In 2008, William and Mary went 7-4, notching its first winning season since a national semifinal appearance four years earlier, and a slow sea change began at a school that boasted a proud tradition but had struggled in recent years.
People started respecting the Tribe, which had gone 3-8 in 2006 and 4-7 in 2007, again — if a little begrudgingly.
"That 7-4 season, we kind of adopted the theme of 'thieves,' " said left tackle Keith Hill Jr., a fifth-year senior. "We had to always come out stealing what we felt like we had earned but had never gotten recognition for."
Things are a little different this season.
William and Mary, coming off an 11-3 season that tied a school record for wins and ended with a one-point loss to eventual national champion Villanova in the FCS semifinals, is ranked No. 4 in both The Sports Network and the USA Today/ESPN coaches polls going into today's season opener at Massachusetts.
"Now it's basically the opposite, where we have the bull's-eye on the back," Hill said. "People are going to try to steal from us this year. That's the way it's going to be."
First up on the would-be criminal docket — the Minutemen, who went 5-6 last season and haven't faced William and Mary since 2007. It's a rare season and conference opener in one for the two Colonial Athletic Association members, marking the first time the Tribe has faced a fellow CAA team to start the year since 2001, when William and Mary beat then-No. 21 Massachusetts 31-10.
"I'd prefer playing our conference games in the latter part of the season, after you find out more about your team," William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said.
But it's immediately into the conference fire for the Tribe, which knocked off FBS opponent Virginia 26-14 in the first game of 2009.
"I love it," fifth-year senior linebacker Evan Francks said. "It's a challenge, and I think it's even bigger than starting out with an ACC team that doesn't really affect our in-conference record. We've all looked at it as a chance to be No. 1 in the conference after this week."
Both Francks and Hill have been at William and Mary long enough to remember when the thought of the Tribe being first in anything was ludicrous.
"I was here during those 3-8 and 4-7 seasons, when things weren't going so great, and I've seen the development of the mentality of guys over time," Hill said. "Being ranked No. 4, or wherever we're at, is just more of an acknowledgement of past success, and I feel that we need to be able to display that we've earned that recognition. So I like the challenge that comes with that recognition."
Today's game presents several specific challenges for the Tribe, which hasn't won a CAA opener on the road since beating New Hampshire 9-7 in 2004. William and Mary also hasn't beaten UMass in the three games since that 2001 game, losing 48-34 at home in the two teams' last meeting on Oct. 27, 2007.
"We talked about being complacent and taking things for granted, and I don't think they've done that," Laycock said. "… Your older players, they understand that. Some of the younger guys, they don't know anything but a nice locker room and a high ranking in the country. You don't take anything for granted. You go about it and you work."
Today's game, then, represents the start of a new fight for the Tribe. Instead of stealing respect, William and Mary must now prove it deserves it.
"You don't want to be embarrassed. It's even more motivation," Francks said. "You want to keep that respect. You don't want (people) to be like, 'Oh, it was one year.' It's our senior year. This is the last shot we have at winning a national championship, so we're just going all in and practicing every day like it's our last."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun