What do you think of when someone mentions conference realignment? Navy to the American, obviously. Pac-10 becoming the Pac-12? Nebraska to the Big Ten? Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC? How about VMI to the Southern Conference?
Conference realignment is a scourge that affects us all, and there might not be a better demonstration of its far-reaching consequences than VMI’s return to its roots. To talk about that, I’ve called in a rare guest poster, @SandlapperSpike, the internet’s foremost authority on The Citadel and all things SoCon. (Seriously, if you like sports in general but don’t follow Spike, then you’re using the internet all wrong.)
This is an essay about VMI football, written by a graduate of The Citadel for a Navy blog. If I had more time, I would try to figure out a way to shoehorn the Coast Guard Academy into the equation…
VMI is back in the Southern Conference this year, which is noteworthy. The school was a member of the league from 1924 until the end of the 2002-03 school year, when it joined the Big South. Now, VMI is back in its old stomping grounds. Why did it leave in the first place? Why is it back?
One “official” reason for the move was scheduling flexibility. Instead of playing eight league contests, the Keydets would only have to play (at the time) four conference games. That gave the school the chance to have annual matchups with longtime rivals like Richmond and William & Mary.
However, the primary reason VMI left the SoCon was that the school was having a difficult time competing in the league in football, basketball, and (to a lesser extent) baseball. Especially football. In its final six seasons in the league, VMI was 4-43 in conference play.
Let me back up a bit. VMI had struggled before on the gridiron. And when I say struggle, I’m not talking about going 4-7 three out of every five years or something.
For example, from 1968-1971 VMI compiled a cumulative record of 3-39 (in the 1969 season, the average score of a VMI game was Opposition 41, Keydets 8). The coach for the first three of those seasons was Vito Ragazzo. He was replaced in 1971 by Bob Thalman, who gradually rebuilt the program after enduring a 1-10 campaign in his first season. Thalman led VMI to the SoCon title in 1974 and a share of the league crown in 1977.
Thalman was still the school’s coach in 1981, when the Keydets went 6-3-1. That was the last time the VMI had a winning season in football.
33 years ago. That’s how long it has been since VMI won more games than it lost on the gridiron.
Every coach VMI has had since 1953 has suffered through at least one winless or 1-win campaign, with the exception of current head coach Sparky Woods. Thalman had one-win seasons in 1971 and 1984 (his final year in Lexington). Eddie Williamson’s 1987 team fashioned a 1-10 mark. Jim Schuck finished his final season (1993) with a 1-10 record. The following year, Bill Stewart took over, and the team went 1-10 again.
Ted Cain was the head coach at VMI for two seasons, 1997 and 1998. He won one game.
Twice, VMI has finished .500 overall, in 2002 and 2003, going 6-6 in each of those seasons under Cal McCombs. 2002 was the final campaign for VMI in the SoCon (before this season, of course); 2003 was its debut in the Big South. The following year, 2004, McCombs’ squad finished 0-11 (two of McCombs’ previous VMI teams finished 1-10). Two years later under new head coach Jim Reid the Keydets would finish 1-10 yet again.
When VMI joined the Big South, it got the chance to continue rivalries with Richmond and William & Mary and avoid yearly beatings by schools like Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. (The Eagles and Keydets met ten times in SoCon play. GSU won all ten games by an average score of 47-6.)
However, it didn’t really work out the way the VMI administration had envisioned. For one thing, VMI’s games against Richmond and William & Mary weren’t particularly competitive. VMI as a Big South member was 0-11 against the Spiders, allowing on average 40 points per contest. The Keydets haven’t defeated William & Mary since 1985 and its losses against the Tribe since 2003 are as follows: 34-24, 42-6, 41-7, 38-6, 63-16, 52-17, 45-0, and 21-7.
Perhaps more importantly, VMI couldn’t win in Big South conference play either. Schools like the SoCon’s App State and GSU were replaced by growing institutions such as Coastal Carolina and Liberty that proved to have significant advantages in resources (not to mention different standards in admissions; plus, their players didn’t have to survive the Rat Line). VMI defeated CCU and Liberty a combined three times in its Big South history.
The school didn’t have too much luck against the other conference teams either. VMI never had a winning league record while in the Big South, and finished its run in the conference with an overall league record of 12-42.
I mentioned earlier that Sparky Woods has yet to suffer through a winless or 1-loss season, but he has had four 2-win campaigns. This year, there is a chance VMI’s victory over Davidson in its home opener may be the only win the Keydets enjoy all season.
When VMI was re-admitted to the Southern Conference, the question that immediately came up was an obvious one. What were VMI’s plans to improve football? Did it have a plan to improve football?
SoCon commissioner John Iamarino responded:
They’ve taken some internal steps, I think, with regard to how they fund the program, how they allocate resources. They are quite aware that football is very important at VMI and certainly to the Southern Conference. I’ve often said, and it’s true I believe, nobody joins a conference to be the doormat, and I know that’s the case with all of [the new members].
None of them are coming in wanting to be at the bottom of the league. Everybody is going to be competitive. We hope that being in the Southern Conference will aid recruiting efforts at VMI, and at Mercer, and at East Tennessee State. That’s what we’ve been told by their administrators and head coaches when we’ve visited those campuses, and we trust that will be the case.
It is interesting that despite all of VMI’s gridiron problems, the school reportedly received more support for its re-entry into the league than did Mercer or East Tennessee State. Maybe VMI’s administration gave the current membership some specifics as to how the program would get better.
VMI simply has to figure out a way to show some flexibility while maintaining its traditionally high standards. From what I understand, that has not been a priority of its current administration. That needs to change. Perhaps it will.
The school has been more competitive in recent years in basketball and baseball, among other sports. I think that is due to good coaching (particularly hoops coach Duggar Baucom), and possibly the fact that it may be easier at VMI to manage schedules/transportation/nutritional needs/etc. for a smaller group of athletes than what is required to have a successful football program.
VMI also has to provide the appropriate resources to fund its program, including coaching salaries. The school reportedly lags in that area. Moving to the Southern Conference won’t be of any benefit to VMI if it doesn’t make a commitment to do so.
Obviously I want The Citadel to beat VMI every year and retain the coveted Silver Shako, the greatest trophy in all of sports. However, I really wish that VMI were more successful on the gridiron. No school should have to go through 33 consecutive non-winning seasons, especially one with such loyal fans.
The Citadel has only had two winning seasons since 1997, but VMI is a reminder that things could be worse. Much worse.
There is a little bit of “that could be us” for a supporter of The Citadel when looking at VMI’s travails. I would imagine some Navy fans might feel the same way about the current state of the Army program.
You know that there are differences in the respective programs, and those differences are a major reason why one has really struggled while the other has remained competitive…but in the back of your mind, there is this gnawing sense that you’re just one major program mistake or two away from falling into the same abyss.
That’s one reason I would like VMI to get its football program off the canvas. I don’t want to have those thoughts.
One final thing: if you see a VMI cadet in uniform on Saturday, just remember that Fred Willard once wore that uniform too…
VMI is a program that’s trying to figure itself out, and so far it doesn’t look like 2014 is the season where that’s going to happen. As young as this team is, that’s no surprise. The Keydets start a freshman at quarterback, two sophomores and a freshman along the interior offensive line, and list only one senior on the depth chart among the front seven of the defense. They come into Annapolis at 1-5, with the lone win coming at the expense of non-scholarship Davidson. VMI has had some success throwing the football, leading the SoCon with 267 passing yards per game. They threw for 321 against Bowling Green. With a defense giving up over 500 total ypg, though, they just can’t keep up.
The last time the Keydets made their way to Annapolis, Navy got off to a slow start before rolling to a 41-3 win. Noah Copeland led the way for the Mids, rushing for 126 yards on 20 carries. Most of those yards came via the FB trap, since VMI’s DEs had a tendency to squat:
As the game progressed, Navy didn’t run very much true triple option. The success that they were having on the FB trap made VMI’s inside linebackers so focused on the fullback that they abandoned inside-out pursuit. Once that happened, Coach Jasper started running a double option outside, with the playside tackle blocking #1 instead of leaving him unblocked as the QB’s first read. Usually the PST would block a linebacker instead, but he didn’t have to as long as the ILBs were more concerned with the fullback:
You might notice that VMI’s safeties were lined up a mile deep on some of those plays. That’s quite the contrast with the aggressive secondaries that Navy has faced the last three weeks. Given Navy’s record in those games, it wouldn’t surprise me to see VMI play more aggressive this year.
Honestly, though, it shouldn’t matter what VMI does. The Keydets are just aren’t on a level yet where they should be able to compete with Navy. The Mids are going to win, but how they do so is what’s important. In the 2012 game, Navy fumbled 3 times and lost 2 of them. That can’t happen on Saturday. Penalties can’t happen. Mental errors can’t happen. It’s time for the snowball to stop rolling.
The combination of a game against VMI followed by a week off is the scheduling equivalent of taking a deep breath. The team has a chance to focus on itself. Hopefully, that’s exactly what a struggling team needs to clear their heads and get back to playing the way we know they’re capable of.