The Richmond Spiders’ Patriot League Tale, Part One: Divisional Splits Lead to SoCon Divorce

BETHLEHEM, PA – On May 14th, 2024, the Richmond Spiders announced they were leaving the CAA and joining the Patriot League in football.

To Richmond fans, Patriot League followers and FCS Nation, this was a pretty big announcement, even if for many who follow college sports, it may not have been a big deal in the news cycle, especially due to what was to come that would quickly dwarf it – the proposed settlement of House vs. NCAA.

The more I looked at the move by Richmond to the Patriot League, the more I saw the overall tale of not just one college football program, but that of a long athletics program journey spanning the entire modern history of Division I athletics.

At a time when it feels like Division I as we know it might be dying, it feels timely to take a look back.

Richmond’s tale in particular is a very interesting one.

In 2025, no other institution will have its combination of history, with roots in the SoCon, helping develop a brand-new sports conference for survival, helping prop up a nearly-dead football conference to preserve their football Rivalry, wading into big-time college basketball, and ultimately seeing its FCS football team in the Patriot League, after a long and winding road from the SoCon.

When I started researching Richmond and what their program was about, I started to realize something – if you understand the journey of Richmond, you understand the journey of any number of medium-sized sports programs. The journey spans the entire modern era of college sports, and it demonstrates both what was lost, and what medium-sized athletics programs have needed to do to survive.

Richmond has been a master at surviving – they have been, and continue to be, the spider that cannot be stomped. In this series, you’ll see why.

Part I – The Late 1960s and Early 1970s

In 1973, all the major sportswriters at the time could only agree on one thing, for the most part: Without major action, collegiate sports would be finished.

The reasons why the NCAA decided to reform into different divisions was complicated.

Over the 1950s and the advent of sports on television, the NCAA had been growing in leaps and bounds. It was a golden era – college football was winning over new people and markets, thanks to television, and the regional monopolies on sports entertainment ensured good crowds. In those days, there were few rules on sports and conference membership, and most schools were for all practical purposes independent.

Broadcasters wanted to spend money to show live sports – and the NCAA, which controlled all of the broadcast rights to a very popular product, was happy to oblige.

But with the explosion of popularity of college basketball (not coincidentally happening at the same time as increasing interest in betting activity on college basketball), in the 1950s NCAA executive director Walter Byers tried to make the first motions towards sorting schools through designations like “College division” and “University division”, both of which would have their own national men’s basketball tournament.

Some large athletic conferences at that time had organized in either academic (Ivy League, Big 10) or Jim Crow (SEC, Southwest) lines, but most athletic conferences at that time were at best loose confederations, largely dictated by region and, at times, pragmatism.

That was how the University of Richmond, and their arch-rivals, William & Mary, operated in the 1960s and 1970s, and thrived.

The Spiders and Indians (as William & Mary was then known) were in the Southern Conference, or SoCon. Their conferencemates were Davidson, VMI, The Citadel, and East Carolina in a compact, regional conference in both football and basketball.

Richmond and William & Mary were in the “University Division” of the NCAA, the same division as Penn State, UCLA, and Wisconsin, even though their programs were much smaller that the larger schools in terms of ambition or money generation. Most importantly, though, the SoCon still had an autobid to the more prestigious “University Tournament” in basketball.

In football, Richmond played at City Stadium in Richmond. Built in 1929, it could host up to 22,000 fans but normally would host more like 16,000 or so. Even with games against former SoCon schools North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia Tech (then known as VPI) at home, the games rarely got past 20,000 in attendance. (Cary Field, William & Mary’s on-campus home field, was marginally smaller but had similar attendance numbers.)

In 1968, the Spiders, only three years removed from a winless season, ended up in the Tangerine Bowl against the heavily favored undefeated Ohio U. Bobcats. The 7-2 Spiders, led by QB Buster O’Brien and future NFL WR Walker Gillette, would upset the Bobcats 49-42 in Orlando in one of the proudest moments in Spider football history.

In 1970, coached by second year head coach Lou Holtz, William & Mary, with a 5-7 record, were SoCon champions and lost to Toledo in the Tangerine Bowl. (And In 1971, coached by sixth year head coach Frank Jones, Richmond, with a 5-6 record, brought Richmond back to the Tangerine Bowl, this time losing to Toledo.)

In short, William & Mary and Richmond had it pretty good in this era. In an environment when in not-too-distant history they counted schools like Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Virginia Tech as peers in the SoCon, they were frequent home opposition for both football and men’s basketball, even after they left the conference. That was on top of several nearby rivalries in the SoCon, and of course had their arch-rivalry against each other, the most played college football Rivalry south of the Mason/Dixon line.

Bowls, mostly full stadiums, playing teams like Duke and North Carolina. Perfect.

So what happened?

The NCAA Divides

Storm clouds we on the horizon of college sports that would put pressure on the niche Richmond had carved out for itself.

By the 1970s, with membership nearing 700 schools – and growing fast – the need for the NCAA to create some order nationally was pretty apparent.

The disparity between, say, MIT and UCLA seemed much more vast than the mere labels “College Division” and “University Division” and a basketball tournament. On that point there seemed to be broad agreement, even among the schools of the SoCon.

But the answer to the question “what college sports should look like?” had a lot of different answers. There was serious disagreement as to how college athletics programs should look like, and little agreement on the fundamental values of what a “University” division school should be and a “College” division school would be.

And the SoCon’s composition at that time was unique – two small Southern military colleges, a large growing public University in East Carolina, an emerging public University in Appalachian State, several high-academic private schools in Furman and Davidson, and Richmond and William and Mary, who also didn’t neatly fit the profile of any of these schools at the time.

Competitively, in football especially, they had a lot in common, yet as institutions of higher learning they couldn’t have been more different. Clarity wasn’t required for conference membership back then. But the NCAA and its membership were starting to demand clarity.

A special convention, the first of its kind in NCAA history, was scheduled to be convened in August 1973, and a contentious pre-meeting in January of the membership happened to discuss it. In this January meeting, the “major schools” of the Council made their proposal about how the schools would be broken down in divisions. The “smaller schools” were furious.

The “major schools” had hinted at a threat to the broader NCAA membership – either we make our own division, based on “major football”, or we’ll just leave.

They were eager to set rules scholarship limits in football – to economize, they claimed – and wanted the autonomy to make rules on matters of scholarships. Additionally, they had a specific vision of the role they wanted college athletics to play on their campus. They wanted freshmen to be able to play, they wanted a lower academic eligibility for membership, and most importantly they didn’t want the smaller schools telling them that they couldn’t or shouldn’t do it.

As Darrell Royal, Texas football coach once said, “Texas doesn’t want Hofstra telling it what to do, and vice versa.” It succinctly summarizes the mood at the time.

From the Ivy League and a significant number of mostly Northeastern-based private institutions, there was another, different vision of college athletics — against freshman eligibility, dead set against lower academic standards for athletes, and dead set against athletic scholarships. Codified by the Ivy League in 1948, this shared set of “Ivy Agreement” values was a powerful influence on their thinking. It was very important to them that the “major college” football schools didn’t tell them who to admit to their schools.

This “small school” group, including the Ivies, fought and won some battles at the meeting, which didn’t make the bigger football conferences happy.

They fought for the minimum GPA for athletics eligibility to be 2.0. A few years before, the NCAA, at the behest of the power schools, had instituted a 1.6 minimum GPA for athletes. On principle the Ivy League objected. They were never going to admit anyone with a GPA that low, and they hated the idea that the NCAA of setting GPA floors for their schools, setting up their athletes for potential academic failure. In the end, the power schools relented, and the minimum GPA was 2.0.

Even with that concession, a significant number of schools of this “Ivy contingent”, mostly smaller private schools, seemed very eager to define themselves away from the growing football powers as well. When the NCAA convention proposed to split their membership into two formal divisions, with specific rules for membership, a significant subset argued that it wasn’t enough. If the power conferences wanted autonomy, they wanted autonomy, too, in their own division to set rules on no scholarships and higher GPA standards. Put another way, they didn’t want to be told what to do by the major football schools.

From that, they chose themselves to create what ultimately became non-scholarship Division III, again against the wishes of the power football conferences.

Among the scholarship schools, a huge battle ensued over a related new idea – defining a number of scholarships available for athletes per team.

“The scholarship limitation is an attempt to economize at the major football and basketball powers, where some colleges have as many as 200 football scholarships at one time,” Gordon S. White Jr. of The New York Times noted in 1973. “Prior to this rule the Big Eight Conference schools had no limitation on the number of football grants-in-aid they could award.”

Critically, this lack of rules gave a huge advantage to football independents. If conferences applied their own scholarship limitations, there would be nothing stopping major independents at that time from offering no limit of four-year scholarships. Florida State and Virginia Tech were two such schools.

Unlike the Ivy League, Richmond and William & Mary weren’t opposed to scholarships on principle. But they also weren’t offering 200 scholarships to their football team either, like Virginia Tech and other potential visitors to Richmond Stadium. They were offering less than half that number.

In fact. Richmond and William & Mary were hardly in the Ivy League camp. Seeing themselves as two of the mythical “Big Five” Virginia schools – Virginia, VMI and Virginia Tech were the others – they were also not far removed from sharing a conference with some of their former SoCon schools that had many scholarships, and they were happy to think of them as peers. Viriginia Tech had only left the SoCon in 1965 to compete as a Southern Independent; in 1968, West Virginia did the same.

Even deep into the 1960s, Navy scheduled William & Mary, and Virginia Tech scheduled Richmond in football, and were often out-of-conference opponents of ACC schools of the time. Playing other “major football” schools was a part of their DNA back then.

“Under the new organization plan, the 126 colleges rated major football institutions must be in Division I in all sports,” The New York Times reported. “The other 541 colleges have a month in which to declare their preferred division for all sports other than football. Any of those 541 playing football will be placed in Division II or III in football by the NCAA College Football Committee.”

Not enough has been made about the fact that even at this time, all the schools were divided between major football institutions and not, and the path for defining Division I was made significantly easier for this minority of 126 out of the 667 institutions.

Richmond’s board of trustees saw this brand new landscape with three divisions called Division I, Division II and Division III, and ultimately decided shortly thereafter that they should leave the SoCon – leaving their football peers and their longtime football conference. It was a seismic decision.

Why is that?

A SoCon Divorce

“There was a rather bland, perfunctory sentence at the very bottom of a release from the University of Richmond news bureau yesterday afternoon,” Bill Millsaps of The Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote back in 1975. “[It read] ‘The trustees also voted to withdraw from the Southern Conference and to assume an independent status.’ Thus, with 16 words, did the University of Richmond reveal its intentions to sever its ties with an athletic association in which it has held membership since 1936.”

Occurring only a few years after the official NCAA split into divisions, why did UR do it, and what was their plan?

Looming over everything was college basketball. While the rules were not totally set for the divisions yet, the importance of preserving access to the Division I men’s basketball tournament, was paramount, and it’s likely the Richmond board of trustees had a pretty good idea where things were headed.

It certainly seemed quite possible at the time that the NCAA splitting into divisions might bump the SoCon to Division II. The split to Division I had only happened a few years before, and if the other members Division I decided that the schools of the SoCon were not Division I, they might set up rules so that the SoCon might lose its Division I status and thus lose its access to the basketball tournament.

In the eyes of the NCAA, the Spiders were playing “major college” football against teams like Navy, Virginia and some ACC schools. It is clear that UR’s board of trustees wanted to remain doing so. That was an advantage.

Their football home, Richmond Stadium, was the source of both great benefit and frustration to the Spider program, and it loomed over their decision, too, no doubt.

With few collegiate rules on conferences or affiliations in the 1950s, City Stadium allowed Richmond to have a fairly decent sized venue to conduct their games – a venue they didn’t need to manage or finance. That job was up to the Richmond City Council.

It was currently big enough to allow Richmond to get those home games – for now – against Virginia Tech and Navy. But for how long?

“Richmond was interested in going major independent when they left the SoCon,” current Richmond Times-Dispatch writer and UR chronicler John O’Connor told me.

By the 1970s, college athletics had changed, and Richmond’s City Stadium had vastly fallen behind with the times. And as a sports facility, it desperately needed renovation to become more modern.

In 1974, after hosting the Cherry Blossom music festival, there was a violent riot at City Stadium afterwards with a clash between police and concertgoers, a big black eye for the area and not helping its reputation as a venue. It couldn’t have helped Richmond recruit as a college town, either.

If the Richmond Spiders wanted to dream big in football – and keep up – they’d need to talk to the City Council and put plans for renovation and expansion for City Stadium up for a vote.

“UR could not make enough money playing some conference schools it has to play as a [SoCon] member, Millsaps’ article continued. “For UR, continued membership proved to be an image, as well as a financial, liability. UR president Dr. E. Bruce Heilman, who is committed to high-quality athletics no matter what his critics say, and athletic director Clyde Biggers recognized the problem and took direct action.”

The stadium problem, however, was a victim of circular logic. With an aging, old stadium, with 1933 sight lines far away from the action, perhaps fewer fans would watch the games, and since fewer fans watched the games, it was used as justification to not expand and modernize.

“In that case,” the article continued, “a legitimate question would be: ‘Why spend all that city tax money to expand and improve [City] stadium when Richmond can’t fill the seats we have now?'”

New addition Appalachian State, with their new football team and brand-new 12.000 seat artificial turf stadium, certainly wouldn’t be a major college football team in a hurry, so they didn’t seem like a school that would sell out the stadium. Furman and The Citadel didn’t exactly pack Richmond Stadium when they came, either. Neither did Davidson.

Even in the early 1970s, the perceived economics of college football programs centered on attendance and ticket revenue at the gate, but in Richmond’s case it was paramount. Rather than an arbitrary metric, they needed to be able to make a political case to expand the stadium, whereas countless other schools who owned the land and facilities didn’t really need to. Virginia Tech took five years to build new 35,000 seat Lane stadium on campus by 1969, replacing old 17,000 seat Miles Stadium. Relatively speaking, that was way easier than Richmond’s challenge.

And with the NCAA already fixated on attendance, it effectively rewarded schools that could simply find a deep-pocketed donor to build a palace and say, effectively, “if you build it, they will come.” Richmond couldn’t simply do that at that time.

It’s important to note, too, that it was also possible – even advantageous – for a team with major independent football to not have an all-sports conference back in 1973, thanks to an entity called the ECAC.

The ECAC was a loose organization of schools, predominantly in the Northeast, that comprised of both College and University division institutions in a variety of sports. Devised before the Division I split, it counted as members many schools that didn’t have “major football” or football at all. And by the 1970s, it had migrated South and organized into divisions.

In 1975, the NCAA decided to expand the Division I men’s basketball tournament to 32 teams, expanding the number of at-large teams invited. The ECAC took advantage – as a sprawling enormous conference of more than 30 schools, they conducted regional “tournaments” to determine “champions” for autobid access to the NCAA University Tournament.

The ECAC comprised of basketball powerhouses like Georgetown and Villanova. They were members, but also institutions like Virgnia Tech were members too, along with some other schools with independent “major football”. Virginia Tech could operate their football team without scholarship limits, and still have the benefits of NCAA men’s basketball Tournament access.

So the Richmond board of trustees saw this as an opportunity.

They could leave the SoCon, compete in the ECAC for continued access to the NCAA Tournament, and compete as a “major football” program against “peer” schools like Virginia and Virginia Tech, setting up a possibility down the line of maybe getting (unlikely) an ACC invite or (more likely) forming a new conference with other “Southern Independents”.

Another possibility was, in the future, forming a conference based on basketball.

“There is currently some strong talk,” the report noted, “that Duquesne, Pitt, Penn State, Villanova, Syracuse and George Washington are interested in forming, with three other teams, an Eastern basketball conference.” The implication was that Richmond might be one of the names this new conference might be considering. This would preserve Richmond’s access to the NCAA Tournament.

So Richmond’s choice to leave the SoCon was complicated. They chose to risk their relationship with their football Rivals, William & Mary, and other regional SoCon rivals in order to protect both their football and men’s college basketball programs. The fact was they had existing relationships with in-state and nearby state “major college” schools they wanted to preserve, if possible. Looming over everything was seeing Virginia Tech go in the 1960s from a small, fellow SoCon school to “jumping in front of them in line” in terms of access to a major conference like the ACC.

They saw the future of the SoCon as being in deep trouble, with a bunch of schools that they saw that weren’t as big as them or like them.

So they took a chance, and left. They had a place to go – the ECAC – to compete in men’s basketball. And being a major independent in football, especially in the South in ACC and Major Southern Independent territory, wasn’t a bad deal at all for schools at the time. There was a place for Richmond to park their program, compete for big championships, and try to figure out the future.

A year later, William & Mary, looking at the remaining schools in the SoCon, followed them.

It was the beginning of Richmond’s and William & Mary’s respective journeys – the beginning of carving out their niche in Division I, though they didn’t realize it at the time.