Correction: The print version of this article included a photo caption that misidentified the campus shown. It was Virginia Commonwealth University, not the University of Richmond.

Virginia Commonwealth’s Ed Nixon celebrates one of the Rams’ three wins so far in the NCAA tournament. Along with the University of Richmond, also in the round of 16, the city is the third since 1985 to have two teams go so deep. (Jim Prisching/Associated Press)

Virginia Commonwealth basketball players Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell look out from a billboard on I-95 South with a message for passers-by: “Our City, Your Team.” 

These days, though, that slogan is the subject of some debate. Virginia’s state capital is home to two of the 16 teams still standing in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a fact that bewilders VCU and University of Richmond supporters alike, let alone bracket prognosticators across the nation.

Richmond and VCU are separated by six miles and a few rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. Richmond is a small, secluded, private school, while VCU is a bustling, urban, state institution. Fans of each will be able to unite under the banner of civic pride Friday in San Antonio for the Southwest Region semifinals. If Richmond can upset Kansas and VCU can beat Florida State, the two teams will play each other Sunday for a spot in the Final Four.

Since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985, just two other cities — Los Angeles and Philadelphia — have boasted two teams in the round of 16 in the same year.

The folks here can’t seem to agree on how to view their unexpected partnership, but they widely acknowledge its benefit to the community.   

“If they’re being honest, the school administrators at VCU and Richmond probably would tell you they’d prefer not to be sharing the spotlight this weekend,” said Matt Smith, a 1992 Richmond graduate who works as a marketing director at Farm Bureau Insurance. “But it’s great for the city.”

VCU has long benefited from its identity as a state school, with a diverse and rapidly growing student population and an in-state tuition under $9,000. Many of those who attend VCU — now more than 32,000 students — are from the region and stay in the area after they’re done with classes. Located near the city’s center, VCU has no football program, which has funneled alumni focus toward a men’s basketball program that has been moderately successful for much of the past two decades.

 Richmond, meantime, resides on a small suburban campus surrounded by a lake and homes fortressed by barriers of brick and wrought iron. A vast majority of Richmond’s 4,400 students come from outside the state, many from the Northeast. Tuition is north of $41,000 per year, and the living alumni count hovers somewhere around 40,000. Prior to Coach Chris Mooney’s arrival in 2005, the men’s basketball program had made two NCAA tournament appearances in the previous 14 years.

“There’s enough difference in the perception of the two schools to make a clear distinction out of the rivalry,” Mooney said. “And I think because of that, it’s easy to pick a side, and that usually makes for a good rivalry.”

White collar, blue collar

The last time Richmond advanced to the round of 16, Smith was a senior at Thomas Johnson High in Fredrick in 1988. The first time he attended a game between VCU and Richmond, the differences between the schools’ student bodies were obvious.

“When I was in school, the [Richmond] student section used to chant ‘White collar, blue collar’ and they’d point back and forth,” Smith said. “And another one was ‘That’s all right. That’s okay. You’ll all work for us one day.’ VCU fans had their own cheers, as well.

“It’s fun during basketball season or in competition between the schools to play up the stereotypical, you know, the elitists, or however Richmond is perceived by VCU fans, and Richmond fans see VCU folks as having earrings in their nose and blue hair and all that. But at the end of the day, I think a lot more people from Richmond and VCU are friends. I’m not going to tell you that either one are rooting for each other in the Sweet 16. But I think it’s a pretty compelling story.”

Perched on a stool at Mulligan’s The Fan, a sports bar adjacent to VCU’s campus, Ed Harrington, VCU class of ’93, took a drag off his Camel, exhaled and pondered the differences between his alma mater and Richmond. His elbows were planted on the counter, and his shirt cuffs were rolled up, revealing tattoos on both arms as he tossed back a Rolling Rock.

Harrington, a production manager at Style Weekly, the city’s alternative news publication, said he doesn’t care about basketball. He was unaware Richmond and VCU played once a season (the Rams had won six straight prior to Richmond’s 72-60 triumph on Dec. 11), but he knew the two teams potentially could meet in the Elite Eight. Bragging rights, he definitely cares about.

He offers that Richmond students are known to pop their collars and come from wealth, while acknowledging — independent of Smith’s assessment — that VCU students are known to be heavily tattooed and pierced.

“It’s almost like a community college,” Harrington said of VCU. “People take classes, but they don’t always graduate.”

A stop along the way

Identity matters in a city full of transplants. People come here to go to school or to work for the government or to work for the military or to stop by en route to someplace else. That dynamic extends to sports.

The Richmond Braves, the Triple-A affiliate of the Major League Baseball team based in Atlanta, made its home here for 42 years, before leaving in 2008 following a dispute over a new stadium project.

“This is a city that loses teams,” said Wes McElroy, an afternoon sports radio host on WRNL 910 AM. “You lose the Richmond Braves. You lose the Richmond Renegades. They’ve lost [other minor league] hockey teams before. They lose teams.”

And they lose coaches. Before Mooney, John Beilein and Jerry Wainwright coached at Richmond, and before Shaka Smart took over at VCU, Anthony Grant and Jeff Capel took the team to the NCAA tournament. All four left for higher-profile jobs in the past nine years. There is mounting unrest among the two fan bases that Mooney and Smart might soon follow suit, but those anxieties temporarily have been put on hold.

Neither team was expected to reach this point. VCU needed to beat Southern Cal just to reach the main field of 64 teams as an 11th seed. The Rams then went on to eliminate sixth-seeded Georgetown and third-seeded Purdue. Richmond took down Vanderbilt in its first game and then beat Morehead State to set up Friday’s game against top-seeded Kansas.

Tim Delano, a bar manager at Mulligan’s who moved here from Salem, Va. in 1987 to attend classes at VCU, can’t see why both sides wouldn’t pull for the other’s continued success, at least until they face each other.

“You’ve got these two teams that are in the Sweet 16 from one city, and no one would think that that city would be Richmond,” Delano said. “Why would you think that? But they’re rising to that level.”

Darien Brothers, a Richmond native, never once thought he would want to play for the school by the lake and gated houses. Now a sophomore guard for the Spiders, Brothers is helping change his team’s perception, nationally and locally.

“Usually it’s VCU that’s getting all the attention,” Brothers said. “It’s sort of like we’re putting Richmond on the map.”

And perhaps, one day, a billboard.