Before we move into football this weekend, let’s do two things. First, the most important and thank all of those who have served in the military on this Veterans Day. It cannot be understated how much of debt of gratitude we owe this country’s brave men and women who volunteer to protect this Country’s safety and freedoms, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice.
Secondly, let’s welcome back the great game of College Basketball which tips of its regular season tonight. Yes, it has problems like the constant run of one-and-done players, and the regular season is largely ignored until after the Super Bowl as the sport fights for relevance among College and NFL Football, but it also ends with the year’s best sporting event in the NCAA Tournament. College Basketball wastes little time in presenting interesting games. Tonight’s Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii has 4 of the nation’s top 12 teams as Number 3 Kansas faces Number 11 Indiana and Number 10 Arizona faces number 12 Michigan State. Now, if only we could go an entire season without having to endure Dick Vitale.
Now to Football, and this weekend for the 72nd time they’ll play the “Military Classic of the South” on the post in Lexington, Virginia as the Keydets of Virginia Military Institute host the Bulldogs of The Citadel. In some ways, these schools couldn’t be more similar, but when it comes to Football, they couldn’t be more different.
Both VMI and The Citadel are two of six of what are referred to as “Senior Military Colleges” formed under the provision of Title 10 of the United States Code. That means that these two schools, along with 4 others require their military students to participate in military ROTC programs, choosing from one representing each branch of the Armed Forces. However, unlike West Point and the Naval Academy, the Students at these schools are not required to accept a military commission upon graduation and in fact, VMI and The Citadel report that only about 1/3 to 1/2 of their graduating students will make the military their career. The other 4 Senior Military Colleges are the University of North Georgia, Norwich University in Vermont, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech. In the case of A&M and Virginia Tech, they are the only two of the six that have a full military college inside of a larger student body.
Officially, The Citadel is known as “The Military College of South Carolina” and was established in Charleston, South Carolina in 1842. It is a public institution so the campus is open and having done so, I would encourage anyone in Charleston to stop by the campus on a Friday in the fall or spring for the weekly “dress parade” in which all of the “South Carolina Core of Cadets” participate. It has an enrollment of about 3,500 students, but unlike VMI offers civilian evening programs for Graduate Students, which comprise about 1,000 of its enrolled students.
VMI sits in the historic town of Lexington, Virginia. Like The Citadel it is a public institution and so it is open to the public, and you can drive through it’s historic campus on the hill called the “post”. VMI was the nation’s first state supported military college founded in 1839 and enrolls about 1,500 students all of whom – like the Citadel – must be under 22 years old and unmarried. Both schools have unique names for their Freshman class known as “Fourth Class Students”. At VMI they are known as “Rats”. At The Citadel, they are called “Knobs” a name derived from the bald heads the fourth class students sport once they arrive on campus. Yes, Donald Trump would have to lose that rug of his to be a cadet at The Citadel.
But for all of their similarities, these two schools couldn’t be more different when it comes to winning football games. Apparently The Citadel has figured out something that VMI either cannot or refuses to figure out. The Citadel enters this game with a 9-0 record having already won the Southern Conference Championship and the league’s automatic berth to the FCS Playoffs. This is The Citadel’s last Conference game. They’ll finish with a non-conference game next week at North Carolina. Even if they lose to VMI (and after Tuesday isn’t anything possible?) they hold the tie-breaker with Chattanooga after beating the Mocs earlier this year. The Citadel isn’t going to be confused with a football power, but they are ranked 6th in the FCS coming into this game and since 1981, they have won 176 games, lost 184 and tied 3 (pretty competitive for a military school), won 2 conference titles before this year and been to the FCS playoffs 4 times prior to this season. The school is also known for launching the Coaching Career of Bobby Ross, who would win a National Title at Georgia Tech and coach the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl, and the Hall-of-Fame coaching career of former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer.
VMI is the oldest school in the Southern Conference having joined when it was formed 78 years ago. The school has won 7 Southern Conference Championships, but last won the title in 1977 when they went 7-4. In 1981 under coach Bob Thalman VMI went 6-3-1 beating Virginia Tech 6-0 along the way. Since then, the school hasn’t had a winning season and its best record in that span was a pair of back-to-back 6-6 seasons in 2002 and 2003.
In the 34 years since their last winning season, VMI has won just 82 games while losing 293 with two ties. If you do the math that averages out to 2 wins per season. VMI has endured 8 seasons since 1981 with just 1 win, and two winless seasons of 0-11. Entering this year, the Keydets hadn’t won more than 4 games since 2008 and won just two each of the past 5 seasons.
It’s also been a place where coaches go to die. Frankly, VMI appears to have tried just about every type of coach in that span to reverse the program’s fortunes. After Thalman, the school hired South Carolina Offensive Coordinator Eddie Williamson, a fine man who won just 10 games in 4 seasons. He was replaced by a man with Military school coaching experience in Jim Shuck. Another fine man who won just 14 games in 5 years. When Shuck was let go, the school hired West Virginia native and ball of energy Bill Stewart (the same Bill Stewart who would go on to coach West Virginia). Stewart didn’t win many games, just 8 in 3 seasons, but he might have had VMI on the right trajectory if he hadn’t done what he later did at West Virginia and inflicted his own wound. Stewart was forced to resign when the story broke in 1996 that he called one of his African American players the “N” word in practice. The player said he wasn’t offended, but the school was and Stewart served time in football exile coaching in the Canadian Football League before resurfacing in Morgantown.
When Stewart was let go, VMI made a decision that may well have set the program back decades. The school hired N.C. State Offensive Coordinator Ted Cain to be the head coach. Cain was in over his head from the start not only failing to understand the military component of VMI, but trying to make the program N.C. State North. He redesigned the schools uniforms and helmets to look like N.C. State. The result was 1 win in just two seasons and Cain has never been – and will never be – a head coach again. When VMI fired Cain, they actually made what appeared to be a great decision, hiring an Air Force assistant named Cal McCombs. McCombs is responsible for the two back-to-back seasons of 6 wins in 2002 and 2003, but he couldn’t sustain the success and became another casualty of VMI. Jim Reid then arrived from a coordinator spot at a Division 1 school to try his hand. He got off to a rocky start by telling everyone in his opening press conference that VMI was going to win a national championship. Two years and just 3 wins later, Reid bolted town for a coordinator job at another school. Enter Tennessee native Sparky Woods, a former head coach at Appalachian State and South Carolina. VMI gave him 7 years to try and he won just 17 games, and was buried in the coaching graveyard with all of his predecessors.
The current VMI coach is former University of Virginia Assistant Scott Wachenheim, who like some others has some experience coaching at a military school, and while Wachenheim is trying his best and has made some progress this season, he’s certain to meet the same fate as the others due to the fact that in my opinion VMI cares more about being “VMI” than winning football games.
Recruiting to VMI is next to impossible due to the rigors of the school’s first year program known as the “Rat Line”. First years or “Rats” are treated as such. They must walk in a certain fashion at attention along a certain line in the barracks (which I can tell you from experience having worked a basketball camp there are NOT air-conditioned), must memorize the school’s “rat bible” which includes the rules of the institution and the names of VMI cadets killed at the “Battle of New Market” during the Civil War (like that has any relevant today), adhere to rigorous regulations, being confined to quarters and the post most weekends, dropping for push ups, getting yelled at constantly and being subject to late night runs. It takes a special kind of person to sign up for that, and finding those who will and can still play football is virtually impossible. If you do make it, you come out with a first class education and a degree that carries a lot of weight with VMI alums across the country. A lot don’t and determine that the “rat line” which ends after 6 months with a brutal physical exercise known as “break out” isn’t worth it. The Citadel has physical training as well, but apparently the school believes that actually winning in football is just as important as military training for a student body in which only 1/2 will actually go to the military.
There has been some talk for years about loosening the restrictions a bit to make it easier to recruit at VMI. It’s been mostly talk however because VMI’s alums won’t hear of it because they had to do it and everyone else should have to do it and if you don’t want to do it then don’t come to our school. That means most guys who can actually play competitive football in the Southern Conference won’t. Stubborness shouldn’t be a surprise, as this is after all the school that took the issue of not admitting women all the way to the United States Supreme Court and lost, even though as a state supported institution they were never going to prevail.
Rather than fine tune their military requirements, VMI decided in 2003 to dump the Southern Conference and join what appeared to be the easier Big South. In 11 seasons in the Big South, VMI won just 27 games and lost 90, winning just 12 conference games. In 2014, VMI went back to the Southern Conference with their Athletic Director claiming the “new” Southern Conference was much different from the old one. And that may be, but what isn’t different is VMI’s resistance to evolve and it’s only going to get worse as the “Soccer Mom” kids get older. Heck VMI’s former Basketball coach knew things weren’t going to get any better. The school was paying him nothing so last year he took a new job at The Citadel.
I’ll be the first to admit that VMI games are fun mostly because of the cadets who march into the stadium in mass 45 minutes before the game. It’s a cool little stadium in an historic town, but as long as VMI cares more about VMI they’ll continue to be a Military School with a football problem and if VMI is okay with that, then that’s okay with me. Just don’t tell us every August that this is the year you compete for the conference title.
Games this weekend, Virginia Tech got a solid from Duke last night beating North Carolina. That means if the Hokies beat Georgia Tech they’ll clinch a spot in the ACC Title game in Orlando. Virginia hosts Miami in Charlottesville. From what I read (and that’s my only source), I sense an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with new coach Bronco Mendenhall among U.Va. fans already. He’s a quirky character whose bungled his quarterback position this season and constantly tells everyone they’ll be okay. Well, your record says otherwise and you and your staff still need to prove you can recruit your home state and with what Fuente is doing already in Blacksburg, that isn’t going to be easy.
West Virginia faces Texas on Saturday afternoon in Austin, Texas. The Mountaineers have played themselves out of the playoff by losing to Oklahoma State, but with Baylor now reeling they can all but play themselves into a conference title by beating Texas this week and Oklahoma at home next week. Finally, Tennessee hosts Kentucky on Saturday in Knoxville. Believe it or not despite all the doom and gloom surrounding Butch Jones’ train wreck of a team, if they run the table and win their last 3 they are going to the SEC Title game, because there is no way Florida doesn’t lose again and Tennessee holds the tie-breaker over Florida.
This is the final weekend of the season in Division II and Division III as the playoffs start next week. Our Division II Game of the Week takes us to California, Pennsylvania where the Vulcans of California of Pennsylvania host the Kutztown University Golden Bears in the Championship Game of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. Cal is 9-0 and won the PSAC West Championship. This is Cal’s first appearance in the Conference Title game since 2009 and they won 5 straight conference titles from 2005 – 2009. They score points in bunches, averaging 52.4 points per game this season and their lowest output was 31. Kutztown started 0-3 and has won 7 in a row to claim the PSAC East title. They are making their 3rd appearance in the Conference Championship Game. The winner gets the automatic bid to the NCAA Super Region I Playoffs in Division II. The loser tries to get an at large as 7 teams make the regionals in Division II.
For Division III, it is also time to battle for playoff spots. Division III takes 32 teams into the playoff field. 25 are conference automatic bid winners, there is 1 bid for what the NCAA calls Pool B teams which are teams that are either independent or play in a conference without an automatic bid, and then after that one team is selected the remainder fall into Pool C from which the remaining 6 teams are selected. It is not only possible, but common that a team that has lost just 1 or 2 games is left out. So, for our Division III Game of the Week we have a little AFC North Battle between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Not really, we go to Cleveland, Ohio though where the 9-0 Spartans of Case Western Reserve University host the Tartans of Carnegie Mellon University from Pittsburgh in what is called the 31st Annual “Academic Bowl”. Don’t ask me why. Case Western is looking for a share of its first ever Presidents’ Athletic Conference title, but could in theory miss the playoffs as Thomas More College has already claimed the PAC’s automatic bid based on strength of schedule. C-M holds a 27-18 all time edge in this game.
Finally to the NAIA, were the regular season also comes to an end in Des Moines, Iowa as the 11th ranked Grand View Vikings host the 20th ranked Statesmen of William Penn University for the Championship of the Heart of America Athletic Conference Northern Division Title and a spot in the NAIA playoffs. William Penn is located in Oskaloosa, Iowa which is the home of Musco Lighting. Musco has installed the lights in 10 NFL Stadiums, Washington Nationals Park, Michigan Stadium, Notre Dame Stadium and the Daytona International Speedway among other places. Just for good measure, Musco has also lit Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty.