Big school envy

Published 10:11 am Saturday, April 4, 2015

We have a longstanding policy of waiting at least 24 hours after an event takes place to editorialize or write a staff column on the subject. The primary reason, and I believe it to be a good one, is that those 24 hours serve as an important cooling-off period for a writer whose emotions may get the better of him.

Today, that policy gets kicked to the curb.

As those of you who have read this column from its humble beginnings know, I have a pretty deep and meaningful love for my alma mater’s basketball team. So much so that my wife would probably tell you the feelings I have for the Rams fall somewhere between silly and obsessive. As usual, she’s probably right. But she also claims to love me, so she’s really in no position to judge.

I suppose my feelings stem from the fact that I’ve always suffered from a slight case of Big School Envy. A lot of you Hokies and ‘Hoos and ‘Heels and ‘Horns probably won’t understand what I mean by that because you’ve always had it pretty good. You guys have always had teams that compete at the highest levels of intercollegiate sports, while those of us who were educated at universities with no football program and mid-major basketball teams are left to merely hope for a conference tournament title and an automatic bid to the Big Dance. One and done? Who cares? Forty minutes in the sun on the third weekend in March was usually enough to quell my feelings of collegiate inadequacy. That is, until September rolls around and y’all pack up your tailgates and RVs and head off to see your Division I football team play in a nationally televised football game that will be watched by millions. Not that I was bitter, or anything.

So, back to me and VCU basketball. I suppose our relationship really began to blossom back in March of 2007. Fresh off of a conference tournament win and that altogether important automatic bid to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the Rams drew a seemingly impossible first-round matchup against Duke. Yes, that Duke, the one led by Coach K that had won 10 consecutive first round games and had advanced to nine consecutive Sweet 16 appearances. The one that had played in more Final Four games than we had played tournament games. That Duke. So when Eric Maynor hit a jumper with 1.8 seconds left to give my little ol’ VCU a two-point win over the Blue Devils, I channeled my inner Jimmy Valvano and sprinted around the house looking for someone to hug. For some reason my wife, who at the time was two months pregnant, miserably sick and sound asleep, failed to share my enthusiasm.

In 2011, the Rams and I took our relationship to a whole ‘nother level. VCU and second-year head coach Shaka Smart, who nobody had even heard of prior to his hiring the year before, landed a controversial invitation to compete in the first round of the NCAA tournament. College basketball know-it-alls like Dickie V. ridiculed our selection, but we went out and beat the tar out of Southern Cal anyway. Which earned us the right to beat Georgetown. Then Purdue. Then Florida State. And then we beat the number one team in the country, Kansas, to land a spot in the Final Four, the promised land of college basketball. Never mind the fact that we lost the next game to Butler. We had arrived, and the whole sporting world knew it.

And that was it. My heart now forever belonged to the VCU basketball team and Coach Smart, the young, enthusiastic and intelligent architect of what has become a college basketball force to be reckoned with on a national level. Our games are all now televised. No more hoping for a conference tournament win to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Elite high school players signed letters of intent to play their home games at the Stu. We had gone big time, and I no longer looked at the Hokies and ‘Hoos and ‘Heels and ‘Horns through the same envious eyes. Sure, they still had their Saturday afternoons and their tailgates and their nationally televised football games, but I now had my very own big time team, my Big School Envy was gone, and there was nothing anyone could possibly do to ruin it.

Except for one of them to take our beloved coach away.

I’m writing this column on Friday morning, less than 18 hours after Shaka succumbed to the siren call of the Longhorns and the University of Texas. Yes, that Texas and yes, those ‘Horns. The ones who just fired their head basketball coach, with their millions of dollars in compensation VCU couldn’t possibly begin to afford and an athletic program funded nearly as well as Microsoft. The ones who wanted our young, enthusiastic and intelligent basketball coach to come to Texas and build them a basketball program of their own.

Once again, Big School Envy has reared its ugly head, but this time it’s different. This time, one of the Hokies and ‘Hoos and ‘Heel and ‘Horns looked at us through envious eyes and wanted what we had. This time, someone looked longingly at what we had built and wondered how great it must be. Texas, I know how you felt. Big School Envy is no fun. It’s something Coach Smart will help you overcome before you know it.

TONY CLARK is publisher of The Tidewater News and is not the least bit bitter that the University of Texas poached his teams’ basketball coach. His email address is