In September 2007, while discussing his surprising decision two years earlier to leave nouveau chic Air Force after just one season to take over at Atlantic 10 also-ran Richmond, Chris Mooney let slip that he had always considered coaching the Spiders "his dream job."
After hearing that, and confirming that the school had not moved 150 miles or so southwest to either Durham or Chapel Hill, N.C., the immediate follow-up question was, "Why?"
Richmond, despite a solid academic reputation and relative proximity to multiple hoops hotbeds, has been mostly irrelevant nationally since Dick Tarrant's 1990-91 Spiders became the first No. 15 seed to knock off a No. 2 in the NCAA tournament. The program's giant-killer reputation forged in the '80s under Tarrant through NCAA tourney wins over Charles Barkley's Auburn squad and defending national champion Indiana quickly gave way to almost two decades in which the Spiders notched only one tournament win in 1998 (albeit as a 14 seed over third-seeded South Carolina), when Richmond was still in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Also, even with the flagship programs in Virginia struggling in recent years, the state is loaded with strong mid-major programs like Old Dominion, VCU and George Mason. Heck, even Hampton and leg-pumping coach Steve Merfeld had 15 seconds of fame since the last time Richmond resonated.
The Spiders' relative anonymity might not last much longer. Now in his fifth season in charge, Mooney's recruiting has crafted a roster full of talent and experience, and Richmond was picked to finish third in the rugged A-10. Off to a 7-2 start (with a South Padre Island sweep of Mississippi State and Missouri, and a win over CAA favorite Old Dominion) that has seen Richmond receive votes in both top 25 polls, Mooney's dream is starting to mesh with reality.
"[At the beginning], you're always hammering home little pieces of the vision," Mooney said. "It all runs together because you're doing it every single day. You're worried about wins and losses, but you're striving toward the big picture, and the big picture means creating this program that you have in your mind and you're trying to change the behavior of anything that conflicts with that vision.
"Now we have four classes of good guys ... and we're more worried about [things like] how our first home stand sets up and what kind of signature wins we can get -- more tangible things instead of the intangible things we've been hammering home for so long. We're able to do that because we have the talent now."
In truth, this breakout season may be a year late. The Spiders had some under-the-radar buzz last fall before center Dan Geriot (pronounced jeh-ROH), who averaged 14.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game as a sophomore, tore up a knee in the preseason and was lost for the year. Without its top low-post option and defensive anchor, Richmond became guard-wacky, leaning heavily on the shooting arms of then-junior David Gonzalvez and sophomore Kevin Anderson, and getting hurt on the glass.
While Richmond did make the postseason CBI for a second straight year, it was the late-season practices with Geriot as glorified scout team member that gave the Spiders a taste of what could be.
"I think we missed Dan's leadership out there on the floor [last season], Gonzalvez said. "The center is such a key part of our offense, we really need the center to be talking and get things moving. Then he was out there in practice dominating and we wanted him back [immediately], but he wasn't ready to go."
Geriot's still rusty, as his 37.3 percent shooting implies, but his impact on the way the Spiders can play is clear. He provides a legitimate scoring threat in the low post and creates space for others by drawing frequent double teams. An adept passer, Geriot has an assists-per-minute rate pretty much equal to that of the team leaders, and his ball-sharing has been contagious. Last season, Richmond assisted on just 47.6 percent of its baskets. This season, they're at 57.8 percent, and Anderson (17.3 points per game) and Gonzalvez (13.3) have become more efficient scorers.
"I think it is essential that the team's giving me the touches I need, and I just have to make the right decisions," Geriot said before this past weekend's tough loss at city rival VCU. "We're [7-2], so I'm making pretty good ones, I think."
On the other end, his 6.4 rebounds per game are helping shore up another major weakness from last season. According to kenpom.com, the current Spiders are 107th in Division I in defensive rebounding percentage. Last season, they finished 289th. Richmond also is allowing just 0.85 points per possession (12th in Division I, adjusted for schedule) and is 11th in the nation in two-point FG percentage allowed (38.9).
Having already been tested by some solid competition, the defense should remain solid, thanks to the comfort the Spiders' core has developed playing with each other for the past couple of seasons. If Richmond can get Geriot going and fine-tune the offensive balance that's still a bit off-kilter, there's potential for a legit A-10 run.
"We've played well and we've been tough -- in South Padre, that was the case -- but I don't think there's been a game where we can say, 'Yeah, that was our A-game,'" Geriot said.
In fact, it may have been the Spiders' most disappointing game thus far -- a road loss at William & Mary (itself a surprising success story with 6-2 record that includes a win at Wake Forest) -- that set the tone for the South Padre sweep.
"Our approach the next day in practice and for the next couple of games was great," Geriot said. "It showed we were mature enough to handle that. I think we realize now that [kind of] loss shouldn't affect us for the next game. There shouldn't be a day off."
That mental growth will continue to be tested. The Spiders wasted a 12-point first-half lead at VCU and now head to South Carolina before visiting No. 13 Florida. These nonconference tests -- and the way Richmond responds to another tough loss -- could go a long way toward determining how serious Richmond's NCAA tournament aspirations are.
The best part of this dream, though, is that Mooney and Richmond don't appear likely to wake up from it anytime soon. Next season, the Spiders will lose Gonzalvez, but will have three starters back and are adding a very well regarded freshman class. (This despite the fact that Richmond was slapped in November with two years of probation over illegal calls and text messages sent by a since-departed assistant coach in 2007. Mooney wasn't implicated directly in any of the contacts.)
Mooney's decision to bolt Air Force for Richmond looked shocking five years ago. But with hindsight, it appears to have been prescient. Mooney's predecessor, Joe Scott, failed in his homecoming move to Princeton and ended up at the University of Denver. Mooney's successor, Jeff Bzdelik, coaxed an NCAA bid in the first of his two seasons at Air Force, but left for Colorado and has yet to turn the Buffaloes around. Jeff Reynolds, the current Falcons coach, suffered through an 0-16 Mountain West campaign last season as the talent level in the program returned closer to historic levels.
Is it safe to say now that Richmond might be the best job any of those men hold? You're not dreaming.