Sunday, May 02, 2010
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Woods' goal still same: Winning

LEXINGTON -- Sparky Woods doesn't just want to win football games at VMI.

He almost feels a burden to. An obligation.

He looks at his players and senses their own burden, their own commitment that reaches far outside football, and he wants to reward them.

"You don't come here because it's the easiest place to come to school," Woods said. "You come here because you really have a plan for your life, and you have an ambitious plan for your life. I remember looking at them when I first got here, and I told them, 'I think I'm looking at a lot of winners. Our job is to try to get you to win on Saturday.'

"I still feel that way."

Woods wrapped up his third spring as Keydets coach Saturday with a light practice on an auxiliary field. There was no huge spring game that lured thousands of fans or even a handful of media members. Had the Keydets wanted to close workouts with a celebratory scrimmage at Foster Stadium on Saturday, they couldn't have; a high school track meet was scheduled there instead.

Clearly, such a conflict wouldn't happen at Alabama or South Carolina or Virginia -- all places where the 56-year-old Woods has worked before. But that doesn't mean he's complaining. Far from it, in fact.

VMI is different. And that's exactly what Woods likes about it.

"I'm kind of a guy who likes doing what other people have a hard time doing," Woods said. "This is a really challenging job, obviously, but I really have a passion for the players. I have great respect for the guys in our program."

And they him.

If you look around this place, you can tell this is a different year. This has finally become Woods' team. He's made the changes slowly, gradually, like a Southern gentleman would, but he's made them.

A position switch here. A new scheme there. And this spring, the final phase has taken hold, with the team scrapping its triple-option offense and moving to a pro-style attack.

The offensive players love it. The defensive guys? They might love it even more. Finally, they're seeing the things in practice that they'll see in games this fall -- swing passes, slant routs and post patterns.

If Woods has his way, the Keydets still will run it about 60 percent of the time. But that's a monumental change for this team, which led Division I-AA in rushing last season but ranked last in passing yards per game.

Says Adam Morgan, one of three quarterbacks vying for the job: "Any play now, any time, something big can happen to switch the momentum of the game and give it to us."

Momentum has been fleeting for VMI football. The Keydets lost a slew of close games last season en route to a 2-9 record. In Woods' first year, they went 4-7. They've changed coaches and conferences, yet they haven't had a winning season here since 1981.

Woods is a winner, though, and he is undaunted. He helped build Appalachian State into a power in the mid-1980s. He posted winning records his first two years as the head coach at South Carolina. As the offensive coordinator at UVa, he helped groom quarterback Aaron Brooks.

Even after the past two seasons, his record as a head coach is seven games over .500 (69-62-5).

He's worked with Mack Brown, Pete Carroll, George Welsh, Mike Shula. He's borrowed from all but tried to emulate none.

"I learned a long time ago that when you sit in that locker room before the ballgame and you look behind those facemasks of those kids, that game's just as important to them whether you're at VMI or the New York Jets or Alabama," he said. "It's about the players. It really is."

And for those players, the goals this year are pretty simple. Take better care of the ball (the Keydets put it on the ground 36 times last year, losing 27). Protect the quarterback (a completely new obligation). Stay out of long-yardage situations. If necessary, lean on your all-conference punter and defense, which returns 10 starters.

"I'm all about winning games," Woods said. "I've never been impressed with statistics in terms of this much in rushing and this much in passing. I'd like to have one more point than the other team we play. However we get it is fine with me."

Ultimately, Woods wants to win the Big South Conference. That's a daunting task considering where this program has been and how much the team still has to learn. But for the first time this fall, the champion of the league will garner an automatic bid to the Division I-AA playoffs -- a carrot that makes Woods, his staff and his players salivate.

"Would that not be an awesome thing for everybody to see and for all of us to experience?" he said. "So that's the goal."

And the burden he's more than happy to bear.

Read Aaron McFarling's Daily Sports Briefing on the Press Box blog weekday mornings at roanoke.com/sports

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