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A Passion Rediscovered at VMI
Listening to VMI head football coach Sparky Woods talk about his more than three decades in the business, one gets the feeling that he perhaps found himself in 2007, one of the most bittersweet of those 34 years.
For the first time since 1976, Woods wasn’t coaching and he was lost.
He had been the running backs coach for Mike Shula’s Alabama teams for four years and when Shula was bounced in favor of Nick Saban, Woods wasn’t able to latch on to the new staff. It was particularly disappointing because his daughter, Emily, was enrolled there and is a grad student at ’Bama this year. His son, Casey, was playing football at Tennessee (and is now on the coaching staff at Auburn).
The one-time University of Virginia offensive coordinator (1997 and 1998), didn’t learn his fate at Alabama until around March, too late to hook up with another staff. He had a couple of opportunities where he would have to move a long, long way and, at that stage of his life, that kind of move didn’t appeal much to him or his wife, Jean Ann, who has maintained a business in Charlottesville ever since they lived here 12 years ago.
It was actually Jean Ann who came up with an alternate plan. She suggested moving back to Charlottesville and working on their Ivy farm, hanging out with their daughter during summer break and spending fall weekends watching their son play in Knoxville.
“Saw him play nine times without having to get on a plane,” Woods said Wednesday afternoon. “To see his face when he came out of the locker room was worth it. It’s kind of embarrassing to say that I didn’t really see him play many complete football games until then. I’d run over to his high school games on Friday night, see a quarter, and run back to campus to make sure our players were in bed.
“So, seeing him play his senior year at Tennessee may have meant something to him, but not nearly what it meant to me,” Woods said.
He also spent more personal time with his daughter that summer than perhaps her entire life. That’s what happens a lot with football coaches who are essentially married to their job, working mind-boggling hours.
While hanging out with his family, spending days on a tractor, clearing his mind, Woods was depressurizing. He was also haunted by all those years on the gridiron, in the locker rooms, the meeting rooms, the film rooms. He was happy in one sense, miserable in another.
“It was sad to me becuase I honestly couldn’t understand how they had football with out me,” Woods said in retrospect. “I think every coach feels that way.”
Woods is correct. Former Clemson and Arkansas coach Danny Ford once expressed the same sentiment after being out of football for a while in between those coaching stints.
“I discovered there was a whole other world out there on Saturday’s that I didn’t know existed,” Ford once said. “I saw people mowing their lawns, going about their business. I never realized all that.”
Woods had the same awakening.
“It’s very sobering to realize that [the football world] didn’t miss a game without me,” Woods said. “They just kept on playing. It reminded me that it’s an honor to be part of it, that’s it’s not about me. It’s about the players.”
After a great year with his family, Woods got another chance. Virginia Military Institute needed a football coach. Jim Reid had left to work for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and athletic director Donny White was searching. Woods called up and inquired and went over for a chat.
Woods had to be convinced because everyone in football knows that VMI, which is one of America’s most prideful institutions, is also one of the most difficult places to win.
VMI superintendent General J.H. Binford Peay III, talked to Woods and shared his vision for not only the school but for the football program. Reid expressed the same enthusiasm as Gen. Peay and White.
It wasn’t those proud men who convinced him to take the job. It was the players.
“I met the players and that was it,” Woods said. “I fell in love with them on the spot. I remember telling them that I was looking at a bunch of winners because of the decisions they had made in their lives. I said, ‘It looks like what we need to do is help you win on Saturday.’”
Woods told Peay that he didn’t know much about all the military stuff and that didn’t matter to Peay.
“The General looked at me with those four stars on his shoulders and said that he kind of got that feeling,” Woods chuckled. “But what he wanted me to do is help VMI win some football games.”
That’s what Woods has been trying to do for the past two years, heading into his third season. The Keydets, 1-1, play at Virginia on Saturday afternoon, likely the largest crowd (possibly 50,000) that VMI has ever played before.
After seasons of 4-7 and 2-9, Woods is looking for progress. Since leaving a long affiliation with the Southern Conference and joining the Big South eight years ago, the Keydets have won only six games in the conference, losing 25. Woods, who won the Southern while at Appalachian State back in the early ’80s, wants to bring that same kind of glory to Lexington.
While the odds are stacked mightily against the Keydets on Saturday, Woods believes anything can happen. A win would be an awesome achievement, but not the only thing the head coach, who has traveled the country as head coach at South Carolina, Appy State, assistant at Tennessee, Memphis, Mississippi State and the New York Jets under Pete Carroll, will be looking for.
“I’d like to walk out of Scott Stadium with some positive things to build on,” Woods said. “I want to make sure our guys are growing and playing better so that we can watch film and be excited about going into our conference schedule.”
Being more competitive in the Big South is a big goal.
“The year before I came, we lost two games by 70 points or more and one by 60 points. We have narrowed that gap,” Woods said. “Last year, we were in the fourth quarter of every game except the JMU game, which was over in the third. We were leading the conference champions [Liberty] with four minutes to go.”
When Woods left Virginia in 1998 and became offensive coordinator for Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State, it was of his own volition. He wasn’t sure he would ever step foot in Scott Stadium again, but as much as he moved around, he didn’t discount the notion.
“I’m so appreciative of Coach Welsh for the opportunity he gave me,” Woods said. “I learned a lot under a great coach. The rest of the staff was great to work with. It’s a place that anyone would be fortunate to coach for.”
Woods has such an affinity for the Charlottesville and Lexington areas that he plans on retiring somewhere in the region some day, but not quite yet. He and his wife still find some time to chill out in Charlottesville.
“The Aberdeen Barn, man,” Woods said, licking his lips about the city’s legendary steakhouse. “Duner’s, there’s a ton of great places. There’s a lot of nice people in Charlottesville and we have some special friends there.”
His warmest memories of his two years here were helping develop quarterback Aaron Brooks, who went on to become the New Orleans Saints’ all-time passing leader, and in winning back-to-back games against rival Virginia Tech. The 1998 game, in which Brooks passed UVa from behind for a huge win, is still one of the most memorable games in Wahoo history.
Sweet memories for sure, but just another chapter in Sparky Woods’ football life.
Another page of that chapter will be turned on Saturday on familiar ground. Woods is hoping that regardless of the outcome, his Keydets will have gotten better.
By Jerry Ratcliffe, The Daily Progress