Building a winning wrestling program at the collegiate level doesn't happen overnight. Unless you hire Tom Brands or Cael Sanderson, it's a multi-year process. For everyone else, it usually requires a few years to put your own stamp on the program and a culture change.
The last two words may be the most important. Culture change. They also may be the most difficult to define. You may not be able to describe a culture change, but it's the type of thing you know when you see it.
That happens to be the case for Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Heading into their fifth year under the leadership of head coach Jim Gibson, VMI is in the process of restoring its program to the glory years of the mid-1990s and early 2000s, when the Keydets finished in the top three in the Southern Conference three times between 1995-2003. Twice during that span, VMI shared conference championship honors and three times they finished as runner-up.
Known as the recruiting specialist at Bucknell, before his arrival in Lexington, Gibson is ready to see his first full recruiting class at VMI enter their senior season. Those early classes helped establish this culture change that is slowly taking effect. That bunch includes upperweights Zach Brown (184) and Tyler Mousaw (197), who have spent time in their careers in the national rankings. Both are looking to break through to the national tournament for the first time.
InterMat recently took a trip to VMI's campusâ€¦strike that "Post", to get a better understanding of the school and its wrestling program. As one may expect, it is a military college, so discipline plays a huge role in daily life around the post. That's not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to wrestling, though.
The wrestlers that we spoke to chose VMI because of the structure that the school provides. Plenty of freshmen (and upperclassmen) at your "normal" universities put too much emphasis on the social aspect of college and, as a result, academics slip. That's not a problem at VMI.
One of the misconceptions regarding the school is that you are required to serve in the military upon graduation. Many cadets choose to go this route and are commissioned into one of the service branches upon graduation; however, it is not a requirement. The coaching staff explained that the school and its required ROTC classes can be a good barometer of whether or not a Cadet wants to commission. Coach Gibson stated that plenty of cadets, "have an idea of whether or not they want to commission and end up changing it, one way or another, after a few years."
With so many colleges out there, they can tend to blend together aesthetically. VMI isn't one of those. Around 1800 students live in the barracks, on post, which is just over 134 acres. Those numbers make VMI one of the smallest DI schools in the nation (and not just wrestling schools). The "small school" feel was evident to the coaching staff and I, as we ran into the Superintendent (akin to a school president), Cedric Wins, during my informal tour.
VMI is nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, in southwest Virginia, with a picturesque view of "House Mountain" from the barracks.
After a walking tour on post, we headed to Cormack Field House, home to the VMI wrestling squad. At Cormack, we are able to speak with the VMI coaching staff, along with some of the team members. Also, Coach Gibson talked about some of the prominent locations we saw during our tour.
The morning after my visit to VMI, there was some tangible evidence of the culture change coach Gibson and staff are implementing. Two of Virginia's top wrestlers from the Class of 2023 (Eric Doran - Great Bridge and Toby Schoffstall - Liberty Christian) both had given the staff verbal commitments.
Below are links to the interviews and tour (Located on our Rokfin page)
Head Coach Jim Gibson
Assistant Coach Ryan Hunsberger
Assistant Coach Eddie Klimara
184 lber Zach Brown
197 lber Tyler Mousaw
285 lber Josh Evans
Freshman 133 lber Dyson Dunham
Freshman 149 lber Ryan Vigil
Cormack Hall (Upper Level)
Cormack Hall (Competition Level)
Comack Hall (Training Room)
Cormack Hall (Locker Room)
Cormack Hall (Weight Room)
Corps Physical Training Facility