Remarks at the Keydet Club Scholarship Dinner
15 October 2011
Scholarship athletes… parents, members and donors of the Keydet Club, coaches, faculty, staff members.… and guests…. Good evening.
Tonight’s Keydet Club Scholarship Recognition Banquet is one of the highlights of the year, because it gives us an opportunity to properly recognize the talented young athletes who form the backbone of our multi-faceted athletic program and it gives us an opportunity to thank generous individuals whose sponsorship is so critical to our cadets and to the programs in which they compete. It is also an opportunity to remind ourselves of the true place of athletics in a college environment.
I’m a big believer that “the future grows out of the past”…and when we put Vision 2039 in place in 2003 this “fundamental” was key to our approach. VMI’s past is “fertile ground” in which to cultivate tomorrow’s leaders. The demands of cadet life instill the qualities of self-reliance, initiative, perseverance, integrity, and self-discipline in every cadet…qualities that have allowed VMI alumni to succeed at the highest levels in all professions, and have allowed the Institute to make contributions to American society of importance and influence far out of proportion to its modest size.
VMI can point to its proud traditions and concentration on fundamentals as essential elements to the success of its alumni. The team at the Institute that produced these leaders comprised dedicated faculty members, coaches, administrators, and staff members who enforced VMI’s high standards, and supportive alumni who provided the resources that advanced all aspects of a VMI education.
Pamela and I host dinners at our home for all first classmen. Tuesday evening I was asked, and am often asked, what I mean by “The VMI Way” as it relates to athletics…and where is VMI going in the future in that regard. This gathering deserves a straight answer, and so with apology (in advance) for such directness, let me lay it out from my perspective. The question reveals just how far many college athletic programs have strayed from their original intention. Regretfully, many college reputations have been stained with recruiting infractions, inappropriate transfers, separate living arrangements, easy degrees, and programs marked with serious acts of indiscipline. This environment creates competitively unfair and uneven playing fields…, particularly unfair to the true student-athlete…the student who will lead our nation into the next half century. The fault largely lies with college Presidents who don’t have the personal courage to fix the problem. We, at VMI, had some of these problems years ago and we changed, insisted on standards and discipline, and stopped the hemorrhaging and loss of our athletes. This required clear understanding of the rules and standards…to include education and improved communications with all players and coaches. Despite the current “allure” of huge revenues…we can fix this environment with strong leadership by college presidents and, if necessary, the Congress of the United States of America. “The VMI Way” is a reflection of the classical educational idea of a “complete education,” an idea that we can find among the Greeks and among Renaissance philosophers and educators. The classical concept of education, expanded in the nineteenth century, describes a healthy mix of intellectual, moral, and physical development, with the goal of producing men and women who will be assets to their communities. Far from emphasizing physical strength and competitiveness alone, the role of athletics in the classical concept of education is part of the total development of the individual. Sometimes this concept is referred to at VMI as “The Three-Legged Stool.” It is that… and it is “The VMI Way.”
I have often expressed the idea that “every cadet is an athlete and every athlete is a cadet.” This is not a “catch-phrase”…it is an ethic at the Institute that has real implications. This is another way of saying that there is one Corps of Cadets. Today, there are 409 NCAA athletes in the Corps…350 males or 25.5% of the males in the Corps participating in 11 sports…, and 59 females or 47% of the females in the Corps participating in 7 sports. There are “also” 560 Club athletes in the Corps participating in active competitive club sports encompassing 19 sports. And, these activities are further complimented with Rat Challenge (for non-NCAA athetes) every Tuesday and Thursday in the fall…and weekly ROTC and Commandant physical training periods for the entire Corps. Now obviously, not all cadets can be members of NCAA intercollegiate teams, but all are encouraged to participate in some form of athletic competition. While physical development stands alongside intellectual and moral development as the fundamental goals of a VMI education, the success of our teams also affect our “entire Corps” and alumni to a degree rarely found in other colleges and universities. In a close-knit military college like VMI, athletics play a special role. In fact, I say a crucial role. The success of our athletes and our teams has a direct bearing on the morale of the entire community. It clearly affects the chemistry of life in the Barracks and on the Hill, it unites alumni with the Corps, it brings fame to the Institute, and it makes us proud. Athletics at the Division I level are integral to who we are.
“The VMI Way” encourages the development of disciplined athletes who follow the rules of the game, who demonstrate a strong concept of personal honor, and who exhibit leadership traits that serve them on and off the field, the track, the pool, the diamond, the ice or the court. “The VMI Way” has no room for short cuts. It requires hard work, determination, teamwork, and an attitude that doesn’t accept defeat and never gives up. It reinforces the insistence that there will be no easy degrees. We only have 14 at VMI, while competitors have hundreds…, and ours are intellectually challenging that test knowledge and require time management. All cadets are expected to be serious students, not only because this is the primary mission of a college, but because the experience and the knowledge gained prepares a graduate to enter careers that will be successful and satisfying to them, useful to society at large, and will advance the wider mission of the Institute.
In terms of the “VMI Way”…let me address our cadet-student athletes and families (for a second) before moving on. Please recognize I love you and care deeply about you… in the United States Army we call it “tough love”….and sometimes soldiers whom I have had the honor to lead…(and I’m not naïve nor oblivious)…have been heard to say, “I wish General Peay would not love us so much”. I know you (and they) are reacting to the tough, high standards that VMI and I require. You are getting a great education and a diploma from one of the best institutions in America. Less than ½ of 1 percent of you will advance to the professional level. So, it is not just about being at VMI to play athletics; it is about growing to be “all you can be”…to prepare yourself for life…and also “winning” as an individual and equally important, winning as a member of a TEAM, whether in business, medicine, or a University. We should not quit…and parents don’t let your sons and daughters quit despite the rigors in this VMI Spartan environment. VMI will not (…on my watch…)diminish its standards…and we, as an Institution, are thrilled that you took “the road less traveled”. I know you’ve perhaps heard this, but it bears repeating: he lost 8 elections; was a business failure twice; declared bankruptcy; lost his mother at an early age…and his fiancée…; yet today considered by many as one of our greatest Presidents…, Abraham Lincoln. I look forward to handing you your diploma on 16 May of each year in the future, and for some of you a commission the previous morning on 15 May. Let’s all of us work hard to thoroughly gain the respect of the entire Corps of Cadets…made easier by also winning. That’s the hand dealt to us over years of not winning. We can change that. It is within our reach!
The economy is not the only challenging influence on our athletic programs. We are also challenged by changes taking place in conferences across the nation. Conferences are changing at the I-A level, with a “trickle-down” effect on the I-AA level. VMI will remain alert to this as it affects us directly. This is not to say that VMI is going to move to Division III athletics, nor to change conferences. In fact, we will not go to Division III on my watch. The reason is because athletics, at the Division I level, are “inherent” to who we are. If we can stay competitive at the current level and win in “The VMI Way,” … then that’s what is right for VMI, our cadets, our coaches, and our alumni. VMI’s winning of the Big South Sportsmanship Award for six straight years, is an accomplishment of which we should all be proud, and it shows that we have not strayed from “The VMI Way.” Yet, we (now) must double our efforts to win on the scoreboard and in the standings.
All that I have been talking about would not be possible were it not for those who generously support our cadet-athletes through the auspices of the Keydet Club. The good work of this organization stretches back many years, and includes the pioneering efforts of the VMI Sportsmen’s Club a half century ago. Tonight gives us a special opportunity to thank all donors most warmly and sincerely for this long record of support, but you can be certain that my thanks goes out to you every day and not just on this one occasion.
Aid and assistance have always been critical to our programs, but never as much as now. Difficult economic conditions in our nation have resulted in especially challenging times for college athletic programs, and VMI is not immune. Annual and endowment support from Keydet Club donors for athletics is critical to keeping the momentum going as VMI enters the early years of a comprehensive new fund-raising campaign. I feel certain that as you meet the talented and impressive young men and women athletes here tonight, and elsewhere at VMI, you will be assured that your support is well directed, for you are not only helping athletes, you are also preparing future useful citizens. We need your help more than ever this year as our teams are so close to winning…and some have turned the corner. We do not need to retreat!
Let’s review…”What is the VMI’s Way”? It starts with a “One Corps – One Team” philosophy with a solid underpinning of academics, honor, and discipline. It means: no easy degrees; the very best of sportsmanship and respect confirmed by our competitors; limited sports and the right sports; being NCAA and Big South compliant, and reasonable expectations satisfied by a balanced performance.
We have a wonderful Athletic Department with administrators that truly “care” for our coaches and our cadet-student athletes. We have the right coaches, ably supported by unsung spouses, that will “coach up” our athletes to be successful as individuals and as a TEAM.
In the years ahead, we will continue to work with increasing energy to insure that all cadets are exposed to the rigor and environment of a structured athletic program… NCAA and physical Club Sports… and that there is great “commonality of purpose” among us all. The positive attributes and qualities associated with being an athlete serve so well throughout life. That is the mission of VMI… and in athletics that is “The VMI Way.” And…, that is Vision 2039!...a vision culminating on its 200th birthday….a short 28 years from this evening. I hope I answered the cadet-athletes’ questions and yours this evening. Never Say Die!!