During his 2014-2015 season, Richmond Spiders’ Forward T.J. Cline developed a signal with Head Coach Chris Mooney.
Cline tugged at his jersey any time he was tired to let Mooney know that he needed a rest.
“If you look at the film from my first year at Richmond, my shirt’s un-tucked allllll the time because I was pulling at it so often,” Cline said in his November article in the Player’s Tribune entitled, “Making a Name for Myself.”
In Richmond’s 86-68 loss in the NIT quarterfinals this season versus TCU on March 21, Cline checked out with 1:12 remaining. He exited with 33 points, seven rebounds, six assists and an un-tucked shirt.
He was tired.
Reflecting on his efforts during his three-year Richmond career made Cline emotional. He shed tears with his teammates and coaches on the sideline as the clock wound down in his 102nd game in a Spider uniform.
The wearied Cline fell short of his goal.
“I stick by it and say it every day, my goal was to lead us to the NCAA tournament and I failed that goal," Cline said. "Individually, it’s cool that I averaged those numbers, but honestly I’d rather have averaged two [points] and two [rebounds] and gone to the [NCAA] tournament."
Instead, Cline averaged 18.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists this season. Penny Hardaway in 1992-1993 and Evan Turner in 2009-2010 are the only players in the history of NCAA Men’s Basketball to match those numbers in all categories.
Turner won the Naismith Player of the Year Award in 2010 and Hardaway was the runner-up in 1993.
Cline received the Atlantic-10 Conference Player of the Year Award at the end of the season. He is the second Richmond player in program history to win the award.
ESPN color commentator Mark Plansky called Cline’s 25-point performance against Oakland in the NIT, “the best game” he had seen all season.
Cline’s 33-point performance in his final game against TCU on ESPN2 yielded him more praise. Throughout the game, ESPN announcers Dave LaMont and Stephen Howard celebrated Cline’s game, his progress as a player, and his deep emotional commitment to his team.
Despite falling short of his goals, Cline says he made a name for himself.
“I felt like in the A-10 and around our area, I did make a name,” Cline said. “But I just hope that I impacted the program in a positive way so that next year they can succeed…Any way I can help the program. That’s your family. That’s your legacy. I’m so proud to be a Spider.”
The individual success does not satisfy Cline’s goals. His desire to further the program exceeds his appetite for individual accolades.
Cline, like many students, wants to see the program grow as a whole.
“When I visited here, they were pouring $17 million into the Robins Center…You go on campus, the campus is gorgeous. I mean, how could you pass that up?” Cline said. “And the fans, they’re invested. They’ve got your back. There’s a great foundation here.”
But mid-major schools such as Richmond struggle mightily to advance their long-term status as a program.
Most mid-major programs do not possess the adequate resources and funding, community support, or basketball tradition to improve their status.
On March 29, the Associated Press released their all-time top-100 college basketball programs based on poll. Nine schools from Richmond’s Atlantic-10 Conference made the list. Richmond did not.
Cline’s Atlantic-10 Player of the Year season promoted him from a local fan favorite to a nationally acclaimed star. He proved that national recognition of the Spider program is possible. The next step is that the program will achieve the same promotion to the national stage that Cline did.
But the path to national relevance is arduous.
“The team has to win. Richmond has the best facilities, the best arena," Senior Patrick Giampietro said. "The school does all they can. If they just start to win, it will snowball. The program will take off.”
Junior Chris Lenox shared this sentiment.
“The basketball tradition at Richmond is fairly new. The Sweet Sixteen run that most people are familiar with happened in 2011," Lenox said.Having a good season is what’s going to help you. So, if we make the [NCAA] tournament, you’re going to see an increase in student attendance the following year.”
But the team’s success is not the only factor that generates fan interest. The school has several initiatives to draw fan support and increase student attendance.
Lenox and Giampietro have both worked with the University of Richmond Athletic Department. Lenox currently works as a Student Assistant and Giampietro worked as a Spider Club Intern from 2013 to 2015.
“The athletic department does all they can to promote the team and draw interest,” Giampietro said. “They do an incredible job. It’s more about the students just wanting to jump on the bandwagon of a winning team.”
“The athletic department is very good,” Lenox said. “We have the funding to compete at high levels. For the majority of students here, I think wins and losses will dictate a large part of [attendance].”
Richmond ranked 81st in the country last season in home attendance. The NCAA has not yet released data from this season. In 2014-2015, Richmond finished in fourth place in the Atlantic-10. Richmond’s 2015-2016 home attendance was fourth highest in the Atlantic-10.
But the student attendance is an independent statistic that the school does not publish. Its driving factors are more complex than general attendance.
Richmond’s undergraduate student body of 2,990 in total inevitably leads to interactions between the athletes and the rest of the students.
“The reputation of individual athletes is probably more important than at most schools because of how small we are," Senior Walid Alatas said. "I’d say that definitely impacts the culture.”
Alatas serves on student government and is the president of the Muslim Student Association.
“On this campus, if you want to have a good crowd, have a good atmosphere, when it’s not a big rivalry game, you need to consistently be present in other people’s lives,” Alatas said.
As president of Sigma Phi Epsilon, Giampietro worked with the team in organizing the fraternity’s basketball philanthropy event called, “Hoops for the House,” which benefits the Ronald McDonald House.
“Basketball does a very good job in terms of building relationships in relation to other sports,” Giampietro said. “We worked with them in our philanthropy and they were great. They’re also more engaged in projects and in class than guys in other sports.”
Many college sports programs nationally are plagued by drama, scandal, and controversy that divide its fan base.
On Richmond’s campus, the football program faced significant criticism in the fall when a nationally covered sexual assault case connected players with the incidents. The NCAA suspended five Richmond baseball players in February when the NCAA discovered they played fantasy sports.
The basketball team has steered clear of the negative news cycle while building positive connections with members of campus.
“They come out to [Sigma Phi Epsilon] events sometimes,” Giampietro said. “A lot of our guys are close with them. We’ve never had an issue with any of them.”
“They’re normal guys,” Alatas said.
Giampietro, Lenox, and Alatas all praised the quality of the facilities, the strong support from the athletic department, positive team reputation, and connections to other students.
“All of the tools for an elite college basketball program are in place. The last remaining piece to the puzzle is winning big,” Giampietro said.
When Cline visited Richmond in 2013, Mooney showed him film of Dan Geriot. Geroit was a 6’9” center who graduated in 2011.
“He was a similar player to me…he really had a huge impact here. He was always my barometer,” Cline said.
Cline committed to Richmond the day after his only visit. He said that the film of Geroit was a major reason that he chose to transfer to Richmond.
Geroit averaged 9.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in his 2011 senior season. Cline’s senior averages nearly double Geroit in every category.
But Cline emphasized Geroit’s importance.
“Hopefully when there are recruits, they can do like they did to me with Geriot. Maybe one day they’ll show videos of me to recruits,” Cline said.
The rewards of Cline’s individual success will not be reflected in a tangible appearance to the NCAA tournament. But as Geroit was to Cline, Cline can be to a future recruit. His accolades and impact are not lost. Cline’s future successor may be the provenance of the next NCAA tournament bid.
While this season’s goals have passed, Cline’s personal trajectory serves as an embodiment of the trajectory of the program as a whole. The Spiders will continue to work towards their breakout, Atlantic-10 Player of the Year-esque season. And like Cline, the Richmond Spiders will try to make a name for themselves.
Contact sports writer Mike O'Connor at email@example.com.