The Citadel's Brent Thompson has been known to play hide-and-seek with the Silver Shako during his four years as the Bulldogs' football coach.
In 2016, he hid the Shako, which goes to the Citadel-VMI winner each year, in an equipment manager's closet during the run-up to the game. In 2017, he kept the shiny trophy by his side in team meetings during the week of the Military Classic of the South. And last season, the Shako was parked on the sidelines during Citadel football practices.
The point, Thompson always said, was to remind his players of what the trophy meant, and what it would be like when it was gone.
Sadly for The Citadel, that day has come.
VMI claimed the Shako for the first time since 2002 with a 34-21 victory before a sellout crowd of 12,126 on Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium.
In the aftermath, it was clear that VMI's players coveted the Shako more than the Bulldogs did, but that might have also been true during The Citadel's 12-game win streak over the Keydets.
This time, VMI had the improved talent and the savvy game plan under fifth-year coach Scott Wachenheim to make it happen. After going 1-21 over the past two seasons, VMI is 3-3 overall and 2-1 in the Southern Conference this season. Wachenheim is an early candidate for SoCon coach of the year.
"For years, we haven't been looking at VMI the way we probably should," admitted Thompson, whose team is off to a 2-4, 0-2 start in his fourth season. "I saw this coming three years ago, and they've gotten closer and closer. Now, they are built to where they have a very good offense and a very functional defense."
Wachenheim is an option guy from way back, having played offensive tackle at Air Force and coached under Ken Hatfield at Rice. But at VMI, he decided to go in an Air Raid direction, hiring Northern Arizona offensive coordinator Brian Sheppard to run his offense.
Recruiting has improved, also. VMI has some tall dudes, including 6-4 junior quarterback Reece Udinski and 6-4 receiver Jakob Herres, both from Pennsylvania. Fourteen players on VMI's two-deep stand 6-4 or taller, compared with two on The Citadel's.
And a renewed emphasis on redshirting seems to have paid off. VMI does not have a graduate school, which in the past has made it more difficult for Keydet players to take a fifth year. But 22 players on this year's two-deep are listed as redshirts, including standout running back Alex Ramsey.
"VMI came in very hungry and passionate," Thompson said, "and executed their game plan about as well as anybody can.
"Offensively, they were what we thought they were — a quarterback who can put it on the money, one or two really good receivers who really showed out, and a running back who is a downhill runner. They hit us with some personnel matchups where we were lacking."
Now that the Silver Shako belongs to VMI, Thompson has other things to worry about, such as winning a football game. With VMI on the rise, Western Carolina comes to Johnson Hagood Stadium on Saturday with a record of 1-4 overall and 0-2 in the SoCon, and with issues of its own.
A must win?
"Yes," Thompson said.
"We need a big one. We need a big answer right now," he said. "This is going to be a good week of practice for us; we've got no choice."
• Citadel slotback Keyonte Sessions, who has not played in the last three games, is currently suspended for a violation of team rules, Thompson said Monday. The junior from Myrtle Beach had seven carries for 34 yards in the first three games.
• With starting fullback Clay Harris out with a shoulder injury, true freshman Logan Billings got the start against VMI and carried 13 times for a team-high 51 yards. He also lost a fumble that set up VMI's first TD.
Redshirt freshman fullback Emeka Nwanze, who had 34 carries two weeks ago against Samford, carried just four times against VMI.
"Emeka has been nursing a little bit of an injury, but Logan had a great week of practice and was hitting it extremely hard," Thompson said. "Other than the fumble, I thought he played extremely well for a true freshman. He was a high school linebacker who's been working at fullback the past four or five weeks, and I think it will be a natural fit for him."