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125 Years of Spiders

Celebrating 125 Years of Being Spiders

When the 1890s began, we were the Richmond Colts. By the beginning of the 20th century, we had become the Richmond Spiders. No definitive source tells us exactly when this change happened or how it came to be. Over the years, several versions of a generally consistent origin story have emerged, but their details often conflict.

The earliest source is an account in Richmond College’s 1897 yearbook. In the summer of 1893, according to the editors, a group of Richmond College students played in a local baseball league called the Tri-City League. A sports reporter used the term “Spiders” as an “epithet” to describe the players. The players “were never ashamed of the favorite epithet” which “proved to be so appropriate in subsequent contests,” the yearbook editors wrote. So it stuck.

Subsequent accounts repeat the basic outlines of this story but add nuances and contradictions. Which are facts and which are embellishments is, at this point, a guess.

In a 1958 account, Fletcher Stiers Jr., R’48, identifies the year as 1894 and speculates that “Spiders” was likely a compliment, given that one of the successful major league teams of the period was the Cleveland Spiders, whose roster included Cy Young. Stiers relays an additional detail: that “someone up in the stand is supposed to have shouted out: ‘You boys look like a bunch of spiders trying to play ball,’” a description a reporter now repeats rather than generates.

Reuben Alley’s authoritative 1977 history of the University moves the year back to 1893, transforms the fan into a more generic “observer,” and attributes an inspiration for the nickname: the “tall, lanky Richmond College players.”

These early accounts hedged their descriptions in the caveated language of “supposed to have” and “most likely.” An 1985 alumni magazine drops the uncertainty. The lanky players were now one specific lanky pitcher with an “unusual” delivery, Henry K. “Puss” Ellyson, who played alongside “gangly, long-armed outfielders.” These physical characteristics inspired the spectator to yell what Stiers reported in 1942, but in this account, the crowd picked up the chant and we have a specific reporter’s name. The “next morning,” as this article tells it, Evan Ragland Chesterman, L’96, etched the “Spiders” nickname into our history when he repeated it in his Dispatch column “Chips from the Diamond.”

A 1993 University press release celebrating the Spider’s centennial repeats the alumni magazine account largely verbatim, though Ellyson now has a “weaving-like pitching delivery.” But even this account adds yet another detail, that the Richmond College boys retained the nickname when they return in the fall to play football.

The University’s 1993 press release prompted the Richmond Times-Dispatch to dig through its archives. Its article in October of that year makes no mention of Ellyson, Chesterman, or the “Chips from the Diamond” column. RTD researchers did turn up a tidbit that turns all of this history on its head: References to the Spiders appeared in its pages as far back as 1892.

Although the origin of our mascot is difficult to pin down, our distinctive identity today is clear. “Spiders” is a fittingly unique mascot for a university unlike any in higher education.

Football National Championship

In an almost-unimaginable reversal of fortunes, the University of Richmond football program bounced back from a 4–3 start to the season to capture the 2008 NCAA Division I Football Championship Series (FCS) title. The Spiders, coached by former Richmond football student-athlete Mike London, R’83, won nine consecutive games to close the campaign, culminating with a 24–7 victory over the University of Montana. On its historic march to a title, the team was led by the likes of NFL draft pick Lawrence Sidbury, ’09, quarterback Eric Ward, ’10, and running back Josh Vaughan, ’09, among other key contributors. Ten years after the momentous season, the team’s feat remains the University’s greatest athletic achievement, demonstrating that a world-class liberal-arts education can mesh with championship-level sports.

WILL* Program

When Westhampton College first created the WILL* program — then known as Women Involved in Living and Learning, it now includes transgender and gender non-conforming students — in 1980, the University of Richmond was a pioneer. Combining women’s studies with opportunities outside of the classroom was unprecedented, but the program’s outcomes quickly confirmed its value. The sense of community and empowerment developed through academic coursework (participants can earn a minor in women, gender, and sexuality studies, or WGSS), activism, and leadership opportunities has received widespread acclaim, leading several other institutions to replicate the program’s model. Nearly 40 years after it was established, the positive influence of WILL* can be measured in the impact on the students it serves, by helping them better understand the issues women of all backgrounds face and preparing them to thrive as professionals.

First African-American Residential Student

Native Richmonder Barry Greene, R’72, made the decision to attend the University of Richmond to be in close proximity to his family after spending two years at a New Jersey prep school. When he arrived on campus for the fall semester in 1968, he became the University’s first African American residential student. Though the courageous teenager’s time at Richmond wasn’t always a pleasant experience, he eventually got involved with different aspects of student life and formed lasting relationships. Greene, who went on to a successful career in finance after graduation, started sharing his story publicly a decade ago. In the process, the lifelong resident of Richmond’s Fulton community began embracing his alma mater and returning to campus — the place he helped change for the better 50 years ago.

Announcement of the Robins Gift

The imprint of E. Claiborne Robins Sr., R’31, on the University of Richmond is evident upon stepping foot on campus. Among other facilities bearing his family’s name, the Robins School of Business and the Robins Center, the University’s basketball arena, symbolize Robins’ deep commitment to his alma mater. However, a moment even more representative of that connection took place in 1969, when Richmond was at a crucial juncture in its history. Through his benevolence, Robins singlehandedly changed the trajectory of the University — from a small, private college with a regional reputation to a renowned, world-class liberal-arts institution — through a $50 million gift, then the largest amount ever pledged to a university in the United States. A scholarship student in college, Robins’ own transformational journey through life mirrored the aspirations he had for Richmond even after he became a pharmaceutical mogul and prominent philanthropist.

Football Tangerine Bowl Victory

Matched up with then-undefeated Ohio University in a contest virtually nobody believed they could win, the University of Richmond’s football team proved it belonged with a 49-42 triumph in the 1968 Tangerine Bowl. Propelled by legendary head coach Frank Jones, longtime NFL wide receiver Walker Gillette, R’70, and the Hon. William “Buster” O’Brien, R’69, at quarterback, the Spiders were also the champions of the Southern Conference that season. As a result of the only bowl-game victory in University history (Richmond would return to the Tangerine Bowl, now known as the Citrus Bowl, in 1971), the Spiders finished the 1968 season ranked 18th and 20th in polls of the nation’s top college football teams by United Press International and the Associated Press, respectively.

Women’s Basketball

Fanny Crenshaw, the longtime director of physical education at Westhampton College, brought women’s basketball to the University of Richmond campus in 1919, coaching the sport until her 1955 retirement. Three decades after Crenshaw’s wildly successful coaching tenure (she amassed a 166­­–58 career record), the University welcomed its first women’s scholarship student-athlete, Margaret Stender, W’78, later the founding president and CEO of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. Karen Elsner Davey, W’85, the program’s top all-time scorer, led the way during the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) era. Standouts who have kept Crenshaw’s legacy alive in the program’s modern era include: record-setting players Laurie Governor Curtis, W’88, and Pam Bryant Jordan, W’90; the late Ginny Doyle, W’92, who both played and coached for the program; and recent stars Kate Flavin, ’05, and Brittani Shells, ’11.