The players from Virginia union in Richmond knew they had a dynamite team because, after all, last season they had advanced to the Division II Final Four with a junior transfer and four red-shirt freshmen in the starting lineup. But they didn't know just how good they would be until Robert McKie—all 6'7" and 260 pounds of him—transferred from Auburn, where in 1990-91 he was the Tigers' starting center. Here was a guy who once even held Shaquille O'Neal (page 86) to 15 points. So, naturally, the Panthers were interested in sizing him up, and, more important, having him size them up.
The verdict, please.
"This team could easily play at the Division I level," says McKie. "You could put us in the SEC, and we'd probably finish in the upper division. If we lose a game, it'll be because we beat ourselves."
Did you get that? He's talking not only about Virginia Union winning its second national title under coach Dave Robbins, but also about going undefeated. Nobody does that in Division II, in which most road trips still mean bus rides and nearly every away game is held in a snake pit that makes playing in Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium seem like a stroll in the park.
When McKie's prognosis is mentioned to Robbins, one of the few white head coaches at a historically black college, he runs a hand through his thick red hair and shrugs. "We've got some players who can make some money after college," says Robbins, referring to the NBA. "We're talented and big for Division II, but we're also young."
In a sense, Robbins, who's beginning his 14th season at Virginia Union, is paying for his own success. Since winning the title in '80, the Panthers have ranked annually among the division's strongest contenders, mainly because Robbins has lured some unusually gifted players. In 1980, for example, he went to Cleveland, blowing almost his entire recruiting budget—"About $600, I think it was," he says—to land a big, muscular kid named Charles Oakley. That's the same Charles Oakley who now lines up alongside Patrick Ewing and Xavier McDaniel of the New York Knicks. "That made it easier to get the others," says Robbins. Such as former center Terry Davis, now with the Dallas Mavericks, and former guard A.J. English, now with the Washington Bullets.
In several ways, Virginia Union has grown to the point that it's really more like a Division I program. Sure, the team still practices in an ancient gym (the building was originally built for the 1939 World's Fair in New York; it was torn down, transported to Richmond and resurrected on campus), but the Panthers play their home games at the 6,000-seat Arthur Ashe Center near campus. (Ashe grew up in Richmond.)
In addition, Robbins's recruiting budget has grown to around $8,000 a year. He's also one of the few Division II coaches who has his own TV show. Then there are the posters, which have become quite the rage among students and fans.
The first poster, printed for the '84-85 season, showed several Panther players standing on the running boards of Robbins's vintage car, a 1940 Chevy. The billing: THE UNTOUCHABLES. Since then, the posters have included players standing outside an old theater (ENCORE), wearing surgical gowns at a hospital (BIG OPERATION), posing with Virginia governor and Virginia Union graduate Douglas Wilder (THE WILDER THE BETTER) and, last year, riding surfboards against an ocean backdrop (NEW WAVE). This season's poster (RELOADING) portrays the players suited up in hunting outfits.
"When practice starts, the first fight is to see who gets on the poster," says Walter Hurd, a 6'2" senior guard.
Naturally, McKie made this season's poster. "This is a totally different atmosphere from Auburn," he says. "I feel so comfortable it's unbelievable."
Indeed, he feels so good about the Panthers that maybe, instead of RELOADING, the poster's billing should have been IT'S IN THE BAG.
The Panthers are in the hunt for the national title.
DIVISION II TOP 10
1. Virginia Union
3. North Alabama
5. Philadelphia Textile
6. North Dakota
7. Johnson C. Smith
8. Florida Southern
9. Kentucky Wesleyan
10. Cal State-Bakersfield