- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Editor’s note: Washington Times sports editor Mike Harris is a graduate of VCU (1978) but isn’t prominent enough to be included in this article.

Passengers at Dubai International Airport last Sunday must have wondered what was causing all the commotion. Why was this man so excited after getting off the telephone?

This man was Rep. Rob Wittman, the Republican congressman from Virginia’s 1st District who received his doctorate in public policy and administration from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2002.

Wittman was returning from Kandahar, Afghanistan, and he called his wife, Kathryn, upon landing in Dubai. She gave him the news - VCU 71, Kansas 61. The Rams earned a spot in the Final Four.

“I was like, ‘Wow,’ That was fantastic,” Wittman said. “I proceeded to tell everybody in our delegation about it. I let them know how good the [Colonial Athletic Association] was. You didn’t have to be from the Big Ten or ACC to make it to the Final Four. There was a little friendly banter back and forth.”

David Baldacci didn’t have a raucous celebration. The novelist, who lives in Fairfax, got a political science degree from VCU in 1983 and has served on the school’s Board of Visitors. But he married into a Kansas family. His wife, Michelle, is a Kansas fan. His brother-in-law Scott Collin, also a Fairfax resident, is a Kansas graduate.

“I was the happy one and they weren’t,” Baldacci said. “I didn’t have anybody to celebrate with.”

So Baldacci resorted to a little mischief. He left a message for Collin. “I pretended to be from the VCU ticket office, and I offered him tickets because I knew he’d want to see them play again.” He received a text message in response, “and you can’t print what it said in a newspaper,” Baldacci said with a laugh.

The VCU alumni office said about 20,000 graduates live in the D.C. area, many of them probably a little easier to recognize this week than before. While VCU is not an infrequent participant in the NCAA tournament, this is the first time the Rams have moved past the second round. Their improbable run to the Final Four after finishing fourth in their own league has caught the nation’s fancy much as George Mason’s Final Four trip did in 2006.

VCU President Michael Rao gave Wittman a school tie about a year ago “and I will wear it proudly this week, I assure you,” Wittman said.

Aaron Gilchrist, a news anchor and reporter at WRC-TV (Channel 4), received his mass communications degree from VCU in 2003. He’s been sporting VCU gear around town and calls the Final Four trip “pleasantly mind-blowing. I find myself with a sense of pride that is completely unfamiliar to me … to sit back and watch the guys on this team and this coach just play incredible basketball and enjoy it. It makes you proud to be a Ram.

“It’s been an absolutely magical experience to watch. This whole weekend and into this week, I’ve never been in a better mood. For your typical big sports schools, your Dukes and those guys, this is old hat. For us, this is uncharted territory. It is a terrific place to be.”

Wittman did his undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina, which made it to at least the Sweet 16 every year he was there in the late 1980s. He knows what a successful basketball program has done for UNC and thinks VCU will soon see such benefits.

“It isn’t always apparent immediately, but down the road it will increase the visibility of the school,” Wittman said. “That has a significant return. More students will say, ‘VCU, where is it, what are the majors?’ It all has a great deal of positives for the university.”

Added Baldacci, “It has been phenomenal for the school. Everybody up here is talking about VCU and, a week ago, they may not have known who VCU was. … You can’t buy that kind of publicity. The long-term benefits are it will snowball and continue to build. They have some world-class programs there. You need a little exposure and if sports does it, so be it.”

It doesn’t qualify as a shock that Wittman, Baldacci and Gilchrist think VCU has two more wins left in its season.

Wittman went to Benedictine High School, the same school that produced VCU forward Bradford Burgess. Wittman noted the “free spirit” of the Rams “that doesn’t get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the game they’re playing.”

Baldacci said if VCU, which plays Butler in a national semifinal Saturday, “is hitting on all cylinders and makes it to the final, it could blow [Connecticut] or Kentucky out.”

Gilchrist is “picking VCU to win the national championship. Our guys have stepped up in an unbelievable way. They’re good ballplayers. These are quality athletes, and I feel good about their odds.”

If VCU does win it all, Baldacci made a promise. He won’t celebrate alone.

“I will go down to Richmond and dance in the streets myself,” he said.

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