TO APPRECIATE thesmall miracle of Virginia Military Institute basketball, you must go to theHill at dawn. You must wait under a purple winter sky, with a hard frostbeneath your feet and dense fog lying low across the surrounding ShenandoahValley. Then you must train your eyes on the olive-drab stone walls of thefour-story gothic barracks rising from the west end of the parade grounds, forthis is where every long day begins.
This is an article from the Feb. 9, 2009 issue
At three minutesbefore seven last Thursday morning the nearly 1,400 corpsmen and women of VMIemerged from portals in the barracks walls and formed into precise rows thatstretched more than 100 yards across the front of the building. A lone buglersounded reveille and the flags of the U.S. and Virginia were hoisted skyward. Asteady drumbeat began, and the cadets, dressed in identical gray uniform slackswith black jackets, marched to the end of the barracks, turned sharply left anddownhill toward the mess hall, into the rising sun.
Indistinguishableamong the corps were the 15 members of the VMI men's basketball team, which 12hours later would thrash NAIA neighbor Southern Virginia 113--92, pushing itsrecord to 17--3 entering Monday night's game against Big South rivalUNC-Asheville. As January drew to a close, the Keydets of VMI led theconference with an 8--1 record. They had begun their season with an epic111--103 November upset of Kentucky at Rupp Arena and scarcely slowed since,leading the nation in scoring (with 96.0 points per game), three-pointers(14.1) and steals (14.5) thanks to a withering combination: full-court pressuredefense to force turnovers and quick-trigger shooting from beyond the arc.Senior wings Chavis and Travis Holmes, identical twins, were averaging acombined 40.8 points a game.
The Keydets havealready ensured the school's first winning record in 11 years, but thereremains a higher goal: March Madness beckons. "If they get to thetournament, they are absolutely a threat to beat somebody," says Virginiacoach Dave Leitao, whose Cavaliers had to score 107 points to hold off VMI by10 in November, 48 hours after the Keydets had beaten Kentucky. "They areunique and nontraditional. It's going to be very difficult to prepare forthem."
Yet there is somuch more to VMI's unlikely rise than chasing a moment's glory on CBS.
There is a coach,Duggar Baucom, 48, who did not get his first college coaching job until he was35 and—his words—"an ex-state trooper with a pacemaker in my chest." Hehas revived VMI not only with his high-speed attack but also with shrewdrecruiting and far-outside-the-box touches, like team sessions with ahypnotherapist he found while watching Golf Channel.
There is acollege, steeped in military tradition, where freshmen are called Rats andendure a punishing six-month initiation called the Ratline. Where even seniorslive three- and four-to-a-room in spartan quarters (no televisions, norefrigerators) and follow a zero-tolerance honor code. "Attention todetail, adherence to standards," says J.H. Binford Peay III, a retiredfour-star U.S. Army general who became VMI's 14th superintendent in 2003."It's a strenuous life, and mentally difficult. It takes a special kid tocome here."
There is abasketball system that is among the most frenetic that any team has played inthe sport's history. In 2006--07 Baucom's second season at VMI, the Keydets setstill-standing NCAA records for three-point shots attempted (1,383) and made(442), as well as for steals (450). It has been called the Sprint and Strike(by Baucom) and the Loot and Shoot (by the Virginia media), and Baucom piecedit together from Paul Westhead's crazy-fast Loyola Marymount teams in the late1980s, Division III Grinnell (Iowa) College's platoon-shift frenzy, and VanceWalberg's dribble-drive motion and full-court pressure package (SI, Feb. 18,2008). "With five shooters on the floor," says coach Rick Scruggs ofBig South rival Gardner-Webb, "no speed is too fast [for them]."
There is aliberating feeling that comes with that offense, a departure for the Keydetsfrom the rigid discipline that governs the rest of their lives. "We comedown here from the Hill to practice, and it's a release, especially the way weplay," says 6'7" senior co-captain Willie Bell. "Out here on thecourt we can just be free."
And there is,perhaps most of all, a punishing college culture, begging for an outlet."I'm on the Hill every day talking with kids," says Sherry Baucom, thecoach's wife and the VMI athletic department's senior woman administrator andacademic adviser. "Life is harsh here. There's not a whole lot that goeson. Winning gives the cadets something to look forward to." On Jan. 17,28-year-old, 5,800-seat Cameron Hall was sold out for the first time in itshistory, as VMI lost to Liberty 91--80. Four days later more than 100 Cadetstraveled to Radford to watch the Keydets bounce back with a 87--72 win.
Bobby Ross playedfootball and baseball at VMI from 1955 through '59, then coached Georgia Techto a national football championship in 1990 and the San Diego Chargers to aSuper Bowl four years later. He lives near the VMI post in Lexington, Va."Winning in football and basketball is key to the morale of theschool," Ross says. "People are just in better spirits when they win.And they're in better spirits now."
ROBERT FRANKLINBaucom became Duggar (DOO-gur) before he was born, when a relative asked hispregnant and overdue mother, Nancy, "When is that little duggar comingout?" It stuck. He turned to coaching as a career long after leavingUNC-Charlotte during his sophomore year to help run his ailing father'strucking business. In 1983 he became a police officer (and later a statetrooper); in '87, a junior varsity basketball coach at his alma mater, NorthMecklenburg (N.C.) High; and in 1991, a salesman for his sister's insurancebusiness shortly after he suffered a heart attack.
"I was makingmore money in insurance than I had ever made in my life," says Baucom,"and I hated it." He did another tour at North Mecklenburg, this timeassisting the varsity. On the bus ride home from a state playoff loss in 1992he promised himself, I'm going to be a college basketball coach. Baucom was 32years old, and it was a preposterous goal.
He re-enrolled atUNC-Charlotte in May 1992 to earn his degree in history and in the summershustled for work at instructional camps. Upon Baucom's graduation in the springof '95, Davidson coach Bob McKillop hired him as an unpaid administrativeassistant. Baucom held four more assistant's jobs in nine years, only onepaying more than $24,000, before taking over at Tusculum College in Greenville,Tenn. In 2005 he led Tusculum to the Division II tournament, bowing 91--88 inthe first round to top-seeded Bowie (Md.) State on Bowie's home floor. AfterBaucom did his postgame radio show in a balcony of the arena, he was approachedby a middle-aged man in a gray sweatshirt and baseball cap. It was VMI athleticdirector Donny White, who had just fired Bart Bellairs after a 9--18 season."His team lost, but I loved their energy," says White. "I went upto Duggar in the balcony and said, 'Coach, I really like what I saw today, and,coincidentally, I'm a college athletic director who's looking for acoach.'"
Baucom went 7--20in his first season, but that was hardly the worst of it. His first heartattack, on Christmas Day 1990, had been the result of hypertrophiccardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscle is abnormally thickened.Electrophysiologist-cardiologist Lameh Fananapazir had installed a pacemaker(in 1991) in Baucom's chest to control his heart rhythm. It had been replacedin '97.
In January 2006the pacemaker was upgraded to an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD).What might have been another simple replacement procedure instead became aneight-month ordeal that included five operations in three states. Originalelectrical leads from Baucom's heart had scarred and caused an infection."It was not a trivial condition," says Fananapazir, who didn't performthe first ICD installation. "He was quite ill, and he needed a procedurethat has a high mortality rate."
Fananapazirinstalled a second ICD in August 2006. Baucom was again healthy but alsochanged in ways both large and small. "He was close to death," saysSherry. "So now he's full speed ahead every day, and there are things thatjust don't matter to him anymore. He used to be meticulous about dressing for abasketball game. Jacket and tie. I used to have to iron his dry cleaning. Nowhis uniform is a sweater vest and polo shirt because that's what he'scomfortable wearing."
Baucom's teamshad historically played fast, but now they would play even faster. He watchedhis old Westhead-Loyola tapes. He called Walberg. (And he lost two starters tohonor code violations on the eve of the 2006--07 season, making it perilous toplay conventionally.) The Keydets won 28 games in two years before taking offthis year. "I went 7--20, and I didn't want to ever experience thatagain," says Baucom. "Then I almost died. Maybe somebody who goesthrough that isn't afraid to take risks."
VMI HASlanguished, for most of its 101 seasons, in basketball futility. The Keydetswent 10--6 in 1940--41 and didn't have another winning season until 1975--76,when they went to the NCAA Elite Eight, followed by the Sweet 16 in '77. Thoseteams—which included five members of VMI's Hall of Fame—proved aberrations. Theschool had finished with just three winning records between the NCAA teams andthis year's.
VMI is thefourth-smallest Division I basketball program in the NCAA (although theenrollment is more than 90% male, a mitigating statistic). Moving from theSouthern Conference to the Big South in 2003—not a universally popularmigration on campus because many missed the tradition of the oldleague—softened the schedule. But the program's biggest hurdle remains themilitary culture, which scares off many recruits and leads to an attrition rateof more than 20% among the student populace. "If North Carolina and Dukethought that marching in parades was good for winning, they'd be marching inparades," says Bellairs, who went 116--191 in 11 seasons. "Recruitingis very tough. You might get one recruit in five to sign, and then you have tokeep rerecruiting them once you get them on the post."
The toughest yearis the first. The Ratline is among VMI's most entrenched traditions, and itsmost demanding. Each Rat is assigned a senior mentor, called a Dyke (named forthe VMI dress uniform, which Rats would traditionally help the senior put on).Rats endure three-mile runs carrying a rifle and "sweat parties" inwhich they do exercises—while getting verbally abused by upperclassmen—in asweltering gymnasium. Upon entering the barracks courtyard Rats must"strain," taking an exaggerated shoulders-back posture while turningsquare corners and running up metal stairs. They are responsible for caring fortheir Dyke's bed every day, rolling up the mattress and moving the wooden frameoff the floor. Rats can be stopped at any time and told to do push-ups or otherexercises.
"My firstweek I must have done 2,000 push-ups," says freshman Keith Gabriel, a6'2" wing who was averaging 16.4 points through Sunday. "My knees hurtfrom running up the stairs in flat shoes. The whole thing is wild."
Says point guardRon Burks, a fellow Rat, "I had no idea what I was getting into. It's hardplaying basketball and then taking what they dish out on the Hill."
Last Saturday wasRat breakout at VMI, in which the Rats endure one long, final day of abuse andthen are officially made members of the fourth class. But breakout does nottransform VMI into Pepperdine. It is a military school for all corpsmen andwomen. Marching to breakfast and dinner is mandatory. Alcohol is prohibited inthe barracks. "Not much fun," says sophomore guard Austin Kenon."You don't get to wear regular clothes, watch TV or sleep in a comfy bed.You don't get your own bathroom. You call your friends [at other schools], andthey're at a party."
Athletes arerarely exempted from routine, and that's not likely to change. "With theright coaches you can make the system work for you," says Peay. "It'sfundamental to our reputation to do it the VMI way. Don't coddle athletes, makethem leaders. And if they're not going to adhere to the standards on the Hill,they're not going to play."
CHAVIS AND TravisHolmes, willowy 6'4" tweeners, haven't merely survived. By combining for 47points against High Point on Jan. 24 they became the highest-scoring twins inNCAA history, surpassing the 3,252-point total of former Keydets guards Damonand Ramon Williams. Like many of VMI's players, the Holmeses bloomed late.Their father, Kenny, a heating and air-conditioning supervisor, once bartered ababy crib to a paving contractor to get the family's driveway widened so thatthe twins could have more shooting options. Yet as freshmen they were cut fromthe junior varsity team at Charlotte's Vance High, and as juniors they playedsparingly on Vance's state championship team.
With few collegeoptions, the twins transferred to the private Christ School in Asheville, wherethey were reclassified as juniors and played in two state championship games,winning the second. "They developed physically at our place," saysChrist School coach David Gaines. "But they were also throwbacks, andthat's what I told Division I schools. They understood how to play the game andhow to win."
Baucom offeredscholarships to both twins—the only Division I school to package them—on hisfirst day on the job. They were taken aback after touring the post. "Ithought the barracks looked like a prison," says Chavis, "but we reallywanted to play together." They had never been coddled; during one highschool summer Kenny had taken his sons on a power-washing job in the NorthCarolina heat, to show them what type of work is available without a collegedegree. Both brothers are on track to graduate in four years.
They are thebackbone of an eight-man rotation that is almost entirely made up of guards.(The biggest regular is 6'7".) Gabriel is an explosive 6'2",180-pounder with a mousetrap-quick lefthanded release on his three. Kenon isjust 5'11", but with a lethal deep jumper that he releases off his rightshoulder. Bell and Burks are role players, as likely to penetrate as to shootdeep. They are all supremely fit and at ease in Baucom's system. "They playfast, but they rarely take bad shots," says Scruggs. "They force you toplay their speed and they wear you down."
The praise isalso worth tempering. Through 20 games, VMI was giving up 85.7 points per game,329th out of 330 Division I teams. The Keydets pressure hard, but teams thatbeat that pressure score easily. Yet as soon as the ball drops from the net,Baucom begins shouting, Go! Go! Go! "I remember those Loyola teams," hesays. "If you celebrated, they were dunking on you." Should the Keydetsreach the NCAA tournament, they seem equally likely to pull off a 20-pointupset against a stunned opponent as to lose by 28, which they did toJacksonville State (now 9--11) in late November.
It was after thatloss that Baucom arranged to have self-proclaimed "head coach" TravisFox, a hypnotherapist whom Baucom sought out last spring after seeing Fox'sBeat the Bogeyman self-help infomercials on Golf Channel. The Palm Desert,Calif.--based Fox, who also performs hypnosis in stage shows and on television,had never worked with a sports team, but Baucom arranged for him to drive fromAtlanta and meet with the Keydets. "We all agreed that we were going tobelieve in the impossible," says Fox, who has met twice with the team andconducted two other video conferences.
His suggestionshave become part of the VMI routine. Last Thursday, three hours before theyplayed Southern Virginia, the Keydets came together in their locker room. Theyformed a tight circle on couches and stools and locked their arms. Baucomturned off the lights, and Bell spoke softly: Every little thing is for a bigpurpose. Know it in your mind. And for a moment, at a school defined by itsboundaries, there were none.
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