Richmond’s First Sweet Sixteen

Those who follow University of Richmond basketball* will recall this memorable year for a number of reasons.

Well, two, primarily.

The team had perhaps the best season in school history, and certainly one of the three best, finishing 29-8 with an Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship, a run to the Sweet Sixteen, and a dominant regular season win over city rival VCU.

However, VCU made an even more remarkable run to the Final Four, thus retconning UR’s season as inferior to the team it manhandled in their prior meeting.

But for die-hard fans, we remember a Sweet Sixteen run that wasn’t dwarfed because of unfortunate timing.  The year was 1988.  The Dick Tarrant-coached Richmond team won the CAA, then upset defending national champion Indiana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.  The Spiders followed that up with another upset win, this time over Georgia Tech.

I was part of the contingent that welcomed the Spiders back to Richmond at the Richmond “International” Airport.  Keep in mind that, in this pre-9/11 world, people could wait at the actual gate where the plane unloaded the passengers.  That experience as a ten-year-old produced the subject of this post.

The autographs on this piece of paper may not mean much to most folks now, but, believe me, guys like Rodney Rice, Steve Kratzer, Eric English, Richmond’s own Pete Woolfolk, Kenny Atkinson, Scott Stapleton (who played basketball and football for the Spiders), Mike Winieki, and the aforementioned Tarrant are more than footnotes in the history of some obscure mid-major basketball program.  They meant a lot to that school and to this community.

Those Spiders finished their run with a decisive defeat at the hands of Temple, then the top-ranked team in the nation.  The Owls were 30-1 when they played Richmond, with their sole loss coming by a single point to UNLV.  The Spiders were outmatched and finished their year at 26-7.  Temple wound up being upset in the next round by Duke, denying the Owls a Final Four berth.

It’s funny when I think back now at how old the Richmond players seemed to me at the time.  Even at the age I was then, I understood on an intellectual level that they were “young” men.  Still, it’s strange to think the oldest of them was about a decade younger than I am now.  I suppose I was still susceptible to some level of hero-worship then.  I wouldn’t outgrow that until I became a teenager.

As great as this year’s team was, and as much as they accomplished by winning nearly thirty games and returning to the Sweet Sixteen, that 1988 team somehow seems to have more historical traction.  Possibly because I was ten years old, possibly because they were a true mid-major then, and possibly because they didn’t have another city team who advanced even deeper into the tournament, but mostly because the gulf between the haves and have-nots in the college basketball of that era was far wider and more daunting.  Overcoming top teams from the Big Ten and ACC in succession was a remarkable achievement.

That counts for something.  And it made 1988 special.

_________________________

*Primarily affluent, 60-year-old white guys in red sweaters (plus me).
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