The Struggle of Building a Program at VMI

VMI's military component presents obstacles to recruiting and retaining quality players, especially in today's transfer portal era

VMI's offensive line facing off against Bucknell's defensive line
Source: Nathan Light

It was not too long ago that VMI was celebrating their SoCon championship in a shortened COVID season. Instead of playing during the fall, the SoCon decided to play their 2020 season in the spring of 2021. This not only saw a shortened season, but also SoCon favorites Chattanooga withdraw from playing in order to remain healthy for the fall 2021 season.

The Spring 2021 season saw VMI clinch the SoCon championship for the first time in 20 years as well as being ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in program history. Furthermore, they made the programs first playoff appearance which was unfortunately short lived as they lost to JMU in the first round of the FCS Playoffs.

Fast forward to the Fall 2021 season and hopes were high for VMI as the defending SoCon Champions. Although they weren’t projected to win the SoCon, they came into the season with a sense of swagger that had been missing from previous years. Seth Morgan was entering his first full season as the starting quarterback after taking over for the injured Reece Udinski in the spring and they had All-American wide receiver Jakob Herres and a stout defense. VMI started off the season 2-1 before heading into conference play. However, VMI ended up going 4-4 in conference with losses against The Citadel, ETSU, Furman and Western Carolina.

New Year — New Coaches

This past offseason has been a difficult one for VMI. Their offensive coordinator Bill Cosh, who had them averaging 30+ points a game, headed off to become Richmond’s offensive coordinator. Furthermore, their defensive coordinator Tom Clark resigned to become the assistant head coach/defensive coordinator at Hampden-Sydney College. These departures kicked off turnover that saw a multitude of assistant coaches finding new homes.

VMI has often been a starting point for someone’s coaching career, gaining experience and then going off to greener pastures. This is definitely a hallmark of what head coach Scott Wachenheim has been able to do with the program over the past eight years at the helm. However, one could argue that a lack of stability in coaches could impact the recruitment and retaining of players.

Along with the turnover of coaches this season, the portal took a toll on VMI’s program. For those that don’t know, VMI is a military college that only offers an undergraduate program. This causes a multitude of issues when it comes to the portal and recruiting talent in general.

Issues Recruiting and Retaining Talent

With VMI not offering a grad program, if a player that is set to graduate after the season still has eligibility, they have two choices, delay their graduation or graduate and transfer to another program. This past offseason, VMI lost Ethan Caselberry, Jacob Peace, Jakob Herres, Michael Jackson, Nicholas Hartnett, Shane Strand, Warren Dabney, and Will Bunton Jr. to the portal. Furthermore, not only are graduating players a target in the portal, but so are underclassmen as coaches see the talent VMI brings out in a player and want them on their team. An example of this is Kris Thornton and Josh Sarratt who both transferred from VMI to JMU after the 2019 fall season and 2020 spring season respectively. Whether that was them using VMI as a stepping stone to get to a school they wanted to go to or VMI just wasn’t a good fit, only they and those around them know the answer to that question.

There is already the known issue of not being able to bring in grad transfers, but bringing in an undergraduate can be difficult. For example, if a player is academically a Sophomore, Junior, or Senior, going to VMI you go through the ratline with the incoming freshman class. Even though the player is going to graduate in 1-3 years, they are treated as a freshman and that is hard to sell. Even though VMI does offer players in the transfer portal, they are usually the only program that does not receive a transfer.

Not necessarily portal related, but VMI has to award 67% of scholarships to instate athletes. This greatly reduces the ability to recruit the states that fellow SoCon teams can. For example, the top three states with the most football talent are Texas, Florida and California, and these states are practically off limits in terms of recruiting effort. Furthermore, if the second issue wasn’t a big enough impact to the program recruiting the transfer portal, this aspect puts almost a full stop to that.

Another aspect of VMI is the obvious military aspect of the school. There are some players that want that aspect in their life, they want the structure that is gives them. However, there are players coming into college (or transferring) that just want that regular college life. Some will say the ratline can be harsh and rigorous as it is meant to develop military leaders and that is true, however, I would argue the mental toughness someone needs to get through the ratline translates to the football field. Unfortunately, players that are willing to go through all of that will most likely pick West Point, the Naval Academy or the Air Force academy instead of going to VMI as that puts them on a national stage. Furthermore, to my knowledge, VMI does not have any NIL deals whereas other colleges and universities do. With NIL deals becoming a lucrative business when it comes to recruiting, that is another ding against building a program at VMI.

Cause for Concern or the Beginning of a SoCon Powerhouse?

Even though the program has done an amazing job recruiting within Virginia, recently getting a commitment from a 3 star recruit from Newport News, if they want to get to the next level they need to start leveraging the transfer portal. Implementing a graduate program would allow VMI to be more competitive in the SoCon and hopefully in the FCS playoffs. The amount of FBS players that have transferred to the FCS this year is a player pool that VMI is not able to tap into.

Scott Wachenheim is VMI’s 4th head coach since 2000 and is in his 8th season at the helm with a record of 24-56, surpassing his predecessor Sparky Woods in wins and tenure. In his first four seasons (2015-2018) at the helm VMI either finished dead last in the SoCon or 8th. As a VMI alumni myself, I would consider those growing pains from taking over from Sparky Woods. His 5th season VMI went 4-4 in SoCon play leaving them tied for 4th place. However, as mentioned previously, in his 6th year VMI won the SoCon and their first ever FCS Playoff berth. However, the Fall 2021 season would see them go 4-4 in conference play leaving them tied for 4th again.

Wachenheim has shown what he is capable of as a head coach given the circumstances that come with a military college; this is one of the reasons he was rumored to be in the running for the ETSU head coaching position before they hired George Quarles. However, to let him build VMI into a SoCon championship powerhouse that can compete with the likes of Chattanooga, Samford, and Mercer, he needs more resources. I personally would like to see Wachenheim surpass John McKenna as VMI’s all-time winningest coach which is only a 62-60 record.

Although this year hasn’t started as expected for VMI, it is another growing year for them due to items mentioned above. If they can get through this year and retain players and staff heading into next year, I don’t see a reason they couldn’t compete for a SoCon Championship and another playoff berth.

VMI has a very active and vocal alumni network and it is time for them to band together and make a request to the board of visitors for a graduate program. Furthermore, if VMI could get NIL deals going with local businesses or even businesses started by VMI alumni, this would help in today's recruiting. They could even look to create something like a student village that isn't on campus that could be utilized by graduates, cadets exercising their 5th year of eligibility or even 5th year men returning from a deployment.

Combining all of this could see VMI get "better" money games like Samford playing #2 Georgia, Furman playing #4 Clemson this year or playing three FBS opponents like The Citadel did during the 2020-2021 season, they need to become more active. The payouts from these games can be astronomical and really help the program out, although VMI had one of the lowest payouts amount SoCon teams this year.