The same December day the Richmond Spiders football team stepped off the bus from Chattanooga, Tenn. — returning home as 2008 national champions — the University of Richmond began construction on its new on-campus stadium.

“Most people give you a pat on the back,” jokes University architect Andrew McBride, “we started building a stadium.” The new E. Claiborne Robins Stadium is now complete, and the Spiders will play their first home game Sept. 18.

When planning started on the stadium nearly a decade ago, no one knew that the football program would be coming off a championship season as the stadium began to take shape. Yet the coincidence heightens excitement surrounding Spider football’s return to campus; for the past 81 years, the Spiders have played home games at City Stadium, five miles from campus.

Richmond’s lacrosse and track programs will also compete at Robins Stadium. Previously, they competed at a smaller First Market Stadium, which occupied the footprint where the new stadium now stands.

McBride and Project Engineer David Merchan explain that several considerations came together to make Robins Stadium what it is, from increasing student involvement in games to smart use of existing facilities, such as the playing field.

The field is made from the same low-maintenance synthetic turf on which the Super Bowl and World Series are played — the latest and greatest technology. It was just installed in 2004, so “It didn’t make economic sense to tear it up,” says McBride.

Another consideration was working with available space to build an appropriately sized stadium. The result is an 8,700-seat stadium that will be mostly filled with Richmond fans — taking the game day atmosphere to a new level. “At City Stadium, we would play [big schools like James Madison University] and it would seem like it was a home game for them,” says McBride about the effect of the larger stadium.

Merchan adds that bringing out more students will impact the atmosphere. “You’re going to have a lot more student involvement,” he says, since students will be able to walk to games from their dorms.

Richmond’s dedicated alumni fans also have new reasons to cheer. When they invite family members to support the Spiders, they will be returning to the campus where they spent their college years. Watching from either the eastern or western stands, fans will see a backdrop of familiar sights, like the Robins Center and Millhiser Gymnasium.

There is also a new 20-by-35-foot scoreboard with instant replay capability and televisions throughout the concourse so spectators stepping out for hot dogs won’t miss any of the action.

Robins Stadium will host six home football games in its inaugural season, as the Spiders make another run for the Football Championship Subdivision trophy they brought home in 2008.

Three-time Atantic-10 champions, the university’s lacrosse team will begin their season at Robins Stadium in February. Richmond’s track teams take the field in the spring.

Photo: Scott Brown, SKB Photography