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VMI Offers Big Challenge for Sparky Woods
Football coach up against tradition.
Sparky Woods is older now, but still lean and balding and quick to smile, the spitting image of the guy fired by South Carolina following the 1993 season. He’s still a southern boy at 54, the drawl we first heard back when he was turning Appalachian State into a Division I-AA football power intact.
Now, though, after a year away from the game, Woods has returned as coach at Virginia Military Institute, attempting to turn around a program that was 2-9 a year ago, a program that is tough to turn around because of its discipline-laden, military traditions.
Woods, in Charlotte Friday for the Big South Conference media day, doesn’t have to worry much about immediate expectations. The Keydets were picked to finish last among the league’s six football-playing members by a panel that included coaches and media.
Defending champion Liberty was picked to win again, claiming 12 of 13 first-place votes. The Flames collected 77 total points, followed by Coastal Carolina (58), Gardner-Webb (52), newcomer Stony Brook (38), Charleston Southern (30) and the other first-place vote, and VMI (18).
The Big South, in its seventh season of what is now the Football Championship Subdivision, will finally start receiving an automatic bid to the playoffs, Commissioner Kyle Kallander announced. The bid begins with the 2010 season.
VMI, at least for now, is not expected to challenge for that spot, and Woods, the guinea pig when the Gamecocks first stepped gingerly into the SEC, understands that.
“I think there’s three reasons you win, and I think we violate all three of them,” he said of his new school with a laugh.
“You’ve got to get players, and we have a difficult time doing that because of the military and the ‘rat lines.’ You have to develop players and that’s hard for us. We have four seniors, and two of them probably wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t changed coaches. And the third thing is scheduling, although that’s getting better.”
Woods was biding his time on his farm in Virginia - about an hour’s drive from Lexington and VMI - when Keydets athletics director Donny White asked if he would be interested in the job. Woods wasn’t sure, but drove up and took a look around.
“The kids are really great. They remind me of the kids when I first started coaching,” Woods said. He pointed to defensive end Andy Viola sitting nearby in a neatly-pressed white military uniform.
“This kid’s going to be an engineer. We have guys who are going to be engineers. At Alabama we had a fine engineering school, but none of those kids could go be an engineer (because of time demands). Well, this kid’s going to be an engineer.”
Woods said he told the team he knew they were already doing the other things the right way; his job was to help them win on Saturday.
“I may have the best job, Sunday through Friday,” he said, laughing again. “I just gotta make it more fun on Saturday. We’ve got to win some of them.”
It won’t be easy. The Big South, in the shadow of the Southern Conference in this area for so long, is quickly getting better.
Woods sees that coming and wants to help.
VMI offers big challenge for Sparky Woods
By Stan Olson, The Charlotte Observer
Photo Credit: Yalonda M. James/The Charlotte Observer