VCU basketball: This I believe

VCU’s 2012-12 basketball season begins today. It’s time to get pumped.

Editor’s note: Chris Crowley is the fan, and I really mean that. In my entire sports life, I have never been around anyone that so perfectly combines knowledge, snark, and passion. Chris Crowley belongs on that long list of things that make VCU basketball so enjoyable: Coach Smart, “The Peppas”, “The Stu”, Eric Maynor… He is a must follow on twitter, and as his bio proudly says, “I’m that VCU guy.” –Aaron Williams

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“This I Believe” is a segment that ran on NPR for what seems like forever. Wikipedia tells me it started in the 50s and was then resurrected in 2005, but that is neither here nor there. For some reason NPR never asked for my opinion on the subject, but “Believe” is something I’ve been talking about for years. It hit a height the second week of March 2011 after a particularly frustrating loss to ODU that I am sure most of you remember. What happened after that is proof of the power of belief: a 17-day whirlwind that I believe we will have the opportunity to experience again.

I believe because I see where we have been. Now there are many dedicated fans who can tell you grand stories of what I think of as the Silver Age of VCU hoops. An upstart program, playing in Franklin Street Gym and the Richmond Coliseum, getting recruits by outworking all of the “tradition” schools, or by taking a chance on a diamond with flaws. I am not one of them. It is absolutely worth hearing them tell those stories, and I encourage you to ask them. Nor did I experience the long dark age that was the late 80’s into the 90’s (not just for fashion, but VCU hoops as well). I never saw Mike Pollio or Sonny Smith coach a game. I didn’t experience the frustration that comes with just a single NCAA tournament berth in 17 seasons.

No, I am one of the lucky fans. I came along just as the tide was turning. When Coach Ellis asked me to come be a manager at VCU, we didn’t know it at the time, but something special was happening. Coach Mack had hired a young assistant, cast off by that school we all hate down in Norfolk. Jeff Capel II. had been fired by Old Dominion so they could hire a coach with a dorky mustache and a checkered past. We were fortunate that Jeff Capel III needed a job, and we had an opening for an assistant. Our first season I noticed that we had guys who wanted to win, and a small but dedicated fan base who wanted us to win. These fans hadn’t lost their fire through 17 years of mostly middle-of-the-pack basketball. We also had a young, brash, and energetic guy who was in his second year as a front man for a pep band that was beginning to gain its “pep.”

That season we won 21 games, good enough for 3rd place and an appearance in the CAA championship. We believed we were good enough for postseason play, and practiced all spring break. The selection committee did not.

Yet the fans didn’t give up. Coach Capel was handed the reins of a program that needed a kick in the pants, and he gave it one. Suddenly there was an expectation of winning, and that small but vocal group of fans had something to cheer for. It took two years, but we were back in the dance. That team believed they could beat anyone. We went to Georgia Tech (coached by a guy who seemed great at the time) and though we got beat, there were about 20 minutes where we saw we could stand up to one of the top teams in the country.

Later that season freshman Jesse Pellot-Rosa, after missing the first, calmly believed in himself and drained a game-winning free throw heartbeats later. VCU was going dancing for the first time in eight years, just the second time in 19 seasons. Yet after all that time, we believed, and came within one point of a very good Chris Paul-led Wake Forest team. Our “Golden Era” had begun.

I believe because I see where we are. Jeff Capel moved on two years later and since then we have enjoyed six seasons of 24+ wins, four NCAA tournaments, a program-lifting win over Duke, two NBA draft picks, and a Final Four. All of that winning has served something that I believe is even more important. It has brought more people into the family. The curious onlooker has become a passionate fan.

I really do believe it is “our time, right now.” VCU, under some spectacular leadership, has developed into a university with a respected national reputation. It has always been what I call a school of second chances. A place where any of us can come, and be successful with hard work, no matter where we come from. My favorite description of VCU, from my advisor freshman year, is that VCU is “a place where everyone fits in, because none of us really fit in any place else.” I believe in that diversity as our strength. I believe that while we have always been a great school, victories by our academic and athletic programs have given us a national presence that allows others to see our greatness as well.

I believe, because I love where we are going. VCU has been making dreams real for thousands of students for over thirty years. Making it real is nothing new. I believe for many at VCU, “real” isn’t good enough. They come from real. They believe in better. Our fans for dozens of years believed in a future that would be great. We are there. We can do even better.

Last week Coach Smart challenged we the fans to make every game an intense, frenzied environment. At first I laughed a little bit. Didn’t he realize that just ten years ago we dreamed of selling out a few games and having more than 500 students attend games? That disbelief subsided quickly though, as I heard what he was saying. We have proven that we can have the most intense environment in college basketball. I have seen fans in line for twelve hours for an ODU game. I have seen 7,500 fans singing in unison. Why can’t we have that for two hours straight, 18 times this year? I believe we can make that real.

Our new Athletic Director, Ed McLaughin, has issued a similar challenge to our teams. He said something along that lines of “I believe we can win a National Championship here at VCU.” Damn straight we can. With the history of support, and the wave of new resources, and a passionate skilled group of coaches leading talented young men and women, I believe we will. It is only a matter of whether or not one of our non-revenue sports will beat men’s basketball to the punch (have you seen our volleyball team play this year?! Men’s soccer? Wow!).

I believe we will continue to surpass barriers, finding new and creative ways to knock them down, go around, up and over, or digging under. Every day our graduates go out into the world, and show a new potential fan what VCU is. Every day our athletes work hard, so that we have a team we are proud to rally around. Every day our professors and our staff show our future alumni a new tool they can use to prove themselves to a world hungry for creative leadership. We will continue to do more, because we are VCU. We will win national championships. We will produce leaders of industry. To quote Dr. Rao’s most recent annual report “I am…excited to continue our determined drive to be among the nation’s premier research universities. Why do I have such ambitions? Because I believe we can achieve them.”

Seemingly hundreds of schools across the country have run with a chant made famous by Utah State, “I believe that we will win.” It is powerful when thousands make their voices be heard. I believe in something greater however: I believe in VCU.

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Chris Crowley

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