Jeff Lamp (Col ’81) would not leave. Not until he had shot 100 jumpers and 100 free throws after each Virginia men’s basketball practice during the 1980-81 season. It fell to assistant coach Jim Larrañaga to stay and rebound for the Cavalier star. But coach Terry Holland watched as well.
“Lamp, he loved it—he absolutely loved it,” Holland recalls. “You could see in his eyes what it meant to him.”
Lamp and Lee Raker (Col ’81), Kentucky high school teammates forever linked in Virginia lore, had signed on in 1977 to Holland’s vision that a program that carried little in the way of legacy could be a national contender. They were joined the next year by another Kentuckian, point guard Jeff Jones (Col ’82), and two years later by a once-in-a-lifetime player, a 7-foot-4 phenom from nearby Harrisonburg named Ralph Sampson (Col ’83).
Forty years ago, that vision Holland sold his players on came together. Virginia began the 1980-81 season 22-0 and rose to No. 1 in the country for the first time, made the program’s first Final Four appearance, and captured the imagination of the University and fan base like no team before it.
Fans packed University Hall and, after a wild win at rival North Carolina, even flocked to the airport to greet the team charter. Sampson, the most dominant player in the nation, graced magazine covers.
The team fell short of its goal of a national championship but became the answer to an NCAA tournament trivia question. It also settled a question that was by no means a slam-dunk certainty in 1981:
Could elite academics and big-time athletics coexist at Virginia?
The answer is taken for granted today, as Virginia annually ranks among the nation’s top overall athletic programs. But there was scant evidence then, particularly in the high-profile sports of men’s basketball and football. The basketball team had been to just one NCAA tournament. The football team had never been to a bowl game.
“It kind of came to a head that year,” Raker says. “Setting the bar, making people realize you’ve got a great university and you can do both.”
Like many great teams, Virginia began the year with a chip on its shoulder. The 1980 season had left a bad taste. The addition of Sampson was supposed to make Virginia an NCAA tournament lock. Instead, the Cavaliers failed to make the field. Winning the National Invitational Tournament did little to temper their disappointment.
“We were on a mission,” Sampson says.
“It was about redemption,” Lamp says. “We wanted to prove we were better than we’d shown.”
Virginia improved in the off-season with the addition of Othell Wilson (Col ’84) and Ricky Stokes (’84), quick guards who could turn up the defensive temperature and take the pace from plodding to blistering in an instant. They gave the team a new dimension.
Forwards Terry Gates (Col ’81) and Craig Robinson (Col ’83) provided muscle inside. Gates, who had played with Lamp and Raker in high school, was the team enforcer. Robinson complemented Sampson, who dominated the middle on both ends.
With a veteran crew, Holland kept practices short and crisp. Less was more. The team had a workmanlike temperament.
“There was emotion, but that’s not what we were riding,” Raker says. “It felt like a movement toward an end.”
Virginia finally lost in its 23rd game of the season, at Notre Dame, on a last-second shot. The Cavaliers fell again, at Wake Forest, and to Maryland in the ACC tournament. They shook it off, and beat Villanova, Tennessee and BYU to reach the Final Four in Philadelphia.
Their opponent was familiar: a loaded North Carolina team Virginia had beaten twice.
“That was festering with them,” Lamp says. “They were eager to get back at us.”
Under legendary coach Dean Smith, UNC set the standard in the ACC in those days. As a high school senior, Sampson had gone there on a recruiting visit. Tar Heel star Al Wood was his host. They got separated, and Sampson wandered the campus for an hour before finding him.
“Al Wood was the reason I didn’t go to Carolina,” Sampson says. “Because I got lost on campus.”
Two years later, Wood became the reason Virginia fell short of a national title. The Cavaliers lost track of him, though not for lack of trying. Several players took turns guarding him. Nothing worked. He scored 39 points in a 78-65 UNC win.
The Cavaliers—crushed by the loss—couldn’t even go home immediately. As losers in the national semifinals, they were bound to play in a consolation game.
“We had no interest in playing,” Lamp says. “We weren’t going to be national champions. Third place might as well have been 300th place.”
Into it or not, Virginia did enough to beat an LSU team that was likely equally disinterested. The NCAA did away with consolation games after that. The Cavaliers won the last ever played.
The 1981 team’s legacy is more than a trivia tidbit, however. It started something. Virginia returned to the Final Four in 1984, and has made 21 NCAA appearances since 1981. The Cavaliers, of course, won the national title in 2019.
“All credit to Terry Holland for creating a culture of expectation,” says Larrañaga, now men’s basketball coach at the University of Miami. “I don’t think Virginia really realized how good it could be if it committed to basketball.”
Holland, 78, calls it a group effort and reserves his highest praise for his players.
“We had youngsters who wanted to play, and play at a high level,” he says. “They were willing to do just about anything. We thought it really added a lot to Virginia.”
For Lamp, the season was a culmination, and validation of his belief Virginia could be among the best in the country. Holland was right. It meant a lot.
“There was a tremendous amount of pride taking the program where we did, considering where we started,” Lamp says.