VMI administration’s faith in Scott Wachenheim rewarded
VMI football had to endure a couple of quite lean years as Scott Wachenheim, hired in 2014, tried to start yet another rebuild on The Post.
The 2017-2018 stretch saw the Keydets win just one game, an ugly 20-11 win over D2 Tusculum, but even in that 1-21 stretch, particularly in the one-win 2018 season, there were glimpses.
A narrow loss to The Citadel, tight matchups with Western Carolina and Mercer, a one-score loss to Chattanooga.
Then came a bit of a breakthrough in 2019 – a 5-7 finish that included a 4-4 mark in SoCon play, the first time since 1979 that a VMI team would win four games in conference play.
And if not for bad bounces in two one-score losses to Mercer and Western Carolina, the Keydets could have posted their first winning season since 1981.
That’s how long the rebuilds have been going on – dating back to the days of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
All of this is prelude to the game at Foster Stadium on Saturday featuring a 5-0, 10th-ranked VMI team that can clinch a SoCon title with a win over ETSU.
It’s a championship game, in effect, but that won’t be a concern for Wachenheim and his team.
“The way I look at it, and I believe the team looks at it, is that every week is for the championship. I believe that in order to guarantee that you win the championship, you got to win every game in conference that you play. So each and every week this year to me, it’s been a conference championship game,” Wachenheim said on a Zoom call with reporters this week.
The fact that the VMI media-relations staff had to set up a Zoom call with reporters for Wachenheim is a sign of how different things are on The Post these days.
COVID-19 public health restrictions have limited attendance at home games, but Wachenheim has been deluged with well-wishes from alums in addition to the slew of media requests.
“I’ve gotten some emails, some texts and phone calls, some dm’s, some, whatever you call them on Facebook, messages, and you know, they’re all been very congratulatory, very happy,” Wachenheim said.
“It’s the first time since 1960 that VMI started 5-0, first time we’ve ever beaten Western Carolina in Cullowhee, first time we ever beat Wofford at Wofford, I mean, the list goes on and on and on. We’re making history this year, and the alumni are proud, and I think a lot of them don’t believe it’s happening. I think a lot of them never thought it would happen.
“I always thought it would,” Wachenheim said. “From the time they hired me, I said, we can do it, but you’ve got to be patient. It’s not something you can turn around in one, two, three, four years. It took us five years to show some serious progress. We were 5-7, with two losses being to FBS teams, and so I thought last year was a pretty doggone good season. This year we’ve played extremely well and found a way to win the close ones.”
Indeed, the games that in 2018 and 2019 went the other way have gone the direction of VMI in 2021.
The Keydets recovered a fumble on the edge of the red zone to preserve a 14-13 win over then-#10 Furman to win their opener on Feb. 27, then won 38-37 at Samford in OT on a game-winning two-point conversion.
Last week, VMI rallied from an early hole to take the lead into the fourth quarter, then had to drive for the winning score with 35 seconds left to beat Wofford, 36-31.
“I’ve had more than my close here have a fair share of close games throughout my time here at VMI. Just fortunately, we’re finding a way to make one more play than our opponents, which in the past, those wheels of fortune were reversed,” Wachenheim said.
There’s still work to do. The goal for 40 years has been to just get another winning season, but when you’re playing for a conference title and FCS playoff spot the next couple of weeks, it would be disappointing if all you’d end up with from 2021 is just that winning season.
That said, it’s an OK time to allow Wachenheim to reflect.
He was likely a couple of bad bounces away from being out of a job.
“I don’t know if I ever thought they might make a change. I just understood that in this business, they had the opportunity to make a change,” Wachenheim said. “I’m just appreciative that they gave me the opportunity to finish my contract out and then renewed me, too. Because I like this team. I like the young men that our staff and I’ve recruited.
“I think they saw that we were doing the right things, were recruiting good kids, they were making good grades, they were buying into what VMI is all about, and the product was getting better on the football field. You could see that.
“It wasn’t showing up and wins and losses, but anybody that watches us play, watches us compete, and watches VMI football from before I got here, could tell that this was a much better football team in all phases – offense, defense, kicking game, academics, military and off-the-field performance.
“So, again, I’m thankful that they kept me here. And I’m also thankful that they get to see the fruits of our labors,” Wachenheim said.
Story by Chris Graham