Inside the Rise of the VMI Keydets football turnaround

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There is no pretense, no massaging of words and, for Virginia Military Institute head coach Scott Wachenheim, absolutely no lack of awareness in the gradual building of his Keydets program these past six years.

VMI is 2-0 for the first time in 16 years.

It owns a pivotal Southern Conference win against rival and then-No. 10 Furman for just the second time since 1980.

Most recently, the Keydets are entering Saturday's game against Mercer on the heels their first-ever win at Western Carolina and in snapping a 17-game losing skid to the Catamounts.

Wachenheim knows his presence atop the program for a sixth season might have never happened in a setting with more immediate demands and lacking patience.

“We defined that culture of the team, and we let the team define the culture,” Wachenheim tells FootballScoop. “It started to show, but not so much wins and losses. We were close, fighting and playing better football, but finally in Year 5, we were 5-7 with two losses being to Marshall and Army.

“I think our players have bought more into it, own it more because of our core values of grit, brotherhood and purpose. They could have fired me and didn't. I think they saw academic improvements, character improvements and their patience was rewarded.”

THE LIFE OF A KEYDET

In a season unlike any other, COVID-19 shifting the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs to this spring, the Keydets are perhaps early beneficiaries of the demanding life of a VMI student.

Their campus lives include things like the 'Rat Line,' where individual identities yield to following orders and becoming part a larger unit; teamwork off the field in advance of teamwork on it.

“It's insane,” VMI offensive coordinator Billy Cosh says of the 'Rat Line.' “My first year here I learned a little bit about it. Usually it starts in August during camp. The first two weeks, they get a haircut, their identity kind of changes. Those kids are tired. Different things in any day, they're getting challenged. We're not Ivy League, but we've got pretty good academics here. Once they break out, they're different people.”

Typical days for the Keydets include being up by 6:30 a.m. They clean their rooms and proceed to their mentors' lodging, where they are responsible for “rolling up their hay,” aka tidying their sleeping quarters. This is followed by their trek to formation, flag-raising both the United States' and Commonwealth of Virginia's banners, and then directly into breakfast and a full day of classes.

Team meetings begin at 4; practice starts at 5 and finishes promptly, this being a military academy, at 6:45. Dinner is 7:30, two nights a week feature study hall and lights-out always is by 11.

PLAYERS OWN CULTURE CHANGE

Sure, the approach is indoctrinated as part of the fabric of the school but the Keydets also own their approach.

Wachenheim traces the transition to total player ownership in establishing the culture – building from Randy Jackson's “Culture Beats Strategy” book – in the aftermath of a winless 2017 campaign.

“We selected 14 squad leaders for our 14 racks in the weight room and they had a draft on who they wanted on their squad,” Wachenheim says. “Competitions where squads would win some equipment they really wanted. We challenged those leaders to come up with one word to define as a core value. We took those nine or 10, because a couple repeated, and we got together to pick three.

“Grit is brotherhood and purpose; it is resilience, the brotherhood in two of us is stronger than one.”

In challenging his team to create its own mission statement, Wachenheim remembers now-senior defensive back A.J. Smith unflinchingly meeting the moment.

“A.J. said 'Ten toes down. That's our mission statement,'” says Wachenheim, an Air Force Academy graduate with formative teachings from both Ken Hatfield and Bill McCartney. “To stand firm. So then we went on that and defined it further. To be alert because teammates need encouragement and to hold yourself accountable. To stand firm in their faith. Why do you believe what you believe? Be ready to defend that.

“We want them to act like men, open doors for people, say, 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' Treat women with dignity and respect. Be strong, be gritty, tough. But then you've gotta do everything in love.”

Early in this season, there is little not to love about what they Keydets are doing on the field.

'WE'RE NOT PLAYING SCARED'

Moreover, they're doing so with an approach geared toward ensuring football continues “to be the best part of their days.”

Translation: The Keydets deploy a hyper-aggressive, attacking defense – one with nine sacks in the opening win against Furman – and an uptempo, “Air Raid” offense with 83 passes in two games.

“Coach Wachenheim wants to attack,” says Cosh, a former Maryland high school record-holder at quarterback who played collegiately at both Houston and Kansas State. “The way we play offense, you would think military academy, wishbone, and most do run some variation. We're exotic where we throw it. We want to be explosive. The SoCon is an option league for the most part, and preparing for us is a little different.

“It's awesome and the way our defense is playing is awesome. We're not playing scared. We're going to let it rip, and our kids believe in that approach [on both sides].”

The intangible benefits to that kind of empowering approach are many, explains VMI recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach Patrick Ashford.

“I think it gives you confidence in what you're doing every day and the work you're putting in,” says Ashford, a former University of Tennessee backup quarterback whose coaching and life approaches are aimed at honoring his late mother, Cari, who died of cancer two months ago. “The mental aspect, it helps you be able to take the next step to winning some games you thought you might not be able to win and to go compete for a championship. That winning mind-set is what a win like that (Furman win) can do.

“You know what you can do but you've got to stay hungry. Just understanding there's always more that we can be better at. Coach Cosh demands excellence, and we're following that every day.”

A roster that Wachenheim says needs to include two-thirds of its members from Virginia also is tailored to the wide-open attack.

"We've been able to recruit some good receivers and changed what our offensive line looked like," Wachenheim says. "When we first got here, we had the old 'Winnie the Pooh' offensive line: short, fat and proud of that. There's a huge difference there. We've been able to operate in the 'Air Raid,' and I think it fits what we do here at VMI."

Even without as many wins on the field in his first five seasons, Wachenheim sees his revamped coaching staff as evidence in the proper reconstruction of the VMI program.

His voice beams with pride in discussing one obscure stat: Wachenheim's list of fired former staffers below him is zero.

Yet among his former assistants now in key roles elsewhere include Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton, his son, Tyson Wachenheim, in a graduate assistant role at Indiana University, Catawba offensive coordinator Dustin Ward and previous staffers making stops at Georgia Tech, Minnesota, Richmond and William & Mary, among others.

“We've had to hire 32 coaches here in six years,” says Wachenheim, his previous stints including offensive coordinator roles with both Rice and Virginia as well as a stint as tight ends coach for the NFL's Washington Football Team. “Guys have left for good jobs and pay raises. I've never fired a single coach as a head football coach.

“There's only two of us that have been here six years, myself and Tom Clark the defensive coordinator. I can tell you this, there was some times it was very difficult, but my faith was in God and my faith that I was supposed to be here and this was the challenge I was meant for.”

Next challenge is Mercer, a team with four consecutive wins against the Keydets and five in six all-time meetings on the field.

This 2-0 start in this most unusual season is progress; a step forward but not the destination.

“Our kids are confident, but they're also hungry for more,” says Cosh, in his first season as the play-caller but third on staff. “You win, you want to enjoy winning but you also don't want to get overconfident. Be humble and hungry. Mercer, I've never beaten Mercer since I've been here.

“Our kids have great balance, they see the big picture. We're always chasing the next. Having success is good, but you want to find what's next. I think our best game is still coming up.”

On to the next obstacle; direct. It's the only path for the Keydets.