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There was a time, not so far in the past, when upsetting the Cavaliers was the Keydets specialty.
“I live to come over here and shove it down Virginia’s throat,” then-VMI coach Bob Thalman said of the rivalry in 1975. Thalman died in 2012.
Saturday, September 21, 2013
As glasses were raised and toasts were offered at last weekend’s VMI hall of fame banquet, the Virginia-VMI football series was on the attendees’ minds.
Maybe not the series’ recent history, in which UVa has beaten the Keydets nine straight times, the last three games by an aggregate score of 120-7.
Nor was anybody dwelling on today’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Scott Stadium, which finds the Cavaliers favored by 45 points by the only Las Vegas sports books willing to accept a wager.
Instead, the conversation turned to an earlier time, a more memorable era when the Keydets defeated Virginia three times between 1976-78.
“That was really special,” said Joe Bush, a former VMI player who was the offensive coordinator for those Keydet teams. “Besides winning two Southern Conference championships, that might have been the highlight of our whole tenure there.”
After beating the Cavaliers 13-7 at Norfolk’s Oyster Bowl in 1976, VMI won at Scott Stadium the next two years, 30-6 in 1977 and 17-9 in 1978.
“The whole time I played, coached or whatever, we never played Virginia at home,” said Bush, who spent 19 years at VMI before going to Hampden-Sydney as head coach in 1984. “I understand [the Cavaliers] weren’t as good back then, but for VMI to beat them three years in a row, we thought that was just super.”
It was nearly four straight. In 1975, the Cavaliers held on for a 22-21 victory after a 38-yard VMI field-goal attempt was wide right with 1:08 to play.
That was UVa’s only victory in a 1-10 season.
“I live to come over here and shove it down Virginia’s throat,” feisty VMI coach Bob Thalman said after the game. “Today, we did it.”
The Keydets didn’t have anything to show for it, but the next three years they would.
Bush was right. Those were not the best of times at Virginia. First-year coach Dick Bestwick lost his first five games in 1976, extending the nation’s longest losing streak to 14 games before beating Wake Forest, 18-17, on a late Hail Mary.
One week later, the Cavs returned to earth against VMI.
Bestwick, now retired and living in Athens, Ga., was asked if he scratched his head over UVa’s inability to beat VMI.
“Seemed like I was scratching my head a lot in those days,” said Bestwick, responding to an e-mail Thursday night.
The Cavaliers had just beaten Army, winning for the first time in five trips to West Point, N.Y., before the Keydets came to Scott Stadium in 1978.
“Did Shuman tell you about his big pep talk?” Bush asked.
John Shuman, who for many years has coached the postgraduate team at Fork Union Military Academy, starred as a lineman at VMI from 1976-79.
“He went on this long rant,” Bush said. “… He didn’t mince any words. He said a prayer but it was nothing you would have heard in a church.”
Shuman, known as “Inhuman” Shuman in those days, said it was a set-up.
“We sat down to eat and Thalman says, ‘Shuman, you got the prayer,’ ” he related. “I think he knew what was coming next. I started out, ‘Dear Lord, please bless this food and then came up with something like ‘help us drive the ball down their [bleeping] throats.’ ”
When the Keydets won, the players were not required to ride the bus home to Lexington.
“I found a party and just went nuts,” Shuman said. “Woke up in a house on Pantops Mountain.”
The three UVa teams that VMI beat went 2-9, 1-9-1 and 2-9. Over the same period, the Keydets were 5-5, 7-4 and 3-8.
In 1977, the year they won the Southern Conference, the Keydets also beat William and Mary and Richmond to capture the mythical Big Five championship, although Virginia Tech beat the Keydets 27-7.
“We had a really good team in ’77,” Bush said, “and of all the times we played VPI, it might have been the only time we were favored. We really laid an egg.”
In 1978, college football was split into Division I-A and Division I-AA, although the Southern Conference and VMI didn’t go I-AA until 1982.
Back then, VMI, with its military requirements, almost never beat Virginia for a recruit.
“We didn’t beat many people at all,” Bush said.
VMI had an underdog mentality and made the most of it.
“Were we overconfident?” Chip Mark, a part-time starter who led the Cavaliers in passing in 1977 and ’78, said. “Yes. No doubt about that.”
Nobody got up for the Cavs like then-VMI quarterback Robbie Clark from the Newport News area.
“You ask them if they should have recruited me,” said Clark after leading the Keydets to victory in 1978, his senior year. “Frankly, I’d like to play them again next year.”
Virginia did beat the Keydets 19-0 in 1979 with a 6-5 team that was Bestwick’s finest.
“It’s very hard for me to get mad at VMI with Bob coaching them,” said Bestwick, who had coached with Thalman at Georgia Tech, prior to the 1979 game. “But, I certainly am sick and tired of losing to them.”
Mark said he has many friends who either played at VMI or support the Keydets and in no way does he begrudge VMI it’s day — or three days — in the sun.
“The Institute will be heard from,” Mark said. “Isn’t that the famous Stonewall Jackson quote from Chancellorsville? I think that’s how history will view this.”
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