‘He would have loved this’: Late professor’s family rallies behind VCU basketball

April Sullivan with her children, Matthew, left, and Katie, right, on the RamCar heading to the A...
April Sullivan with her children, Matthew, left, and Katie, right, on the RamCar heading to the Atlantic 10 men's basketball tournament. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include VCU's NCAA tournament status.

April Sullivan was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University in the late 1980s when she fell in love with VCU basketball. She remembers attending games at the Richmond Coliseum — sometimes as a fan, other times as a photographer for The Commonwealth Times.

“You know they weren’t particularly good back then, not like they are now,” Sullivan said. “I covered some games, which was super cool because I got to sit on the court. That was when Kendrick Warren was the big name. That was really exciting.” 

Sullivan graduated from VCU in 1991 with a degree in mass communications. She later earned a master’s degree in criminal justice. And she has remained an avid fan of VCU men’s basketball. When the Rams reached the NCAA Final Four in 2011, Sullivan pulled her two children, Matthew and Katie, out of school to attend the team’s send-off event. The three took a trip in 2017 to Pittsburgh for the Atlantic 10 tournament. Sullivan’s ex-husband graduated from VCU. So did Sullivan’s sister and her husband. The family — immediate and extended — tries to get to as many games as possible. 

But Sullivan’s most cherished game-day ritual takes place away from the Stuart C. Siegel Center. For years, whenever the Rams played, she would sit on her couch, flip the TV channel to the game broadcast and wait for the first phone call or text message from her father, Herbert Hirsch, a longtime Rams fan and professor of political science in the College of Humanities and Sciences

“Every game, I would just sit there with my phone because I knew, as soon as the game starts, the texting starts,” Sullivan said. “You knew that he was sitting on his couch with his phone in his hand and I was sitting on my couch with my phone in my hand, and we were ready to go.” 

Father and daughter bonded over those games. Hirsch, an avid sports fan, also cheered for the University of Kentucky (he earned his Ph.D. there) and Manchester United soccer. But VCU was a shared passion, Sullivan said.

“We would watch them together on TV or we would be on the phone or texting constantly. Pretty much every game,” she said. “My dad was funny. He was the negative one, saying, ‘Ah, they’re going to blow it,’ and I would tell him to be positive. I was always thinking we were going to pull it off.” 

Herbert Hirsch was an avid sports fan and a political science professor at VCU for 38 years. (Photo courtesy of April Sullivan)
Herbert Hirsch was an avid sports fan and a political science professor at VCU for 38 years. (Photo courtesy of April Sullivan)

As another basketball season moves deeper into March, Sullivan and thousands of VCU fans are paying careful attention to their Rams. VCU closed the regular season on a 12-game winning streak to finish 25-6, good for first place in the Atlantic 10. After a down season a year ago, the Rams are back in familiar territory, earning their eighth NCAA tournament bid in nine years.

However, this has been an emotional season for Sullivan. Her father, a human rights expert who taught at VCU for 38 years, died in January at age 77 after a brief illness. His death left a hole in the family. For Sullivan, it extended to a favorite pastime. Suddenly, something she and her father enjoyed so much — the banter and bonding over VCU basketball — stopped.

“That’s one of the things I miss a lot,” Sullivan said. “Now I watch the game and — unless my son is home — I don’t have anybody to talk to who gets as much out of it as we did. My brother feels that way about Manchester United. That was their team.

“You know, sometimes your memories, even though they are good memories, they sort of make you sad, just to think about the passing of time and how things change. It still isn’t easy to deal with.”

We would watch them together on TV or we would be on the phone or texting constantly. Pretty much every game. My dad was funny. He was the negative one, saying, ‘Ah, they’re going to blow it,’ and I would tell him to be positive. I was always thinking we were going to pull it off. 

Sullivan attended only one game this year. Last fall, she purchased tickets for the VCU-University of Richmond game at the Siegel Center. It was before she knew her father was sick. He died three weeks before the game. 

“We were just excited to go and then when the time came, I’m like, ‘I can’t believe how much things have changed since I bought these tickets,’” Sullivan said. “That was hard.”

That game, however, also brought a glimmer of relief to the family. Amtrak and Lyft were running a text-to-win contest at the Siegel Center that day and giving away two free round-trip train tickets (courtesy of Amtrak) and a hotel room (courtesy of Lyft) for the upcoming A-10 tournament in Brooklyn. Sullivan won the contest.

“We were like, ‘What?! This is awesome,’” Sullivan said. “We met with the promotional person and took a photo with Rodney and this giant train ticket. That was fun.”

April Sullivan with her children, Matthew and Katie, at the VCU-Richmond game in February. They won two free round-trip train tickets and a hotel room for the A-10 tournament in Brooklyn. (Photo courtesy of April Sullivan)
Click to view slideshow. April Sullivan with her children, Matthew and Katie, at the VCU-Richmond game in February. They won two free round-trip train tickets and a hotel room for the A-10 tournament in Brooklyn. (Photo courtesy of April Sullivan)

On Thursday, she and her two children were among about 60 fans aboard Amtrak Northeast Regional Train No. 84, heading to New York for the tournament. Amtrak dedicated one of the cars on that train for VCU fans. For Sullivan, it is a trip that connects family and VCU. Her father was born in the Bronx and she still has relatives in New York.

“It’s been crazy, this whole experience,” she said. “We always said, every time VCU played in Brooklyn, how much fun it would be to go. And we didn’t know if it would ever happen. I’m a single mom, it’s expensive. And then this happened. It’s been crazy — in a good way. But also, you know, the first person I wanted to call and tell was my dad. He would have loved this.” 

Sullivan hopes the trip to New York is the first stop on a long postseason run for VCU. As tournament season unfolds, she will be surrounded by family, watching her team, and thinking about her father.

“Everything about this trip, how it came together, I feel very grateful for everything that has come our way,” she said. “I think — I know, actually — there will be moments when I’ll feel sad. But I also kind of feel his presence, that he’s with us through this experience. I hope he’s with us.”