Brevity and inflection are everything at the Virginia Military Institute, and these points of style are strictly observed from breakfast roll cawl to dinner roll cawl, or from BRC to DRC, in Keydet parlance. First-year football Coach Eddie Williamson and his staff have been here only a few months but they already have learned the clipped Southern tones of the nearby, once-Confederate parade ground.
Athletic Director Eric Hyman, who also joined VMI only recently, learned the importance of the ancient Keydet code at a welcoming reception when he announced that he had found lodgings on "campus." As he finished, he felt a tug at his sleeve and glanced down at an elderly woman who said, "You don't live on campus, you live on Post, and don't you forget it."
The "Post" is a rich, old, statue-littered place, where polished stone battlements fight with weathered antebellum mansions for attention. It is almost impossible to resist, unless you have something against jasmine, honeysuckle, colonnades, history, honor and a charm-laden township where even the fast-food places are housed in renovated 19th Century brick.
There is really only one thing lacking in the tradition of the institution's 142 years of schooling the soldier-civilian: VMI has not had a respected football team in some time. Which is why a 33-year-old, first-time head coach such as Williamson and an entirely new staff that is for the most part younger than he is were brought in last spring to replace 14-year veteran Bob Thalman.
Beginning against the University of Virginia Saturday night in Charlottesville, Williamson, who was given a five-year contract, will try to come up with a remedy for a Division I-AA team that has won three games in the last two years. The Keydets are coming off of a 1-9 year that included a 35-7 loss to Virginia. The Cavaliers won the Peach Bowl last season.
Williamson, who spent time at Duke, North Carolina, Baylor and, most recently, Georgia under Vince Dooley as offensive line coach, has decided to approach the task with an utter disregard for the more conventional rebuilding theories and little sympathy for the rigors of military life. He runs practice about as fast as a first classman would a newly shorn "Rat" (freshman) who forgot to salute the Stonewall Jackson monument.
"I want to win as many games as I can as quickly as I can," he said. "If not this game, then the next one, if not this season then the next one."
He couples his frantic pace with an unprecedented amount of contact in practices. Whereas most teams are conserving themselves in midweek before a season opener, he has the Keydets in full-scale workouts. "Hurry back, hurry back" is the phrase most often repeated in workouts, and the consensus is that the Keydets never have worked harder in implementing his new, very definite schemes. VMI has gone to an eight-man defensive front from a five-man and to a multiple pro set with an emphasis on the passing game from a more conservative I-back offense.
"He let us know in spring practice that we might consider coming back in good shape," said senior Ambrose Phillips, a third-year defensive back from Landover and a graduate of DeMatha High. "Well, if I hadn't come back in better shape I'd be on the injured list by now."
Williamson's players are athletes who mainly were overlooked, undersized or a step too slow for big-time Division I schools, or else came from a my-father-before-me-and-his-before-him line of VMI cadets. Because VMI consists of only 1,300 cadets, it has suffered perennially from a problem of depth that is not likely to go away.
So Williamson has set about improving what he can. In addition to implementing his frantic practices, he has added considerably to the weight and strength facilities and updated VMI's training table. If nothing else, the reorganization has imbued the Keydets with a sense of confidence, which Phillips, for one, missed his last three seasons after nothing but winning ones at DeMatha.
"One thing I'll never get used to is being 1-9," Phillips said. "At DeMatha we did everything with a winning attitude. You had reputation, and the reputation stayed with you and pulled you through even when you got in a hole. That's what the coaches are trying to do here now, and I see definite improvement."
One particular beneficiary is quarterback Al Comer, a 6-3, 195-pound senior. He started at quarterback his sophomore year, but last year relinquished the starting job, splitting time with Jim Daly. Comer completed only 55 of 132 passes for 561 yards, one touchdown and threw six interceptions.
Comer regained the starting job this fall after a hesitant spring. Daly, a senior from Arlington, separated a shoulder in spring workouts and fell behind. Alone as the starter, Comer seems to have regained some initiative and is frankly appreciative of Williamson.
"I had lost all my confidence," he said. "The teams always looked bigger before on film, but he shows us ways that we can have a chance to beat them. They don't look bigger than life anymore."
The Keydets may be imbued with euphoria, but it is likely to be temporary. They still quail at the thought of the Cavaliers, who have outscored them, 110-24, in their last three meetings.
Todd Freiwald, a 6-5, 220-pound sophomore from Potomac, Md., will make his first start against the Cavaliers. An unlikely cadet -- "I never heard of it until a coach called me the spring of my senior year. I said, 'That's nice. What's VMI?' I don't know if eating on the front two inches of my chair or the shaved head was a bigger shock" -- he has the unenviable job of attempting a pass rush against quarterback Don Majkowski. Protecting Majkowski is Outland Trophy candidate Jim Dombrowski, the 6-5, 296-pound all-America offensive tackle.
"He's big and he's quick," Freiwald said. "All I can do is think about what I'm supposed to do. I'm going to put it out of my mind that he's an all-American. Stuff like that just scares you."
It is unlikely VMI has the material to give Virginia a contest, but the consensus is that anything less than a blowout would be a moral victory.
"Certain aspects of the school will not and cannot be changed," Williamson said. "I don't want to use the excuse of rebuilding, but on the other hand you have to be realistic about that. But from the standpoint of a coach, you have to try to utilize it; you can't apologize for it. Sometimes you may walk into a house and kid says no and shuts the door. So what you do is be polite and go down the street and knock on another one."