Longwood basketball again travels glory road to NCAA Tournament

Fred Jeter | 3/17/2022, 6 p.m.
When the 1979-80 basketball season began, the fan base of Longwood College, as it was known then, didn’t extend much …
Randy Johnson, who played on the Longwood team in 1979-80 that went to the NCAA Division III Final Four, holds the Big South Tournament trophy won March 6 by Longwood, giving the team a berth in the NCAA Division I Tournament this week.

When the 1979-80 basketball season began, the fan base of Longwood College, as it was known then, didn’t extend much past Perini Pizza directly across from campus on Main Street in Farmville.

Longwood was a program still on training wheels. Despite a high level of talent, the fledgling Lancers basketball team players were practically strangers on their own campus.

Then came the “Madness.” By March 1980, the Lancers had carved out an against-all-odds national reputation. “March Madness” had come to downtown Farmville.

Randy Johnson, a 6-foot-5 forward out of Richmond’s George Wythe High School, was among those aboard a magic carpet ride all the way to the NCAA Division III Final Four in Rock Island, Ill.

Looking for a college hoops home, Johnson was told of Longwood through a former Bulldogs teammate.

“I hadn’t even heard of Longwood when someone first told me about it,” said Johnson, who played under Coach Bob Booker at George Wythe. “I didn’t know where it was.” That’s understandable. It was only the fourth season Longwood had fielded a men’s team and just the second year under the NCAA umbrella. The Lancers were independent, with no conference affiliation. Many still considered it more of a mostly white all-women’s school.

Also suiting up that year for Longwood Coach Ron Bash was Thomas “T” Alston, a backup junior forward from Richmond’s Huguenot High School.

The Lancers began winning, and it became contagious.

“We had a blast. It was an amazing season. We came together in so many ways,” said Johnson, now retired and doing a lot of fishing after working 32 years at Philip Morris.

Longwood finished the 1979-80 season 28-3, losing to eventual champion North Park University of Illinois 57-55 in the NCAA Final Four semifinals and then 48-47 to Wittenberg University of Ohio in the consolation game.

NamedtotheNCAAfieldasanat-largeentry, Longwood College took Region No. 1 near Boston and then won its quarterfinal matchup against Potsdam State University of New York at nearby Hampden-Sydney College.

There was a story behind the story. The Lancers were a predominantly Black team coming from various parts of the country, including New Jersey from where Coach Bash hailed. They seemed an odd fit in Farmville, a Virginia community with a dismal racial reputation.

From 1959 to 1964, Farmville and surrounding Prince Edward County shut down their public schools rather than integrate. It was the epicenter of “Massive Resistance” in Virginia, in a county that had helped force school desegregation nationally by the lawsuit Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. That case be- came part of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled the “separate but equal” doctrine of school segregation was unconstitutional.

Johnson could still feel the friction years later.

“It was like going back in time,” he said of the atmosphere in Farmville. “The campus was our safe space. But when we’d go to town, people would look at us funny. Storekeepers would follow us around to make sure we didn’t shoplift. It was very racist.”

So much has changed. In 2002, Longwood became a university. Its basketball team, no longer a novelty, is part of the Big South Conference.

Johnson was among the alumni who traveled to Charlotte, N.C., to root on the Lancers as they won the Big South title on March 6 and their first-ever bid to the NCAA Division I Tournament.

“It’s amazing to see how far Longwood has come,” Johnson said.

Perini Pizza is wedged into Lancers’ history. Owner Tony Perini used to ride the team bus on road trips and helped sponsor the basketball program for decades.

The pizzeria remains a go-to destination for celebrating Longwood hoops. Only now the Lancers’ cheering section spreads much farther.