The boys from The Barracks piled into The Pit Saturday night to hoot and holler for the Virginia Military Institute Keydets to make it 13 straight victories. By the time the last thundering band note had skittere across the basketball court that is jerry-built at one end of an old calvary training hall, the Keydets had not only beaten East Carolina, 67-58, but two seniors, Will Bynum and John Krovic, had broken coach Charlie Schmaus' alltime VMI scoring record. And junior Ron Carter had added 19 points in his assault on the 10-year-old mark.
Schmaus, in his first year as head coach at VMI, later called the team's performance "second gear." But it was obvious by the pandemonium that the packed house of 3,000 loved every second of it.
Yes, the South is on the rise again. And so is VMI, both as an academic military institution and as a basketball power with 13 victories and a single loss, 55-50, to Virginia earlier in the year.
Enrollment this year is the highest in the school's 138-year history. There are 1,271 cadets and a rush for applications next year is anticipated. It is partly because of the unique spirit of the place, partly because taking a military commission is voluntary (only 12 to 15 per cent make the two- to four-year commitment; the rest choose reserve duty with 90 dasy active service) and partly because all juniors and Seniors earn $100 a month from the state-supported military school. But mainly it is because there are no wars to fight right now.
"Nobody wants to go to a school where they make you a forward observer when you get out and you end up in a box," said one cadet, explaining his post-Vietnam choice of VMI.
Sure, the dorm rooms are real barracks ornamented with gun metal gray lockers and yellowed wall posters advertising "The Sands of Iwo ima." But the quasimilitary atmosphere of the place is pleasant. A salute is more a greeting than a response to an order. There is little heel-clicking and a lot of camaraderie in the corps.
Even the compulsory drills are treated with less than a Green Beret's seriousness. For instance, VMI freshmen (they are called "rats") walk night guard armed with M-14 rifles. But, as one senior cadet explained with a laugh, "There aren't any firing pins in any of our rifles.When they phased them out of Vietnam, they gave them to clowns like us. We actually walk guard because it keeps the fire insurance rates down at the school. The theory is that one of us will spot the smoke before it gets going."
But another big reason for the renewed interest in enrolling at VMI is, of course, the winning Keydet basketball team. "Everybody likes to be associated with a winner," claimed Tim Mishkofski, a senior from Virginia Beach.
And win they do. People are saying VMI is sure to repeat as Southern Conference champion this year. They are predicting another run through the NCAA Eastern Regionals where the Keydets made the finals last year after upsetting ninth-ranked Tennessee and 17th-ranked DePaul.
Some are even bold enough to state quite firmly that VMI has the best team in the state. And the reason for predictions of continued Keydet dominance is an arsenal of secret weapons so potent that the school should be forced to submit to nuclear disarmament.
First, there is The Pit. Then, there is the coach's new, totally out-of-place, unmilitary frizzy perm. And finally there is the well-drilled team whose offense is so keyed to shooting that it appears to have found a cache of M-14 firing pins.
The Pit is not just a place. It is the people who populate it, too. A huge, dank building The Pit was originally a horse training arena and later was converted to an indoor track. The basketball court is nestled in one U of the track, and bordered on all four sides by steep bleachers filled with franctic cadets.
"Life here is so depressing you look forward to basketball games," said one cadet, explaining the always-full house. A lively brass band thunders throughout the game, cheerleaders from a local women's college whoop it up and the cadets, who must do physical training one hour every day, exercise their vocal chords from the game's beginning to end.
"Normally we play very well here," said sports information director Tom Shupe in a casual understatement. "Or the other team plays badly."
East Carolina coach Dave Patton looked like he had barely survived an encounter with the other Patton after Saturday's loss. "This is the toughest place in the world to play," he said, shaking his head and squinting up at the scoreboard. "The crowd has to have an effect; it just has to bother the younger plaers who are new to it."
Patton had to squint for a glimpse of the final score because the dim lighting in The Pit is yet another VMI weapon. There are randomly placed, hanging, caged light fixtures that hold bulbs that appear to be about 20 watts. A bright smile could blind the opponents' bench, so dark is the gymnasium.
VMI, by coincidence, has 15 home games on its 1977 schedule. By design they have won 19 of the last 20 home games. it is not necessary to have a game program in The Pit. The opponents are the ones who are groping for the ball like first graders playing pin the tale on the donkey. VMI is usually 20 points ahead by the time the other team figures out the direction the court lies.
Another aid for VMI supremacy is the new coach (Schmaus rhymes with "mouse," the press book says slyly). The first thing Schmaus did after taking the job was to abandon what one cadet called "his combed-back, wavy look" for a super dry-look frizzy perm that has earned him the nickname, "The walking fruit salad."
Schmaus grins a shy smile and insists he likes his new hairdo and plans to keep it dispite its incongruity with the military policy on coiffure. "It helps me with recruiting," he says in all seriousness. "Basketball players are a different kind of kid. They really look you over - how you talk and how you dress." He sel-consciously fingers the saddle-stitched lapels of his gold polyester sports coat.
But the hairdo is more of a lure, a bucktail spinner guaranteed to land the big trout. Schmaus' light brown sphagetti bowl set makes recruits think they're heading for mod living dispite a very conventional school environment. By the time the barber gets them and their civies are exchanged for gray uniforms, it's too late to turn back.
Curiously enough, few would want to, even if they could. They come and they stay, and, according to Schmaus, they work so hard they just keep getting better.
Cocaptains Bynum (16.5 strong forward) and Krovic (12.3 shooting guard) play well together because they've been at it four years; Carter a shooting forward, and center Dave Montgomery (12.0, Baltimore) and the junior duo who seem to read each other's minds.
"VMI's players are like old men at it," said East Carolina's Patton. "It's like a job to them. They've been doing it so long they just get bored and slack off every once in a while. But when they need to get the job done, they do."
"It really is that they played so much together they just meshed," admitted Schmaus. "They have no much self-discipline they're easy to coach."
Defensively, VMI uses multiple zone defenses and ranks 15th nationally, allowing 63.8 points per game while scoring more than 75 points per game.
Another VMI strength is its schedule. "We play a good mix of teams - some very good, some not so good," said a team spokesman.
But VMI has beaten Old Dominion, William and Mary, Richmond and Tulane along the way. All were good teams, and Tulane upset Cincinnati Saturday.
Schmaus insists that when he recruited Krovic and Bynum, he predicted that both of them would break his school record of 1,328 points. "But four years," he said. "I did it in three."
There is a good chance the Schmaus record - both points and years - will be equaled this season by Carter, the showboat of the team. Carter, whose every move is met with screams of encouragement in The Pit, has been averaging 20 points a game. He needs to average 13 points for the record.
Imagine the reaction in The Pit if the mark is broken on one of Carter's patented behind-the-back dunk shots. The other team will end up shell-shocked.