Danny Rocco knows the job he has taken at Virginia Military Institute will be harder than any of his three previous head coaching positions.
He need look no further than his tenures at Liberty and Richmond, both in Virginia, and the 9-0 career record he carries against the Keydets, many of the lopsided variety.
“What I do best is function as a head football coach,” Rocco said at his introductory news conference in Lexington. “Deep down, I knew. I had to get back into a head football coaching position. I think that’s where I can make the greatest impact.”
Impact is one thing. Winning games is quite another. The Keydets have had two winning seasons in the past 42 years — 6-2 in the shortened 2020 season played in the spring because of the pandemic and a 6-5 record the following year.
This year? Back to a more familiar result as they finished 1-10. In the six seasons preceeding their success, they went a combined 13-55, including 1-21 over 2017 and 2018.
Scott Wachenheim, who resigned following the season, compiled a 24-61 record in eight years as coach, so half of his victories came in those two pandemic-affected seasons.
The reasons for the struggle are plentiful, and increasing, especially in a climate where hundreds of players transfer every offseason — or sooner — because they’ve had success and think they can move up, or because scant playing time left them frustrated.
At VMI, the only doorway for transfers is an exit, and that’s not expected to change.
“In this moment, the answer would be no,” Rocco said of having access to transfers, which virtually every non-military program use to fill its roster needs each year.
At VMI, all freshmen go through the “rat line,” a series of mandatory challenges both physical and mental that indoctrinate them into hard-won cores of the program like the value of teamwork, honor and integrity, and make them part of the cadet community.
VMI does not offer a graduate program, so for quarterback Reece Udinski, who set the school record for passing yards as a Keydet, four years marked the end of his eligibility. He transferred to Maryland, where he was a seldom-used backup.
When VMI’s offensive coordinator, Billy Cosh, left to join the staff at Richmond, Udinski transferred again to the Spiders, using the sixth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of the pandemic. There he was reunited with wide receiver Jakob Herres, a 2020 standout when they were VMI teammates. He’s the Keydets’ career TD receptions leader with 26 but, like his quarterback, had run out of eligibility there.
The challenge of a college experience long on regimentation and short on parties, and the inability of the school to take advantage of virtual free agency are huge handicaps.
“It’s incredibly challenging because I think a lot of people see it as just a gateway to get themselves to a bigger school and get some film and everything like that,” Herres said. “And especially with the transfer portal, other schools are just purely at an advantage.”
Herres entered the transfer portal after his sophomore season, but decided to stay.
“I just didn’t feel right building all those relationships with my teammates and coaches and just leaving, trying to find something on another side that might not be there,” he said.
Rocco hopes the relationships he forms with the recruits and their families, as well as those he renews with coaches he’d dealt with in his 16 years as a coach and recruiter in Virginia will yield signees commited to being at VMI for the right reasons and long haul.
“That goes back to attracting people and families that have a very strong purpose about why we chose VMI and why you’re here, have a real appreciation for what it is that they are here to accomplish,” Rocco said.
People like Udinski, who said he never thought about leaving during his four years.
“It was just kind of my mindset going in. I wanted to finish what I started,” he said. “And a lot of it had to do with the academics because I know VMI is a great school and to be able to graduate from there meant a lot to me and my family.”
Herres had two Division I offers coming out of high school: VMI and West Point. He picked the Keydets rather than a military commitment. Udinski had one offer “and I think that is probably the case for most guys that go there,” he said. ”That’s what VMI has to do, find diamonds in the rough.”
And if they stay four years, like Herres and Udinski did, and rewrite the record book, Rocco’s plan might work, and a winning season won’t be another four decades away.
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