This fall marks the first season that the football players on the current University of Richmond roster were not members of the national championship team, but the effects of the 2008 win are stronger now than they were five years ago.
Before quarterback Eric Ward led the Spiders to their big win, the football program did not have a great reputation. The future champion almost didn’t join Richmond’s team.
“I think the best word to describe the football team was inconsistent,” Ward said. “I hadn’t really even considered Richmond, but my parents were really big on the academics, so that’s where I ended up.”
When Richmond lost to Appalachian State University in the FCS semifinal in 2007, it became clear that the football culture was going through monumental changes.
Current tight ends coach Bill Polin remembers watching the semifinal game on television before he took a coaching job at Richmond.
“Those guys got a taste, but it was a bad taste of losing that late in the season,” Polin said. “They wanted to do whatever they could to take the next step. That team also faced a lot of adversity because in 2008 there were coaching changes.”
Will Healy, backup quarterback and fifth-year senior captain in 2008, remembers a players-only meeting that took place the day that head coach Dave Clawson left for Tennessee in 2008.
“There was a group of seniors that got up and simply said, ‘We’re going to win a national championship,’ and it was a big deal,” Healy said. “We knew that we had what it would take, and we fully believed.”
That’s when the Richmond football program made the run.
“Coach London came in and was a family-oriented coach, and we continued to strengthen our relationships through all types of adversity,” Healy said. “We had two or three leaders at each position, and we continued to find ways to win games.”
“Even when we won the whole thing, of course it was exciting,” Ward said, “but you don’t really sit back and realize the significance of what we accomplished until years down the line. It’s especially evident now.”
“It takes a lot of hard work and dedication just to win a single game,” Ward said. “More focus and effort than many realize, and to do it for an entire season just means all the effort and hard work intensifies.”
“I think something that really helped us was understanding the difference between being good and great,” Healy said. “We always tried to talk to the freshman and explain that success doesn’t happen easily, and it has a lot to do with spring and summer.”
Healy and Ward both expressed hope that they left behind an example of how to work hard throughout the year and a football team that is hungry for another winning title.
Junior captain and offensive lineman Austin Gund wasn’t at Richmond for the national championship, but the 2008 season made his decision to come to Richmond an easy one and increased his appetite to win.
“Richmond was the best combo of academics and athletics,” Gund said. “I knew if I came to Richmond, I would be playing in a program with a history of conference and national championships.”
Coach Polin said that the 2008 team changed the culture because they raised the expectations for Richmond football. “Even when Coach Rocco came on board in January 2011, I think that’s something that attracted him to the job was that we had won a national title not too long ago,” Polin said.
“When you look at the best academic schools in the country, whether they’re FBS or FCS,” Polin said, “it’s rare that those schools have really competed for a national championship. Richmond is a special place.”
The Richmond football program may be five years removed from a national championship, but winning is still the priority.
“After the last 3-8 season we knew we had to get back to a culture of winning,” Gund said. “And one of the first things Coach Rocco did when he got here was to help us focus on winning the day.”
“Winning the day might mean getting up and going to class and getting a good grade on a test, and then going to practice and having a good practice,” Gund said. “Of course the national championship is still in the back of our minds, but after the way last season finished, we have something to prove.”
Richmond concluded the 2012 season by winning a share of the conference title, along with three other teams in the Colonial Athletic Association, but was left out of the playoffs.
“What I’ve seen from this year’s team,” Polin said, “is that they are really focused on their business and what is coming up.”
“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Gund said. “We are out to prove that we are the best and take back the respect that we deserve.”
Contact Reporter Lauren Shute at firstname.lastname@example.org