Weeks ago, hundreds of Virginia Commonwealth University students rallied in the parking lots outside the basketball arena to watch the men’s team leave for the NCAA tournament -- for games no one really expected them to win. But as March Madness progressed, students found themselves back in those parking lots, celebrating win after win.
And on Thursday night, it was the students’ turn to board chartered buses. Four buses carrying 200 students are now en route to Houston -- a 1,300-mile roadtrip that’s expected to take at least 24 hours. Hundreds more students, alums and Rams fans are expected to meet them there to watch VCU take on Butler Saturday night. Back on campus, the university has organized a massive viewing party in the arena, in addition to smaller ones in the residence halls.
“When VCU made it to the Sweet 16, I was like, ‘Oh. My. Gosh.’ I went crazy. When they went to the Elite Eight, I thought I was going to die,” said Rupali Saxena, 19, a VCU sophomore who is majoring in bioinformatics. And then the Final Four? “It has been a riot. That’s the only way to describe it.”
Enthusiasm for the Cinderella team has consumed Richmond. Professors have canceled classes or postponed assignments so that students can bask in the glow of all-out spirit. Several bars have plastered their windows with Rams signs, and city buses changed their digital display boards to congratulate the team.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch added basketballs to its online masthead, local morning television anchors giddily talked about their Saturday night plans, and, at least on Thursday night, one radio station kept getting requests for the rap song “Black and Yellow.” You would think there’s a city-wide dress code because so many people are sporting black and gold
“Everyone else is finally seeing what we always knew about VCU,” said Zach Mullins, 18, a freshman mechanical engineering major from Chesterfield, Va.
When it became clear VCU might have a shot at some of the top games, the student government set aside $51,000 to send students to San Antonio and, now, Houston. More than 2,000 students entered a lottery to snag one of the 200 spots on Houston-bound buses. Once in Texas, the student government is paying to house more than 800 students in a handful of hotels. Students just have to pay for their ticket to the game, said Adele McClure, the VCU student government president who is from Northern Virginia.
“Twenty-five dollars and their school spirit,” she said. “That’s what they pay.”
The words “school spirit” keep coming up as students riff about what the Final Four means to VCU -- and, more deeply, what it means to them. But what exactly is historic school spirit?
It’s a lot of things, several students said. It’s a seemingly never-ending line at the campus bookstore, which is constantly getting more shipments of VCU T-shirts and gear. It’s record numbers of hits to the school Web site, and likely record-numbers of students changing their Facebook profile photo to something VCU-related. It’s VCU outshining all of the other big-name Virginia colleges, even for just a week. And it’s the rest of the country actually knowing that the college exists.
“I have friends in San Diego and Arizona who finally know where I go,” McClure said with a laugh. “If you didn’t have school spirit, now you have it times six.”