The 2019 football season was the best VMI fans have seen since 1979, when the Big Red finished second in the conference. There were overtime wins, a 50-plus yard field goal, resolve in the face of distractions and oh-by-the-way, the Silver Shako is happily resting back home in Lejeune Hall.
And then there are the postseason accolades: Eight players were recognized on SoCon postseason teams and Scott Wachenheim, head football coach, was named SoCon Coach of the Year. Honors keep rolling in, and Wachenheim’s contract was extended through 2022.
Where does that leave Wachenheim? Proud of his team and proud of his staff, but with his feet firmly planted on the ground. A veteran coach – he’s guided teams at Air Force, Arkansas, Colorado, Utah State, Rice, Liberty, the University of Virginia and even for the NFL’s Washington Redskins – he knows the football world is fluid, fans can be fickle and wins are never guaranteed.
“Even when you’re winning … you’re not scoring enough points, you’re not blitzing enough … There’s always something you can do better. You have to be very strong in getting your self-worth in what you’re doing from things other than the scoreboard,” he said. “You’ve got to, as a coach, get your self-worth from God and not men.” Wachenheim relies on his strong faith to keep him steady and notes, “I’m not perfect by any stretch. I’m a work in progress.”
Fans of the Big Red – normally a pretty steady bunch themselves – were ecstatic this season, particularly when the team beat The Citadel’s Bulldogs, bringing the homesick Silver Shako back to post. Then there was the 48-41 OT win over Samford, which had fans on the edge of their seat through the last seconds. But the season’s final game – a rainy day 31-24 win over Chattanooga – had Wachenheim a little worried.
“I was concerned. We had Ring Figure going on, we had senior appreciation day, we had Thanksgiving furlough. I was worried: Are we going to focus?” Wachenheim recalled. “And wow, we came out and competed at such a high level. Regardless of the score, that gave me great pride and pleasure as I stood on the sideline.”
In the four preceding seasons, when “ecstatic” and “VMI fans” rarely met up in the same sentence, there were several people on post who steadily encouraged the Keydet football team.
“It means a lot to me, and I’m sure it means a lot to the players,” he said. “Anybody can come by when you’re winning … but what’s priceless is someone who encourages you after you lose.”
Some of the stalwarts include Lois Ford-Bouis and Paul Bouis ’67, who have endowed scholarships and serve as academic advisors; former Keydet football captain Col. Eric Hutchings ’77, who attends every bus send-off; and consistent encouragers Col. Gary Bissell ’88, deputy chief of staff and operations; and Col. Pat Looney, deputy director of the Center for Leadership and Ethics.
“What keeps me going during tough times is looking forward to four o’clock and being around the team. They’re always ready and willing to play.”Scott Wachenheim
“These are great kids,” Hutchings said. “I’m going to be out there supporting them whether we’re winless or we’re the conference champs.”
The difference between this year’s team and the past few years was apparent to anyone watching. The players were confident, playing cohesively and learning from – versus being devastated by – small setbacks on the field. The change stems from three areas, Wachenheim explained.
“The number one difference is that the talent level of the athletes is higher,” he said. The second difference stems from an internal culture change which was player-led – versus coach-led. He’s always coached with a mission statement and core values, Wachenheim said, but giving the players the freedom – and responsibility – to establish the team environment took things to a new level.
The third difference came from the coaching staff. “I think this is the best coaching staff I’ve ever had,” Wachenheim said. “They’re very positive, they’re very motivating – they’re great teachers. I think we’ve done a better job coaching this year than any other year.”
Two of the three pillars – talented players and dedicated staff – of the 2019 turnaround are resource-driven. Wachenheim agrees that the season was “probably the best season since 1979. To win four conference games in the Southern Conference, which is one of the top three conferences in all of FCS football, with fewer resources than our opponents – significantly less resources than our opponents – is a tremendous achievement.”
Resources drive talent acquisition for both players and coaches. VMI football players come to VMI to play football. It’s the first thing Wachenheim looks for in a recruit: “A player who loves playing football, that football is his competitive outlet.” Beyond the field, cadet life at VMI clearly differs from the life a football player might lead at other Division I football schools. For recruiting, this requires a particular finesse and communication ability from coaches. The young men who suit up for the Big Red aren’t found around every corner; coaches need to seek them out – which means a recruiting budget. They aren’t always from Virginia – which means a larger scholarship budget.
VMI’s athletics fundraising arm, the VMI Keydet Club, has been raising funds and supporting cadet-athletes for decades. Without the Keydet Club, VMI football – or any other NCAA sport – would likely not exist.
“We wouldn’t have a football team without fundraising,” Wachenheim pointed out. “I hope this season would inspire people to give more, because we truly need to raise our funding to be competitive with the teams in the Southern Conference. We’ve got to have more money for out-of-state scholarships. We’ve got to really step that up – immediately,” Wachenheim said. “Once you get the money for the out of state scholarships … it still takes four years to implement.”
The Keydet Club’s staff – including Meade King ’85 and Andrew Deal ’12 – put countless hours into raising funds for VMI athletics. Their efforts are “vital,” Wachenheim said. “There are a lot of loyal members who have been giving for a long time. What always needs to grow is the young people … I hope the way that our team competed this year that people saw, ‘Hey, we can be competitive.’ I hope they value the Silver Shako being in Lexington and not at the ‘other place,’ and would continue to increase funding so we can catch up and keep up.”
Reasons for supporting Keydet football vary, but for Wachenheim, it’s simple: The cadet-athletes.
“These are young men who love playing football. They’re just the salt of the earth. They’re great young men. They come out to practice every day and work hard,” he said. “What keeps me going during tough times is looking forward to four o’clock and being around the team. They’re always ready and willing to play.”
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Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist
The editorial specialist assists the editor-in-chief in various tasks relating to the production of quarterly and monthly publications, as well as prepares written materials for publication.