VMI Athletic History - A Brief Look
Athletics at VMI form an integral part of the school's aim to educate the whole person. The athletic program, managed honorably over many years, is critical to VMI's determination to encourage "the sound mind and sound body." Mr. Giles H. Miller '24 ,coined the VMI educational experience as a three-legged stool with academics, military training, and athletics all forming pillars supporting the mission of the Institute.
VMI's proud intercollegiate athletic history dates back to 1866 with the formation of a baseball team, but the first organized squad came in 1892 when cadet Walter H. Taylor served as captain and coach of the first football team in 1891. Since that time, VMI athletics has evolved into a rich and storied history that continues to thrive into the 21st century.
A few highlights of VMI's athletic history include: undefeated football teams in 1920 and 1957. The 1957 squad under the lengendary coach John McKenna finished 9-0-1 and was ranked 13th in the final Associated Press poll. In 1934, the alumni educational fund was established, forming one of the first athletic scholarship organizations in the country. In December 1924, VMI joined the Southern Conference beginning an illustrious history that saw Keydet squads capture seven league football titles, three basketball championships, 31 indoor and outdoor track championships, five cross country championships, 10 wrestling championships, nine swimming championships, and five cross country titles.
Perhaps the most famous athletic story in VMI history was the two-year glorious run of the 1976 and 1977 teams basketball teams. The 1976 squad advanced within one game of the Final Four before bowing to Rutgers in the East Regional Final, and in 1977 VMI finished with a school record 26-4 mark and reached the "Sweet 16" round of the NCAA tournament.
Famous VMI athletic alumni include George Marshall, a football player from the class of 1901 who served as chief of staff in World War II and was awarded the Nobel Prize for the Marshall Plan that rebuilt war-torn Europe. Jimmy Leech, Class of 1921, starred on VMI's undefeated 1920 squad and was inducted into the Collge Football Hall of Fame. Bobby Ross, Class of 1959, distinguished himself in the college and professional coaching ranks and led Georgia Tech to a national championship in 1990 and the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl in 1995. Ron Carter '78, who played on the NCAA tournament basketball teams of the 70's, played with the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA. Thomas Haskins '97 became the NCAA's leading rusher in I-AA football, breaking a mark that stood for 17 years. In 2002, basketball player Jason Conley became the first freshman to lead the NCAA in scoring when he averaged 29.3 points.
11 VMI athletes or coaches are currently enshrined in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. They are Jimmy Leech (football), Frank Summers (football), Joe Muha (football), Bosh Pritchard (football), Paul Shu (Football), Weenie Miller (Basketball Coach), Johnny Mapp (football/track), Nelson Catlett (football), John McKenna (Football), Bobby Ross (football), and Bob Thalman (football).
The school nickname "Keydets" is derived from a southern drawl pronunciation of the word "cadet." The kangaroo serves as the school mascot and is one of only four U.S. colleges that uses the marsupial to represent its sports teams.
VMI fields 16 teams on the NCAA Division I level. The sports include baseball, basketball, men's and women's cross-country, football, lacrosse, men's and women's rifle, men's and women's soccer, men's and women's swimming, men's and women's indoor and outdoor track, and wrestling. Women's swimming went to full varsity status during the 2005-06 academic year.
VMI, with an enrollment of 1,400 cadets, has the third smallest enrollment among NCAA Division I institutions, behind only Centenary and Wofford. Approximately one-third of the Corps of Cadets plays on one of VMI's intercollegiate athletic teams making it one of the most active athletic programs among its student body. Of the VMI athletes who complete their eligibility, 92 percent receive their VMI diplomas.
In August, 1997, VMI fielded its first women's athletic program with a cross country team and has since added three additional women's sports. More will follow as female enrollment increases in the coming years.
Throughout most of the 20th century, VMI athletics teams competed as a member of the Southern Conference and played a large role in the rich history of one the nation's oldest college athletic conferences.
In December 2001, the school announced that it would join the Big South Conference in 2003, beginning a new athletic chapter for a new century. VMI's first year of competition was, in fact, the 2003-04 season, and the Keydets have enjoyed success in the conference since, including multiple post-season honorees. That list has included Reggie Williams, who led NCAA basketball in scoring for two consecutive seasons, the 2006-07 and 2007-08 campaigns, when the Keydets received national attention for their fast-paced style of play.
In 2008-09, the Keydet programs posted several notable results: VMI basketball posted 24 wins and came within just one victory of the program's fourth NCAA tournament appearance, as twin brothers Chavis and Travis Holmes became the top scoring twins at the NCAA Division I level. In addition, runner Donnie Cowart earned All-American honors in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, while women's soccer finished at .500 for the first time and earned its initial post-season win, a 2-1 win over Winthrop in the first round of the Big South Championship. Finally, VMI won the Big South Sportsmanship award for the fourth-consecutive season.
2009-10 brought another Sportsmanship title as well as success on the diamond, as VMI baseball won its first Big South postseason game, a victory over #5 Gardner-Webb in the play-in game. Track and field's Felix Kitur made his second career appearance at the NCAA meet, while women's soccer made another post-season run, including a thrilling victory over Coastal Carolina on penalty kicks. The semifinal loss to Winthrop ended the run for the women's soccer senior class, a class that not only earned the program's first two post-season wins, but also the career of Audrey Falconi. Falconi finished her career by not only being named First Team All-State and All-Conference, but by earning the three-legged stool award from the Keydet Club and being tabbed the conference's Women's Soccer Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Finally, the women's cross country team, led by individual champion Hannah Granger, Freshman of the Year Jenna Moye and Coach of the Year Paul Spangler, finished second at the Big South meet, the program's best finish ever.
2010-11 was a new year, but some things stayed the same. Both Josh Wine (wrestling) and Felix Kitur qualified for the NCAA Championships in their respective sports, with both doing so for the third time. Basketball made a thrilling late season run, winning its final five regular season conference games to earn a home post-season contest for the second time in three years (a game VMI would win, 78-73), helped by VaSID Rookie of the Year D.J. Covington. Baseball hosted the Big South Championship for the first time, and saw senior SS Sam Roberts drafted by the Oakland A's. The Keydets also hosted the Big South Outdoor Track Championships, a meet that saw Kitur earn Most Outstanding Track Performer honors, while Mary Grace Lemon was named the conference Women's Freshman of the Year. Women's cross country continued to develop into a perennial conference contender, finishing third at the Big South meet, while lacrosse's Stephen Robarge was the NCAA's face-off champion (67%) and led the nation in ground balls per game as well (10.15/game). Robarge's GB/Game rate was the eighth-highest in NCAA history, and it helped the Keydets also win the team ground balls per game statistical crown, as VMI averaged 39.62 per contest.
Meanwhile, in 2011-12, VMI baseball coach Marlin Ikenberry became the first Keydet coach in any sport to break the 200-win barrier. Pitchers Coby Cowgill (Texas) and Adam Lopez (Chicago White Sox) were chosen in the MLB draft as well, while Jacob Morley earned Second Team All-Big South honors. On the track, Felix Kitur earned his fourth NCAA trip, winning two heats at the preliminary round and winding up an Honorable Mention All-American. Lacrosse also saw two draft picks, with Stephen Robarge being chosen by the Denver Outlaws in the MLL Draft after leading Division I in face-off percentage and groundballs per game for the second straight year. Robarge also earned Third Team USILA All-American honors, the first Keydet to ever make any of the three teams. His teammate, Keith Long, was chosen in the MLL Supplemental Draft by the Rochester Rattlers.