While 2021 is shaping up to be a year that many will love to leave behind, the 2021 spring football season was one to remember for Scott Wachenheim and his Virginia Military Institute Keydets. As head coach for VMI, Wachenheim and his staff made huge strides for his program and raised the standard even higher for an institution renowned for its ability to produce and develop leadership skills at the highest levels.
Wachenheim was named the 2021 Spring AFCA FCS National Coach of the Year. He was selected by a vote of the Active AFCA members at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) schools. The AFCA has named a Coach of the Year since 1935.
He earned his first AFCA national honor by guiding VMI to a 6-2 record, the program’s first Southern Conference title since 1977 and its first-ever playoff appearance. The spring 2021 season was the Keydets’ first winning campaign since 1981 and the team earned its first national ranking since joining the FCS ranks in 1982. VMI was ranked in every AFCA FCS Top 25 poll during spring 2021, with a high of No. 10 on March 30.
Wachenheim began his coaching career in 1984 at Air Force after a four-year playing career. He was the offensive coordinator on the academy’s junior varsity squad before active-duty commitment took him away from coaching. Wachenheim returned to coaching in 1989 as an assistant at Arkansas under his former head coach, Ken Hatfield. He spent two seasons with the Razorbacks before joining the Colorado staff for one year. Wachenheim rejoined Hatfield at Rice from 1994 to 2005, serving as the Owls’ offensive coordinator his last five seasons.
Wachenheim joined the Liberty football program in 2006 and served as the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for three years before making the jump to the NFL as tight ends coach at Washington in 2009. He returned to college football at Virginia in 2010, serving as offensive line coach his last four years before being named head coach at VMI in 2015.
“We went out and made history together last season, and it really is what Virginia Military Institute is all about: overcoming adversity through perseverance and grit,” says Wachenheim. “It gives me a sense of pride because we really did start from the bottom with an 0-11 record in season three. That led to a lot of research on my part, because my original vision for winning wasn’t getting it done at VMI. And so I had to ask the question: How do we move forward?”
The first puzzle piece Wachenheim needed to identify was how to instill a culture within the program that was driven by players instead of the coaches. It’s an easy thing to say, but not so easy to implement. How could he develop a culture in which players felt ownership?
The second piece of the puzzle was to find and develop offensive, defensive and special teams systems that fit the players available to him. With two-thirds of the team coming from the state of Virginia, he needed to understand which offensive and defensive systems might be attractive to players coming from that state.
The final piece of the puzzle was to find personnel. How could he find and recruit better, more talented players in a region loaded with highly recruited talent at an institution that was more academically demanding that the vast majority of universities out there.
“It meant a lot to us that we put together this plan and our players stepped up and made big-time plays when it counted,” he says. “It’s always nice to see a vision come to fruition.”
Perhaps the greatest unknown element in this new system was developing the player-driven culture. First of all, the word “culture” — like the word “family” — is so widely used among coaches, and it means so many different things, that it can lose its essence when it is needed most.
Wachenheim spent the early part of his career working for men like Ken Hatfield, Bill McCartney and Danny Rocco, all highly successful coaches in their own right and outstanding mentors from which to learn. But in many cases, their cultures were driven by the coaches.
“They had coach-led culture that took over the team, and those teams succeeded,” says Wachenheim. “I came into Virginia Military Institute with the things I learned from Coach Hatfield, Coach McCartney and Coach Rocco, and I instilled those values. But I didn’t feel after year three that we had complete team buy-in.”
Wachenheim is quick to explain that this is in no way a judgement on those coaches’ approach to the game, but rather on his ability to achieve buy-in.
“Then I read a book called Culture Defeats Strategy,” says Wachenheim. The book was written by recently retired North Forney (Texas) High School head coach Randy Jackson. “The biggest takeaway I got from it was that when coaching the modern athlete, the player has to be part of the culture if you’re going to get 100 percent buy-in.”
So Wachenheim and his staff set off down that road and came up with a player-led mission statement, which was “10 Toes Down.”
“We came up with the three core values: grit, brotherhood and purpose,” he says. “That was a huge driving force in implementing change. For us, 10 Toes Down means to be alert. Encourage yourself and your teammates. Hold yourself and your teammates accountable. The second thing it means to me is to stand firm. We want to have guys that will stand firm in their faith and be willing to defend their faith, whatever their faith is. Third was to act like men, which fits well at VMI. Real men are men of honor. Men treat women with dignity and respect. Men say, ‘Yes sir, no sir, please and thank you.'”
The fourth element of 10 Toes Down was to be strong. Life is tough. VMI is tough. Winning football games is tough. They would be strong; they wouldn’t back down. They’d persevere with grit and determination.
“The last thing — which was the most important thing, which really exemplified our team last season — was to do everything with love,” says Wachenheim. “I think we had an advantage playing in the spring during the COVID era, because a lot of our young men choose to come to VMI to play football and get a great degree — a top 50 education and military leadership training — but they really wanted to come and play Division I football. Our guys really wanted to play, and through all of the adversity, the love for each other really grew, and we could see it pan out as the season went on.”
From an offensive and defensive standpoint, Wachenheim needed to identify systems that lent themselves to what players already knew a little about.
“A long time ago, Coach Hatfield taught me that you either have to do the same things better than everyone else, or you have to do them differently,” says Wachenheim. “After year three, I looked around our league, and we were primarily a running league. There was a lot of option football at the time with The Citadel, Wofford and Furman. We just had to do something different.”
Wachenheim chose an Air Raid style of offense, and it paid dividends. Not only is it much easier to recruit slot receivers than it is to recruit wishbone backs, but in the current era of football, it’s much easier to find quarterbacks who are elusive, fast runners and also accurate passers.
Defensively, the program approached it the same way. Initially, Wachenheim used a defensive style that worked well for one of his former colleagues at Liberty University, but it never really clicked at VMI. He learned that he was able to achieve a similar level of success using a different defense and player type available to be recruited to VMI.
“We decided to be an aggressive, blitzing press-man defensive unit, and that paid dividends,” he says. “It’s an exciting defense to play in, and that helped us recruit young men that wanted to play that kind of defense.
“Those were the biggest schematic changes we made, changes that passed through to fit the culture. We changed systems that we ran on offense and defense to fit the style of the young men we could recruit and be different from the rest of our league.”
The Right Man For The Job
For every team in the league, recruiting became significantly challenging over the past two years. The era of COVID introduced us to technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and while it definitely showcased what those technologies are capable of, it also highlighted their extensive limitations.
In a game that demands one-to-one contact between player and coach, recruiting over computer monitor and handheld device removed the personality from the equation.
“It was even harder in a COVID environment because we didn’t get to go the high schools; we didn’t get to see the rival high schools or sit in living rooms. We did everything on
the phone, via social media, via Zoom or Microsoft teams,” says Wachenheim. “So for this year’s recruiting class, that was difficult.”
As in-person recruiting becomes the norm again, Wachenheim says he will use some tried-and-true approaches that deliver results when selecting appropriate personnel.
“When I was in Houston, Texas, for 12 years at Rice University, I learned this,” he says. “You can ask a high school coach about a young man, but as Coach Hatfield used to joke, the only two people that will exaggerate a young man’s abilities are his high school coach and his mom. He used to tell me when I was recruiting to also ask any random person in the hall, ask somebody at the front office or ask someone in the registrar’s office what this young man is like, and you’re more likely to get a true answer.”
At the same time, if a coach recommends a young man, Wachenheim likes to find a high school team that competes against the young man and ask the coaches if they know him.
“Especially if he runs track,” says Wachenheim. “If a rival high school track coach has been to a track meet where that young man is competing, odds are he knows him. At a track meet, athletes spend a lot of time there to run just one or two events. You learn a lot about people when you sit there and watch.”
Wachenheim is the first to admit that he and his staff aren’t really 100 percent correct in their assessments, but after getting a variety of opinions from folks who aren’t specifically tied to the football program, if he hears positive feedback, he knows he’s got a pretty good person he’s dealing with.
Walking The Talk
Still, assessments without prior knowledge are just words that may bear little — if any — connection to reality. And culture — like assessments — amounts to just so many words if there’s nothing there to back it up. It’s why Wachenheim and his staff do the work to understand their players and support them once they arrive at VMI.
“You have to coach these guys with a different sort of demeanor,” he says. “It’s not that you don’t push them and don’t encourage them. It’s not that you don’t coach them hard. You do. But you also have to make sure they know you love them. Our kids are under high levels of stress: football stress, academic stress, military stress. And we have to get done in practice in 1.5 hours what other schools get done in 2 hours.
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“You have to have a sense for what happened in a young man’s day before he steps in the meeting room or on the practice field, because he may need a pat on the back or he may need to know everything’s going to be alright. We intentionally make our practices more fun because of that. We play music, we practice fast and we have energy. I know lots of coaches do that, but we need to be purposeful about it. And then, sometimes as a coach, you have to be willing to cut your practice short because your players are tired from the physical requirements of being at a military school. You have to be a great observer, and if I see a tired football team out there, I’m going to cut the practice down and start shaving minutes off of team period and individual period and make sure we’re fresh for kickoff.”
Sometimes when things don’t go to plan, the first place to look is in the mirror. After a dismal record in the fall of 2019, Wachenheim and his staff did just that, and now they’ve
set themselves on a path to sustained progress. And they’re getting better every day.
This article was written by Paul Markgraff, managing editor of AFCA Magazine and AFCA Insider.