VCU sees opportunity in Final Four trip

On a campus where hundreds have lined up daily to buy Final Four

T-shirts at $21.98 each, VCU film students Caroline Miller and

Tommy Bell were selling glazed doughnuts at $1 a pop while pausing

to reflect on their school’s improbable run.

”I’ve never seen this much school spirit,” said Miller,

standing behind boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, the sticky sweet

attraction of their arts fundraiser. ”On Sunday, you couldn’t even

walk outside without cracking a grin for how proud the school is

right now.”

Building steam, Miller added, ”I think the school is going to,

like, massively grow – it’s just going to explode.”

Bell has been caught up in the Rams’ run, too, and shares the

widely held view that the basketball team’s inspirational

performance can only benefit the school.

”VCU’s a great school, in my opinion,” said the sophomore from

Knoxville, Tenn. ”If it gets more attention, more people, more

tuition, I don’t think it can hurt.”

From the president’s office to City Hall, Virginia Commonwealth

University’s trip to college basketball’s most exclusive gathering

is viewed as a huge plus for this urban campus of 32,303 students

and the city in which it occupies some prime real estate. It’s a

great opportunity to highlight the school’s academics while

dispelling some myths in the process.

”What’s happening is there’s an enormous level of interest from

all kinds of people in VCU right now,” school President Michael

Rao said Tuesday. ”We’re really on everyone’s screen.”

Rao expects VCU’s first trip to the Final Four, where it plays

Butler for a spot in the championship game, to double the school’s

annual giving to $80 million in a decade, along with bringing in

more research dollars and attracting more students.

He’s also intent on setting the record straight: VCU is not a

commuter school and it is not an open-access school.

”People will say to me – and it makes me crazy – ‘What’s your

average SAT score? Is it up near a thousand yet?’ Well, it’s well

over a thousand,” Rao said.

For the record, it’s just under 1,100.

”It’s not a commuter school anymore,” Rao said. ”We can’t

build housing fast enough.”

VCU dates its origins to 1838, when it was the medical

department of Hampden-Sydney College, and became Virginia

Commonwealth University in 1968. It now occupies vast expanses of

Richmond at the tip of The Fan, a residential district of stately

homes and trendy restaurants.

The campus is a mix of brownstones fitting of Boston’s Back Bay

and high-rise student housing that could pass for Moscow apartment

buildings – all concrete and metal. The campus also includes the

52.4-acre VCU Medical Center across downtown.

The optimism inspired by the team’s trip to Houston is

reminiscent of another Virginia school and its 2006 appearance in

the Final Four: George Mason. The two are rivals on the court in

the Colonial Athletic Association, and jockey annually for the

claim as the school with the largest enrollment in the state.

”It was an exhilarating time,” George Mason spokesman Daniel

Walsch recalled. ”It was not like anything we’ve experienced

before.”

A study conducted by the school concluded the Final Four

appearance resulted in immediate gains. Admissions inquiries

increased by 350 percent, alumni became more active and fundraising

continues to climb. The study estimated the value of free media

exposure at $677 million.

”Student demand has certainly increased dramatically” Walsch

said, ”to the point where we’re bursting at the seams.”

At VCU, the bookstore has been a visible barometer of the

school’s popularity as the Rams upset their way to the Final Four,

with a stunning victory over top-seeded Kansas last Sunday the

biggest of all. About 600 people lined up after that win for the

latest shipment of clothing and memorabilia celebrating the team’s

historic run.

Amy Randolph, the store general manager, hasn’t been able to

keep apace of demand as lines have snaked around the building, just

down the busy thoroughfare where the Rams play.

”So many have come down on their lunch break,” Randolph said.

”I’ve heard so many people say I’m not even a basketball fan but I

had to get a Final Four shirt.”

Bob Dickerson, a 1990 VCU grad, was sizing up a yellow golf

shirt with the VCU logo. He was looking for something to wear to

work Friday at Virginia Dominion Power. Its downtown high-rise

saluted the team in lights Monday with the words: ”VCU GO

RAMS!”

”It’s incredible, just incredible,” he said. ”I don’t think

even Kentucky can stop them.”

Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones, who came from Philadelphia to

attend Virginia Union University, said the Rams’ success can only

be good for his city of approximately 200,000. It was also rooting

for the University of Richmond, which made it to the round of

16.

”We’re riding the wave and we’re really excited about the

national attention,” Jones said. ”People need to know that

Richmond is a city on the rise, that we’re up and coming.

Thirty-three-thousand students can’t be wrong.”

Jones said he planned on attending the Final Four.

”How can you be the mayor of Hoopstown and not go to Houston?”

he asked.