Opinion — Unlikely Longwood has hoops world buzzing

Published 5:13 pm Friday, February 18, 2022

With the Hokies and ’Hoos scrambling just to get on the bubble for next month’s NCAA Tournament, we hoops fans should begin thinking about our rooting options in March Madness.

Don’t look now, but it might just be Longwood University that carries the banner for Virginia in the Big Dance.

The surprising Lancers sat atop the Big South Conference with two weeks to go in the regular season and, barring an unexpected slump, will go into the conference tournament in Charlotte as the favorite to claim the Big South’s automatic bid to March Madness.

I was back in my old stomping grounds of Farmville last week when Longwood hosted its first-ever live telecast on ESPN, a raucous 85-72 win over conference foe South Carolina-Upstate. Not an empty seat could be found 15 minutes before tipoff. A rowdy student section that would have made Cameron’s Crazies proud willed Longwood to the win, setting off a joyous celebration. Even the cerebral Taylor Reveley IV, Longwood’s president, was giving high-fives and hugs courtside.

It was quite the scene for this scribe. While crawling over Farmville Mayor David Whitus to find my seat, I half-joked that the last time I attended a Longwood game circa 2015, it was me, him and the pep band in the stands. I’m pretty sure the Lancers had more suspended players than wins that year.

Now, Longwood is playing to sellout crowds and grabbing national attention. Broadcasting great Dick Vitale, battling cancer, tweeted a shout-out to Coach Griff Aldrich and his squad after the game.

The basketball team’s success is the latest symbol of Longwood’s ascension under Reveley, a rare third-generation college president. His grandfather was president of Hampden-Sydney from 1963 to 1977, his dad the president of William & Mary for a decade ending in 2018.

Since Reveley’s arrival in 2013, Longwood steadily has risen in regional and national prominence, hosting the 2016 vice presidential debate as a feather in its cap. Farmville has been the beneficiary of Longwood’s success, its invigorated downtown a focal point of Reveley’s vision of a thriving town-gown relationship.

Five years ago, I’d have had a couple of choices for a pregame burger and beer. Last week, I counted six in downtown Farmville alone.

Sports will never take priority over academics under Reveley’s watch, but they sure can lift a campus’ spirits and raise its national profile, as Aldrich’s squad is proving.

The coach’s story itself is inspirational, a lawyer who walked away from a lucrative career in oil and gas and private equity to scratch a coaching itch that began during his own playing days at Hampden-Sydney. He’s not only winning but has restored integrity to a program that had largely lost it under his predecessor.

In just his fourth season, he’s got the Lancers on the verge of the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid — and giving hoops fans throughout Virginia something to cheer about.

Steve Stewart, a former Farmville Herald publisher, is publisher of The Smithfield Times and senior vice president of Boone Newspapers Inc. His email address is steve.stewart@smithfieldtimes.com.