The University of Richmond men's basketball team finished with a 13-20 record this past season — its second 20-loss season in a row — but head coach Chris Mooney sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
All five starters are set to return next season, and Mooney said the team had gained valuable experience that would help it in the long run.
“There are a lot more high points and bright spots in our future,” Mooney said.
Transfer guard Blake Francis will also be eligible to make his Spiders debut after missing this past season because of NCAA transfer rules. Mooney said that Francis would have a major role on the team next season.
On March 28, Richmond Athletics announced that graduate student forward Noah Yates would not be granted another season of eligibility. Yates averaged 16 minutes per game this past season. Mooney said he had been disappointed by the decision and would look to recruit “the best fit” for the open scholarship.
Mooney declined to share the team’s goals for the upcoming season, but said that they would be very high. He thinks a NCAA tournament berth is a realistic goal for the next season.
Mooney will enter his 15th season at UR under heavy scrutiny, although he insisted he did not feel any more pressure than usual. UR athletic director John Hardt did not confirm that Mooney would return as coach until March 18, and a vocal group of fans has continued to criticize Mooney and call for his dismissal.
Known as “Fire Mooney Mafia,” the group paid for a billboard off of Interstate Highway 95 in February that called for Mooney’s ousting and was signed, “UR Alumni & Spider Fans.”
Three days later, Mooney said that he had no thoughts regarding the billboard during a post-game press conference, citing the “around-the-clock” schedule of a Division One head basketball coach.
On March 29, over a week after the season had ended, Mooney reiterated his previous comments.
“I really haven’t given it too much thought,” he said. “We have a lot of coaching to do. We want to make sure our seniors graduate. We have a lot of our younger guys that we’re trying to help be great players. I have two young boys at home. There’s just a lot that occupies all of our time, so there’s been no focus on that.”
Although Mooney himself has not been outwardly fazed, the billboard provoked polarized reactions.
Fire Mooney Mafia defended its actions, communicating that its members disagreed with criticisms of the billboard.
“Mooney is a very public person who is getting paid $14 million [throughout his tenure] to coach a basketball team that doesn’t make the NCAAs,” the group wrote in a Twitter direct message to The Collegian. “He is not above reproach. If he doesn’t want to be criticized from time to time, he’s in the wrong profession. We have never said anything mean-spirited about him as a person and have never libeled him in any way. We simply don’t like him as our coach and we said so. People are pretty thin-skinned, apparently.”
Richmond Athletics does not disclose financial terms of coaching contracts, but UR's tax returns showed that Mooney made over $1.19 million in the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
The players, led by sophomores Jacob Gilyard and Grant Golden, have shown consistent support for Mooney. However, Gilyard described the season as: “Overall, tough. A lot of distractions outside. I think we let it affect us on the inside a little bit,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Without elaborating on how the team was affected, Mooney said that it would be difficult not to agree with Gilyard’s assessment.
“I thought we did a good job of being together and being focused,” Mooney said. “But I think if there are outside distractions, that’s just another challenge to try to overcome. Like I said, all of our focus is on these next years, and I think that’s going to make us stronger and closer and better in the future.”
The fans behind Fire Mooney Mafia feel that they have waited long enough. The Spiders have not made the NCAA tournament since the 2010-2011 season.
“The administration needs to decide what we are doing here,” Fire Mooney Mafia wrote. “You can’t say you want to win and then do nothing when you consistently don’t win. Yet that’s exactly what the administration has done — nothing.
"So we as fans are left to wonder whether anyone at the university really does care about winning? Or do they just want to create a minor league baseball atmosphere where 5,000 people show up with their kids, watch the halftime show and eat ice cream but go home not caring who won or lost? [If] that’s what they want, then tell us. Drop down to [Division 3] and stop the charade.”
Average home game attendance dropped 11.7% this year, from 6,492 in the 2017-2018 season to 5,730 in the 2018-2019 season. Mooney attributed the decrease to the fact that 2017-2018’s numbers were the highest in 25 years.
“I thought our attendance was great,” Mooney said. “I thought the fans who showed up were terrific.”
Fire Mooney Mafia believed that fed-up fans caused the decrease.
“Lots of people didn’t renew season tickets this year and more won’t renew for next year in protest,” the group wrote.
Hardt had said to the Richmond Times-Dispatch that “[the] expectations that coach Mooney and I discuss on a regular basis are for our basketball program to compete at the highest level.”
Fire Mooney Mafia wants the same thing: a consistent program that wins games and competes at the highest level of the sport. It just does not believe that Mooney is the coach to achieve that goal.
“We believe there is a lot more talent on the current roster than we will ever realize with Mooney as coach,” the group wrote. “A better coach could win right away with these players. He won’t.”
Contact sports writer Noah Jacobs at email@example.com.