted by the comfort of the familiar and the manageable public school $9,000-per-year tuition.
Richmond lies on the western edge of town, where the hills roll by the on-campus lake, the cherry blossoms bloom and well-appointed homes lie on the outskirts of the campus borders. Selective in its admissions (only 36 percent come from the South compared with 88 percent in-state for VCU), U of R runs about $41,000 a year.
"They're the Ivy League of the South," said VCU senior guard Brandon Rozzell, who grew up in Richmond. "We're the Broad Street Bullies."
Of course, that distinction is too simplistic. With its prestigious medical center and more than $255 million invested in research, VCU boasts serious academic cachet, and plenty of Richmonders carry degrees from U of R.
But old stereotypes die hard and tend to swallow up everything in their wake, and at these two schools, that includes the coaches.
Shaka Smart has become the personification of VCU and Chris Mooney the poster child for Richmond.
The comparisons are not entirely inaccurate.
Smart, like his program and like the way he coaches, is a scrapper. He is a contented underdog, an undersized player who parlayed a Division III career at Kenyon College (Gambier, Ohio) into a Division I head-coaching job. He got here the hard way, with assistant stops at California University of Pennsylvania, Dayton, Akron, Clemson and Florida, a ladder-rung climb that took 10 years.
"[Akron coach] Keith Dambrot always says that I have a chip on my shoulder," Smart said. "I don't look at it that way, but I guess you could say I've had to fight the same way our program has. When I first got this job, I had a sense that there were some people who thought, 'Who does he think he is? He doesn't deserve that job.'"
VCU, too, has had its own ladder climbing to do.
Former VCU coach Sonny Smith spent nine years with the Rams. He worked in three conferences: two years in the Sun Belt and four in the Metro Conference before VCU found its current home in the Colonial Athletic Association in 1995.
"I remember we played Louisville at Louisville in the Metro tournament and we knocked them out," Smith said. "First question to me: 'What does this mean to you?' I said, 'Well, it means there will only be about 950 people here tomorrow instead of 18,000.' We had good fans, but we played downtown, so it just wasn't the same."
In the meantime, Richmond, the "Ivy League of the South," is now coached by a true-blue blue blood.
Mooney is a Princeton graduate.
"Agreed, that's what people think of me," Mooney said, laughing good-naturedly. "And I'm very proud of my time at Princeton, but I tend to think of myself more as a Northeast Philly guy than a Princeton guy."
Indeed, his Princeton degree didn't pave an easier path for Mooney any more than Richmond's perceived pedigree made its progress any smoother.
Mooney began his career as a high school coach and spent three years as a Division III head coach at Beaver College (now Arcadia University) before Joe Scott, a fellow Princeton alum, brought him to Air Force.
When Scott bolted for their alma mater, Mooney took over as coach at Air Force, and he came to Richmond one year later.
In his first two seasons, all that blue-blood aristocracy combined to win 21 games total.
"This senior class I have now, the year before they came, we won eight games," Mooney said. "It's not exactly like we had it rolling."
The fact is, the perceptions of the coaches are every bit as incomplete as the long-held images of the schools.
Scrappy Smart is a magna cum laude graduate from Kenyon, a prestigious academic school.
And the father of Ivy-educated Mooney drove a Greyhound bus.
The billboard sits on a prime piece of interstate real estate, hugging the side of I-95 inside the city limits, where countless cars pass by every day.
Featuring Richmond natives Bradford Burgess and Rozzell, it reads simply: "Our city, your team."
The connotation is as plain as the four words: VCU and its urban locale suit the blue-collar city where Philip Morris remains a big presence, though not as looming as in this country's tobacco heyday.
The billboard rankled the players at Richmond a little bit, particularly Justin Harper and Darien Brothers, who also come from Richmond and who cross paths with the sign's stars. Burgess and Brothers attended Benedictine High School, and Rozzell and Harper played AAU ball together.
"It might have added a little more motivation," admitted Harper, whose Spiders beat VCU in the regular season 72-60 for their first win in the past six tries.
Generally, though, this isn't a rival steeped in vitriol. The two like to tweak each other -- "We call [Richmond] 'Duke' a lot," said VCU assistant athletic director Mike Ellis, who has spent so much time in Richmond that he likes to say, "Moby Dick was a minnow and the Dead Sea was just sick" when he arrived -- but it is more good-natured ribbing than flat-out hatred.
The two programs take the Black and Blue Classic, the annual game between the two, seriously, but when it's over, so is the bickering.
With Duke-North Carolina, when they're in the same region, people will stay to root against the other one. There's not that kind of animosity here. I think they'll pull for one another on Friday night. I think I'm right about that.
--VCU athletic director Norwood Teague
"With Duke-North Carolina, when they're in the same region, people will stay to root against the other one," said VCU athletic director Norwood Teague, who graduated from UNC. "There's not that kind of animosity here. I think they'll pull for one another on Friday night. I think I'm right about that."
The fact is, the two programs are more comrades-in-arms than enemies. They are trying to do the same thing -- become known as a mid-major power rather than merely a little engine that could.
VCU still welcomes conversation about Maynor's shot, and Richmond embraces its role as a giant killer, but each school wants to be known for more than one moment and believes it warrants more respect.
The venom spewed toward his team on Selection Sunday stunned Smart, and though Mooney hasn't been as public in his frustration as Smart, he does admit that a 12-seed for a team with 29 wins is a bit "surprising."
And he chooses the word carefully.
"We embrace all of our history, but I think we're in a different place now," Mooney said. "I think it's a process and we're further along now. We're not Butler or Gonzaga, but we're on our way."
The players, the coaches, the ones directly invested in the possibility, won't talk about it.
In the one-game-at-a-time, Bull Durham-clichéd world that is athletics, even conjuring up the next round of the NCAA tournament is like asking for a hex wrapped in a jinx covered in a whammy.
Everywhere else, though, they're thinking about it: a potential 50-50 shot for the city of Richmond to be represented at the Final Four.
If the Spiders upset Kansas and the Rams beat Florida State, it will happen on Sunday in San Antonio.
At Buz and Ned's, a legendary BBQ spot downtown, Brad Hellmann and Charlanne McCarthy pause behind the counter to talk before the rush hits.
"That," Hellmann said, "would be great."
"I so want that to happen," McCarthy added.
At the Home Team Grill, where jerseys for Richmond and VCU hang on the wall, Paul Howard, whose dad is a VCU graduate, also is imagining it.
"This city," Howard said, "would go crazy."
It certainly would be great for business, John Sweeney agrees.
But the bar owner also doesn't want to understate just how special everything already is.
Sweeney's bar has hosted countless alumni groups from other cities -- there are banners on his walls for Ohio State and Kentucky, among others -- and they all make his place a bar full of energy and verve.
This, though -- this is different.
This is Richmond going crazy for Richmond.
"Even if [an Elite Eight matchup] doesn't happen, this has still been great," he said. "I remember the night Maynor hit his shot. That might have been my favorite moment in this town. Or at least it was. This is better. This is once-in-a-lifetime."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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