With VCU's 2011 Final Four run leading way, Rams athletics on rise

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Ed McLaughlin aspires for VCU to win national championships.

RICHMOND — Matt Ball has been connected to VCU for 30 years, and given the duration and diversity of his affiliation — student-athlete, graduate, coach — few can better appreciate and assess the exponential growth of the Rams' sports programs.

But like most, Ball uses VCU's improbable run to the 2011 NCAA men's basketball Final Four as his primary reference.

"I always felt like when we went to the Final Four that all the VCU fans came out of the closet," Ball said. "Because I had always complained that all the fans, they were ashamed, because Virginia Tech and Virginia got all the accolades all the time, all through Richmond.

"And here we are, at the time one of the biggest, now the biggest university in Virginia, and in our own town we didn't get the accolades. But now in Richmond, we even have the respect of the Virginia and Virginia Tech people."

The respect and accolades extend far beyond the city limits or state line.

Ball sees it when he travels with his men's golf team. The "VCU" emblazoned on the side of the program's Mercedes-Benz van is no longer a mystery to onlookers.

Athletic director Ed McLaughlin sees it when he pitches potential donors, corporate and individual. Annual contributions to the athletic department have increased nearly five-fold in the last decade, to more than $3 million.

Most important, everyone sees it on the scoreboard. Nine of the Rams' 16 teams, including Ball's Atlantic 10 champions, reached NCAA postseason in 2013-14, a school-best.

Not to suggest that VCU's overall sports program is poised to surpass Virginia or Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers and Hokies have more money, better infrastructure and more nationally competitive teams, particularly U.Va.

But the progress that started before, and continued after, VCU's 2011 Final Four is unmistakable.

"The last 10 years have been beyond transformative in many ways," McLaughlin said. "(But) it is amazing how much more we can really do. I think we can win a national championship here, and that drives me every day.

"When I interviewed here, everyone talked about not losing momentum from the Final Four. To me, it was sort of a defensive way of looking at what VCU could be. I don't want to say it was a negative way, but it was sort of a pessimistic way, to try to not do something.

"When I first got here, I said, 'We can stop talking about not losing momentum and focus on winning a national championship.' Whatever sport it can be. It could be men's soccer, women's volleyball, men's basketball. It could be one of our track (teams)."

Formerly the athletic director at Niagara, McLaughlin came to VCU two years ago, succeeding Norwood Teague, who accepted a similar position at Minnesota after six years leading the Rams. No matter how his career evolves, Teague will always have this: He gave Shaka Smart his first head-coaching gig.

Then an assistant to Billy Donovan at Florida, Smart arrived in 2009, inheriting a basketball program that under Mack McCarthy, Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant had authored nine consecutive winning seasons and reached three NCAA tournaments. But nothing, not even Eric Maynor's buzzer-beater to beat Duke in the 2007 NCAAs, approached what Smart has fashioned.

Each of his five teams has won at least 26 games, and since the 2011 Final Four, the Rams have earned three straight NCAA bids, advancing in 2012 and '13. With 50 consecutive sellouts and Smart's relentless pressure defense, not to mention a roof-raisin' pep band, the Siegel Center has become one of college basketball's premier experiences.

"It's electric in there, and it's a tremendous recruiting environment (for all sports)," said Ball, an Academic All-America golfer at VCU who became the Rams' coach 12 years after his 1987 graduation.

"Look at the World Cup," Smart said. "Sports is just a unique thing that brings people together and gets people excited and unites a lot of different types of people around a common cause or common goal, and VCU athletics is no different.

"I think the success of some of the teams here has really been a point of pride for VCU students, faculty, alumni, and, people who are part of the community that don't even necessarily have any direct connection to VCU other than the fact that this is Richmond's school."

No university can thrive athletically without committed presidential support, and Eugene Trani and Michael Rao have provided just that, empowering ADs Richard Sander, Teague and McLaughlin. Dave Giffard sensed that collective ambition when he agreed to become the Rams' men's soccer coach in 2010.

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