The Richmond Spiders’ Patriot League Tale, Part Three: The Birth of Richmond’s I-AA Home

(This is Part Three of my series detailing the Richmond Spiders’ journey to the Patriot League. You can read part one here, which describes Richmond’s decision to leave the SoCon shortly after the NCAA split into Divisions I, II, and III, and you can read part two here, which describes how Richmond navigated Division I’s split into I-A and I-AA)

BETHLEHEM, PA – Like many things in the history of the NCAA, the survival of the Yankee Conference a a football-only construct was an accident.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the largest schools were at war with the NCAA. Fed up with fending off proposals to abolish scholarships and sharing half the TV money with the vast majority of the NCAA’s membership, the cartel inside the NCAA known as the College Football Association, or CFA, was throwing their weight around, trying to effect change.

The Yankee Conference, under strain already, wasn’t helped at all when the NCAA split into divisions I, II and III.

But it didn’t kill it.

Forcing the NCAA to split into divisions wasn’t enough for the CFA. Having football additionally split into I-A and I-AA subdivisions to give their schools and some others a larger share of the long term TV money wasn’t enough for the CFA. They would not be satisfied unless membership to I-A would essentially be just them – which was their original plan.

The CFA’s greed was not a good thing for the Yankee Conference, but it didn’t kill it. In fact, unbeknownst to them, it would inadvertently lead to its survival.

“Membership” to the CFA were rules devised by the CFA to define themselves – football programs with home stadiums with a capacity of 30,000 or more, having averaged 17,000 once in the last four years (a rule that they themselves changed to let in schools they wanted), or averaged 20,000 home and away for four consecutive years (another change added by the members of the CFA to allow some schools in that they wanted).

They were completely arbitrary numbers, chosen by athletic directors and coaches at the time, defined only to define themselves as worthy of the TV money.

None of the Yankee Conference’s football-playing schools had any prayer of meeting this threshold. Richmond and William & Mary didn’t either. Yet that too didn’t kill the Yankee Conference..

In 1986, Richmond would end up joining the Yankee Conference in football. And in a way, it was a match made in heaven – an “expendable” conference for an “expendable” football program, in the CFA’s eyes.

The CFA could not stamp either the Spiders or the Yankee Conference out of existence, despite their best efforts. And as fortune may have it, that ended up, against all possible odds, being a good thing.

Courtesy Seacoast Online

The Yankee Conference, Before Divisions

Originally founded by six Northeast-based land grant colleges, UConn, UMass, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, the Yankee Conference competed in a variety of sports in what was then called the “College Division” of the NCAA, loosely based on what is now Division II today.

Like the SoCon, home of Richmond and William & Mary in the early 1970s, it provided a regional place to compete in a variety of sports locally. It was the home of local Rivalries in a variety of sports.

At its core the Yankee Conference was a small school, all-sports conference, but the main, unifying reason for its existence was for the land grant colleges of the Northeast to be able to play small college football in a regional footprint to preserve their Rivalries.

Like the SoCon, the Yankee Conference had critical elements to it in terms of basketball access, but in reality it was football first.

And like the SoCon, the Yankee Conference’s existence in the world of college athletics was threatened by the CFA’s efforts to define schools into divisions.

The Yankee Conference had a problem once the the NCAA split into divisions. Once the dust had settled, all of their sports were considered Division I – except football, which was considered Division II.

Boston University, and their outspoken President John Silber, may have been the reason.

Dr. John R. Silber earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale, where he said that he studied the writings of Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that reason is the source of morality, and that aesthetics arises from a faculty of disinterested judgment, around which apparently Silber built his ethical life.

Almost immediately after becoming Boston University’s President in 1970, he began cutting sports programs. In 1971, the same year BU joined the Yankee Conference, he pulled the plug on BU’s baseball, men’s golf and rifle programs. Always one to be known for disinterested judgement, he was quoted in the AP article as the reasoning of “increasing athletics costs” to justify the cuts. (AP never challenged the numbers.)

Soon afterwards there were stunts like his “disinterested” proposal in 1972 for Yankee Conference schools to “Bench the Coach”, which made the rounds in papers all over the country.

“I have recommended to the presidents of the Yankee Conference that we adopt a rule in our conference that coaches be prohibited from engaging in contact with their teams during the playing of the game,” he was quoted as saying, undoubtedly disinterestedly. “It would be highly desirable in my opinion to restore the position of quarterback to its former dignity and turn the game over to the students.”

You can bet the larger state schools, especially Texas, where Silber was forced out before taking the Boston university job, took notice. As if to underscore the trolling attempt, the article mentioned Texas head coach Darrell Royal by name.

For someone engaged in disinterested judgement, he also sure seemed eager to put his name further in the papers with the following statement: “There seems to be no reasonable educational purpose to providing more financial aid for athletes than for students without athletic interests… Private schools like Boston University just can’t afford to subsidize professional football. We’re a school that has lost millions of dollars trying to supply the pros with players. It was a futile effort.”

Saying that Boston University had “lost millions” and was “trying to supply” the NFL “with players” was a risible concept. Like other Yankee Conference programs, BU had football players on scholarship which allowed them to attend Boston University, and like most college or university level programs, the vast majority of the “loss” was scholarship aid. Dropping the football program would simply mean the aid for the student-athletes would be coming from somewhere else. Dropping athletic scholarship aid was not new revenue for the school.

Additionally, BU was hardly an NFL pipeline. Including 1970, BU had a grand total of eight football student-athletes drafted into either the NFL or AFL, four of whom lasted more than two years as professionals.

That was in part due to the fact that all football players had to go through the same financial aid formula as the rest of the students to determine their aid, essentially meaning they did not offer athletic scholarships in any sport, but most notably football. (This was a practice that pre-dated John Silber at BU, and hockey had way around the restrictions.) This didn’t mean Boston University got bad athletes, only that it was more difficult to recruit at Boston University.

Silber had, charitably, a complicated relationship with college football, but it’s some of these these poisonous ideas and arguments from Silber that permeated the discourse around college athletics even decades after his death that were lasting. The idea that dropping a football program is a “money saver” and a football program’s only value to the school is that it’s a “revenue generator” permeated the discourse back in the 1970s, and it continues today.

For the overall health of the Yankee Conference, Silber’s narcissism and bloviating couldn’t have come at a worse time.

In 1973, the NCAA was planning a special convention to determine how to separate the schools into divisions. But President Silber – disinterestedly, no doubt – kept his name in the papers.

“Some schools,” Dr. Silber alleged, without documentation to The LA Times, “have dropped 10 million dollars a year on farm teams for the pros. Other teams have dropped less ambitions amounts, maybe 2 to 3 million dollars. It’s important for the American public to remember that Oxford and Cambridge have never had football teams.”

In The Boston Globe, he took particular relish in trolling UMass in particular.

“The head coach at UMass enjoyed writing for the Globe about how we treated our team badly because we drove them up by bus just before the game and we didn’t take care of them overnight in a hotel and feed them steaks,” Silber trolled, disinterestedly. “Well, we don’t claim that we’re as well off as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and that we can spend what resources we have that way. We thought that if we carried the boys up on an hour and a half bus ride the morning of the game, let them get out and get good exercise, than that’s good enough. We can’t justify these expenses of overnight hotels and parties and high living and transportation that maybe a more wealthy school like [UMass] can. And maybe the taxpayers of Massachusetts want to spend their money that way. We joined the Yankee Conference on the assumption that we were going to compete together on a limited basis so that the game would be exciting.”

At about the same time, unbeknownst to the wider world, Silber delivered a recommendation for Boston University to discontinue their football program. The board of trustees did not follow his recommendation.

Courtesy Gridiron Garb

NCAA’s Split Into Divisions Creates a Yankee Rift

In August of 1973, the NCAA voted to separate itself into Divisions I, II and III.

When conferences could be University Division in, say, basketball and College Division in football, it wasn’t a big deal. The Yankee Conference had been considered a “College Division” conference in football since 1965 and the conference soldiered on.

They would get the occasional game on regional TV – UMass appeared in the Boardwalk Bowl in 1972 in the College Division Playoffs – and there was no pressure to be anything more than that.

But once the precursor to the CFA forced the NCAA to formally break into divisions, it was clear this reality wasn’t going to be allowed to exist for much longer.

“Address yourselves to just what direction UMass football should take,” an open letter to UMass’ Chancellor read back in 1974. “The anticipated dropping of football by the University of Vermont next month will put the entire Yankee Conference into question.”

In 1974, rumors were swirling around the University of Vermont that they were going to cut football.

“Due to an allocation cut by the state Legislature, the university must trim the budget by approximately $1 million,” The Rutland Herald reported. “The Vermont football program costs about $250,000 annually. This includes the salaries of coaches, travel, equipment and maintenance of Centennial Field, and financial aid to players. Vermont spends less in scholarship aid than any Yankee Conference rival.”

Vermont’s reasons for dropping football were complicated, but had as its root the state of Vermont’s decision not to support higher education. Thanks to the reduction of the state grant, the University of Vermont was facing a massive budget shortfall that threatened the entire school, including athletics.

The fact that the Catamounts were historically not a successful program in the Yankee Conference, and the fact that Vermont didn’t support football scholarships as much as the other members, put their program squarely in the crosshairs.

Vermont also started using Silber’s reasoning for cutting sports at BU – cost cutting.

Looming over all athletics decision making in 1973 was a new piece of legislation called Title IX, which stated simply that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

It was clear that athletics programs at all levels of education were going to be required to offer women’s athletic programs and athletic opportunities, and that it would cost something.

But here it was being used more as an excuse, a future line item in the ledger that could be anything from tens of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars.

Nowhere was Vermont or BU pressed on how cutting football might help the schools meet those requirements later by removing athletic and educational opportunities from football players.

Whatever Vermont’s decision would be, it would have a big impact on both the Catamount athletics program and the Yankee Conference, none of it good for either party.

But it did demonstrate some of the fissures of the original Yankee Conference.

Specifically, it was putting pressure on UConn and UMass to leave.

“There has been some movement, especially by the University of Connecticut, to play Division One [sic] football,” the UMass open letter continued. “Right now, UConn and UMass and the Yankee Conference are Division Two in the eyes of the NCAA.”

UMass, along with BU, were far and away the biggest schools in the conference, with UConn not far behind. New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island were much smaller, and had much smaller ambitions, and Vermont was the smallest of all. Additionally, BU, while being a large in terms of enrollment, was a private school whose tuition costs were much larger than the other state institutions, and their position on athletic aid showed that they had different priorities.

Critically, though, the majority wanted to still compete in college football. Rhode Island and Brown played in the Governor’s Cup every year. While hockey was still an enormous focus at New Hampshire and Maine, they strongly valued their football Rivalry.

Looming over everything, too, was Boston College.

By all accounts Boston College had made a firm commitment to “Division One” football. When the CFA would form officially in 1977, they would be one of its invited members.

“Two years ago,” the open letter continues, “UMass beat BC 28-7. When the UMass recruiters went out to talk with players they had a list of 15 they really wanted. [UMass only budgeted for 15 football scholarships per class at that time.] BC was interested in the same 15. Despite the UMass victory, BC wound up with all 15.”

Similar to Richmond and William & Mary, who recruited against Virginia and Virginia Tech in region, UMass and the other Yankee Conference schools recruited against Boston College, and it was very difficult and would only get worse with the divisional split. In order to compete, many felt they couldn’t stay in the lower division.

As much of a struggle UMass had with recruiting, Boston University’s challenges were even more stark since they were operating under something called the “Princeton Formula”. BU would send the athlete’s financial information to Princeton, and then Princeton writes them back to tell them how much financial aid would be available to them. UMass at least had a limited number of scholarships available.

“You cannot stir people up by playing New Hampshires [sic] and Maines [sic] and Vermonts [sic] and Rhode Islands [sic],” the open letter said, “and yet [they] are not anxious to alter their scheduling and philosophy and head toward and upgrading of football teams on their schedules. The Yankee Conference seems to be very ill. To save its individual members, it may be necessary to destroy its whole.”

The Yankee Conference Falls Apart

In 1974, Vermont would officially drop football.

“This despite the fact that Vermont, heading for its best football record since 1966, has attracted a record home attendance,” Ernie Roberts of The Boston Globe reported, which was 32,000 for five home games and a sellout of its 3,500 student ticket books “for the first time in history.”

Alumni groups were upset, and some, like Little All America halfback Bob Mitchell, were trying to lobby the school to save the sport. But they felt that the decision was made already, and their effort had the feeling of a last-minute Hail Mary. (“This could start a chain reaction among other colleges where football is costing a lot of bucks,” Roberts reported an anonymous source saying. “How long will (Dr. John) Silber keep football at BU now?”)

While Vermont’s pullout wasn’t the death blow to the Yankee Conference, things were clearly not well.

Some schools, like UConn, chafed at something called the ’80 formula,’ which was referenced in The Boston Globe. It stated that it was a Yankee Conference rule that the number of players on scholarship in football and basketball on scholarship was limited to 80, a long-standing rule for competitiveness that predated 1970.

Like Richmond, William & Mary and a lot of other mid-sized schools, UMass and UConn had no interest in non-scholarship football.

“When Vermont dropped football,” UConn AD John Toner was reported to have written to his Yankee Conference cohorts, “it got everybody thinking. What’s it all about? People in Connecticut are disenchanted. They ask, ‘What good does the conference do you? How important is it? What are we clinging to?'”

Vermont, by dropping football and baseball the prior year, meant the Yankee Conference lost its automatic bid in baseball. That, along with their Division II designation in football, was a major problem.

“Some of us wonder,” Toner said, “why those schools who flourish in sports other than the conference sports (e.g. hockey at UNH, Maine, BU and Vermont) should continue to make the regulations for football and basketball. When a school gives up a sport, how important is it to that school?”

A more direct threat to the conference would emerge two years later.

In 1976, under threat of a new basketball-only entity called the “Eastern Collegiate Basketball League” that was looking to poach big-time basketball programs, the leadership at the Yankee Conference made a momentous move that would at once destabilize the conference but also save it.

UMass, UConn and Rhode Island wanted desperately to remain Division I in basketball, but their Yankee Conference affiliation might make this difficult in the future.

This was no idle concern. “Dr. J” Julius Erving was a 1970 graduate from UMass, and the Minutemen had dominated the Yankee Conference in basketball. They had every reason to want to be at whatever national championship-level of college basketball there would be, and every week in the NBA in the 1970s, Dr. J would be a fresh reminder of why.

The ECBL would be an elite Division I basketball league, and Division I league designed for deep NCAA Tournament runs – exactly the sort of conference that UConn and UMass wanted to preserve their Division I basketball status

But they still wanted to compete regionally in the Yankee Conference in all their other sports, notably football. None of these other schools wanted to do what the University of Vermont did. UConn and UMass, at least, had national ambitions.

As a result of all of these competing forces, the leadership of the Yankee Conference allowed each school to pick and choose what sports they wanted to remain affiliated with, effectively disbanding the ’80 rule’.

The end result was that the Yankee Conference would sort-of disband as an all-sports conference.

It didn’t happen right away. In 1978, UMass left in basketball for the ECBL, but remained in all other sports. The ECBL started out as a basketball-only conference, but soon had plans for sponsoring other sports – as it was by design.

“Under NCAA rules, a conference is eligible for its champion to get a bid to the NCAA basketball tournament only if the conference has championships in five sports other than basketball,” Milton Cole of The Daily Hampshire-Gazette reported. “That means the new conferences are setting up championships in wrestling, golf, swimming, tennis, and cross-country, and all that is taking away from Yankee Conference championships in the same areas.”

(Later, a similar type of basketball-first construct called the Big East would form, but the ECBL was one of its trailblazing forebears.)

The emergence of basketball, and its national and monetary importance, made it imperative for schools with any hope of a national footprint to be Division I, not Division II. And as TV money started to corrupt the structure, in both football and basketball, stakes were raised and setups that made perfect sense regionally started to drift apart.

The fissures in the Yankee Conference became chasms once lines were drawn. But in one sport, there was some consensus.

And that decision to forge ahead through the 1978 season was a very consequential one for the Yankee Conference. It would ultimately lead to its survival – basically accidentally.

Nevada Football, 1978 – Courtest The Reno Gazette-Journal

The Yankee Conference Can’t Be Killed

Folks around collegiate athletics, for the most part, saw the Yankee Conference as a cautionary tale. They saw a regional conference gutted first by reclassifying football as Division II, the NCAA changing the rules so that institutions needed to be basically “all or nothing” to be in Division I, and then blown apart when Division I basketball became paramount to program survival. Allowing schools to pick and choose which sports to play in their conference was seen as its death.

Such a judgement really doesn’t really do the circumstances of the Yankee Conference justice. In reality, the split into divisions by the NCAA caused a great deal of the Yankee Conference’s problems, and all of the Yankee Conference’s moves seen in that light were attempts at pragmatism. The Yankee Conference, as it constituted in the 1960s, had no place in the modern NCAA, because the CFA changed the rules for that no longer to be so. So the conference was clearly in “adapt or die” territory.

In 1977, the largest schools of the NCAA formed a cartel called the College Football Association, or CFA. Their pressure group, with the help of basketball schools, allowed CFA to achieve their goal of Division I splitting into subdivisions – I-A and I-AA.

After the CFA further tried to consolidate their stranglehold over football, four Yankee conference members had a critical choice to make.

Thanks to the Ivy League, Colgate and William & Mary, the I-A “Ivy Amendment” was adopted by the NCAA by the slimmest of margins. It allowed schools with at least 12 varsity sports to qualify as I-A schools, bypassing venue and attendance requirements.

UMass, UConn, Rhode Island and Maine all qualified under the “Ivy Amendment” criteria.

Richmond and William & Mary’s former conference, the SoCon, elected as a group to remain I-A with the thought of all schools eventually qualifying for I-A by sponsoring 12 varsity sports, the “Ivy Amendment” way. None of the schools had any chance to qualify under the subjective venue or attendance rules.

The other schools of the Yankee Conference could have done the same – but chose differently.

As a group, the Yankee Conference chose to be in Division I-AA. They didn’t know it at the time, but this decision would save what was left of the conference.

Why did they do it? The reasons are complicated.

Unlike the SoCon, the Yankee Conference didn’t have a bowl tie-in at the time. That meant any postseason (or TV) opportunities for Yankee Conference schools would involve a massive run through a I-A schedule, possibly involving wins over Ivy League schools, whom were not a part of the bowl system.

As a member of Division II football, they were accustomed to a postseason playoff system already. Unlike the I-A bowl system, I-AA was going to determine its champion on the field in a playoff. This was what the Yankee Conference was already accustomed to.

There was also an odd quirk of the TV agreement for I-AA football – potentially, they’d get more TV appearances though the NCAA’s agreement with ABC.

In an effort to sweeten the pot for the non-CFA I-A schools to choose I-AA, a carrot was dangled – guaranteed regional broadcast slots on ABC would be brought to I-AA schools that originally were slotted for all of Division I.

And there was the matter of the playoffs. “A national championship tournament will kick another $750,000 or so into the television kitty,” the AP reported at the time. “ABC is under contract to telecast regionally at least two semifinal games and give nationwide exposure to the championship match.”

This was no small matter – and some other schools who were Division II in football took notice. Bucknell, Lafayette and Lehigh all agreed to declare themselves I-AA in I-AA’s inaugural year, and Bill Leckonby, Lehigh’s athletic director at the time, quoted TV revenue from I-AA as a factor in their choice. (What made this possible is that Buucknell, Lafayette and Lehigh were Division I in basketball, as they were members of the ECC, which was a Division I basketball conference. It was a critical lifeline that allowed a sizeable number of schools to become full Division I.)

Even better was the fact that most schools like Richmond, William & Mary and the SoCon schools were choosing I-A over I-AA, reducing the pool of potential televised games for the schools that did choose I-A. This financial incentive and potential TV exposure was one of the big reasons that the MEAC (from D-II) and SWAC (from I-A) were so keen in 1978 to join I-AA.

Overall, 37 schools ended up choosing I-AA. Five conferences – the SWAC, MEAC, OVC, Big Sky, and Yankee – and eight I-AA independents (including Bucknell, Florida A&M, Lafayette, Lehigh and Northeastern) would join forces in the first ever I-AA football season.

1978 – A Pivotal Year

The initial playoff bracket was determined regionally, with the East region getting one bid, the South and West with one bid each and one at-large selection.

It’s not clear if this was a part of the strategy for soldiering on in 1978, but the Yankee Conference would be the only full football conference representing the Eastern region, and only one of two (the Big Sky was the other) where all the conference’s members were I-AA members.

This put the Yankee Conference in a tremendous spot in 1978. Unless an independent from the East like Lehigh, Northeastern, or perhaps a MEAC team like Delaware State won nearly all their games, it seemed like the representative from the Yankee Conference would have best shot at the I-AA postseason – and, basically, a TV appearance. It wasn’t officially an autobid, but it was awful close.

A week before the end of the season, it was determined that it would be 7-3 UMass, who went through their Yankee Conference schedule undefeated, who would narrowly get past 7-3 Lehigh to get the East’s playoff spot. Lehigh’s narrow 21-18 loss to Maine the prior week sealed the deal, while UMass’ 40-6 thrashing of the Black Bears earlier in the year was the perfect argument to be the Eastern representative.

Lineman Bruce Kimball led a Minutemen offensive line that carved out 250 yards per game on the ground, including star running back Dennis Dent.

(UMass would thrash Boston College 27-0 the final week of the regular season, justifying their choice, while Lehigh’s 25-15 win over archrival Lafayette would conclude their season on a happy note.)

UMass would thus play Nevada, the Big Sky Champion, in the I-AA semifinal, on regional ABC TV. They would travel to Reno and would dominate the Wolfpack 44-21 and thus get more exposure in the inaugural I-AA Championship game, the Pioneer Bowl, the following week vs. Florida A&M. Dent’s 92 yard touchdown run vs. Nevada would be a real backbreaker in the Minutemen’s dominating win.

Though they would lose a thriller 35-28 to the Rattlers in Wichita Falls, Texas the following week, UMass’ season, their first under first-year head coach Bob Pickett, was an unqualified success. Two TV appearances, a conference title, and an especially satisfying blowout, shutout victory over Boston College game the Minutemen plenty to be proud of. That the prestigious Lambert Cup would be won by them, given to the best “small college” in the East, was the cherry on top.

Imagine the folks on the UMass board of trustees the spring of 1979. Dr. J is the talk of the NBA. Their athletic department got two large checks from the NCAA’s TV deal. Their Division I status is safe as a result of their daring move to the ECBL, which has recently rebranded itself as the Atlantic 10. And their football team was on ABC nationally in the Pioneer Bowl. The closest that 0-11 Boston College football players got to an ABC broadcast that year was if they turned the channel there by accident in their fraternity house while the Pioneer Bowl was happening.

And imagine the Yankee Conference meetings in 1979. As the rest of the conference fell apart, one lucrative part remained – the football portion of the conference. In the span of a year, the Yankee Conference in football went from a cautionary tale to the power to beat in the Eastern regional – without any serious competition. The Ivy League was gutting it out in I-A. Boston College was gutting it out in I-A. The rest of the Eastern independents were either scattered or I-A.

On Tuesday, November 20th, 1979, the remaining Yankee Conference athletic directors announced they were ending championship competition in all sports except football. As long as they had no desire to sponsor basketball, they were not required to disband. So they didn’t.

Thus, the Yankee Conference became, completely by accident, a single-sport I-AA football conference.

A Spider In the Yankee’s Court

It was the day before letter-of-intent day in 1982 when Richmond’s head football coach Dal Shealy heard the news.

“We were recruiting as a I-A school,” he recalled to The Roanoke Times, “and we had plans to sign almost 30 players. Then the NCAA contacted Chuck Boone and told him that if we didn’t comply with their order to drop to Division I-AA, our total athletic program would be penalized.”

In 1982, the schools of the CFA finally – mostly – finally got their way. Their dream to force out the Ivy League from I-A became a reality. They finally rallied enough support to revoke the “Ivy League Amendment” that gave a lifeline for a variety of schools to remain I-A, including the Ivy League, the SoCon, Richmond’s old conference, and Richmond and William & Mary.

It was the final act of nearly a decade’s worth of efforts to separate themselves from the rest of Division I. They couldn’t prevent the MAC from essentially lying about their attendance numbers to meet the subjective, CFA-devised attendance requirements of a 17,000 average and a 30,000 seat stadium, so the MAC, after a fierce battle and a forced reclassification, remained in I-A. But they forced the Ivy League and many of their high-academic ilk out like Colgate, Holy Cross, Richmond and William & Mary, so the CFA were satisfied.

And then overnight, Richmond’s recruiting was hammered. That’s because immediately, Richmond could not offer the same number of scholarships – yet still had a full I-A schedule in the fall.

“We had planned to sign 27 or 28, and now we couldn’t sign more than six or eight,” Shealy recalled.

Like everything else the CFA did to Division I athletics, zero consideration was made for schools like Richmond and William & Mary, who were basically caught in the middle. Both the Spiders and Indians had near-sellouts in their stadiums, and had the occasional neutral-site game to beef up their attendance numbers. But the fact remained that William & Mary didn’t want to expand their stadium to the 30,000 minimum I-A wanted, and Richmond couldn’t convince the city of Richmond to expand their city stadium, nor was it feasible to build a massive stadium on campus.

So Richmond suffered that fateful year they were forced to reclassify to I-AA.

“The Richmonds never were going to be a factor in challenging the Penn States,” athletic director Chuck Boone said. “The same schools were dominating that had dominated for years. The same people were on TV. But once the big boys got together to vote on things, I knew it would ultimately pass.”

Predictably, Richmond suffered, almost immediately. The Spiders went through an 0-10 season in 1982, getting walloped by Virginia Tech, VMI, and William and Mary.

But the bad times wouldn’t last. In fact, things turned around much faster than people might have thought.

“There was a lot of unrest about football here,” Boone said. “There was a lot of conversation with coaches, student-athletes, about the direction we might want to go (Division III, I-AA, or I-A). Now, we’ve made the commitment. We have a change of philosophy from a scheduling standpoint.”

One of the first things Boone apparently was looking for was getting out of independent football. The Yankee Conference, with its dominance in I-AA, was a logical choice.

“Our first option would have been a I-AA conference with all sports, but that wasn’t possible,” Boone said, curiously implying that the SoCon, then a I-AA conference, was not an option for the Spiders. “The Yankee Conference was the best football league for us. [Emphasis added.]”

Interestingly, Richmond found as soon as they dropped to I-AA they still played many I-A schools yearly, like Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and the occasional MAC school, like Bowling Green, some of them at City Stadium. And by 1984, Richmond made their first appearance in the I-AA playoffs, beating future conferencemate Boston University 35-33 in the first round. With success, fans returned to the levels with Richmond had good years in I-A.

Richmond went from a tough slog in I-A to thriving in I-AA. It took a while for alumni to accept the change, but the success they had in 1984 and 1985 helped the momentous decision for Richmond to join the Yankee Conference in football. They’d remain in the CAA for basketball in all other sports, but they’d have a real chance and a I-AA national championship from the Yankee Conference.

“Down deep, I think what the I-AA institutions reflect is what people would hope college athletics could be like as we move ahead, back to the drawing board from an emphasis standpoint, so to speak,” Boone said. “And I always did ask whether we could recruit what we needed to be successful in I-A, whether we were being fair to the football staff.”