They've won championships and playoff games and major bowls. They've started from scratch and elevated existing programs to new heights. They've done it with offense, with defense and with special teams.
Successful college football programs abound in the commonwealth, at every level. Virginia Tech and Virginia have won ACC titles. William and Mary has won conference titles and playoff games. Richmond and James Madison have national championship trophies.
Old Dominion's start-up program made immediate noise in the Football Championship Subdivision before jumping up a level. Hampton was the class of the MEAC in the late 1990s and mid-2000s. Christopher Newport won out of the chute in Division III and has become almost a postseason fixture.
Ask some of the men who run those programs the components of championship-caliber teams and you don't get different answers so much as variations on a theme.
People. The right people. Administrators that occupy big offices. Coaches in meeting rooms and on the field. Players at key positions willing to work. Certainly, facilities and structural upgrades matter, but people provide the foundation.
"I ranked them very distinctly when I got here, and I think that probably 90 percent still applies," said CNU's Matt Kelchner, who has taken the Captains to nine NCAA tournaments since he started the program in 2001. "The No. 1 key ingredient is administrative and leadership support. Still the most important thing. I don't care if it's D-I or D-III, high school or Pee Wee. The leadership has to embrace it. If they don't, you're going to be fighting a major uphill battle."
Administrative support convinced new Hampton U. coach Connell Maynor to jump from a very successful gig at Winston-Salem State, where he was embraced by his bosses and took the Rams to the brink of a Division II national championship.
"It starts up top," Maynor said. "Administration and athletic program and the coaches have to be on the same page with what you want to do. Here, we're on the same page and that's why I'm here. Dr. (William) Harvey wants to win. He wants to compete for and win a national championship. I want to win at the highest level, which is a national championship and MEAC championship.
"If your head football coach wants to win a championship, but your president doesn't really care and your athletic department isn't going to fully invest in you … you're not on the same page. You're not going to be able to build a championship program."
Jimmye Laycock enters his 35th season at William and Mary, where he has worked for three athletic directors and five presidents.
"It's extremely, extremely important," he said. "If you're not having the support from the people above you, I think you can only do so well. I see places where they change coaches because they're not being successful, instead of looking at areas where they could provide more support.
"You're going to go through some tough times and you have to know people are going to hang with you, no matter if you're having tough times or good times. You don't want people jumping on the bandwagon when things are going well and then when you hit tough times, they forget about you. You have to know people are going to stay with you and support you."
Frank Beamer knows a thing or two about administrative support. He returned to his alma mater, Virginia Tech, as head coach in 1987. Saddled with the effects of NCAA sanctions and scholarship reductions due to transgressions under former coach Bill Dooley, Beamer and the program had a tough time gaining traction. The Hokies limped to a 2-8-1 record in 1992, bringing Beamer's six-year mark to 24-40-1.
Rather than make a coaching change, former athletic director Dave Braine and Tech officials famously directed Beamer to overhaul his staff, and they identified other measures to help the program. The new staff jump-started the Hokies to a 9-3 record in '93, beginning the program's present 21-year bowl run and a march to Big East and ACC titles and major bowl games.
Today, Beamer's office is within sight of or an easy walk to the fruits of the program's success and commitment: expanded Lane Stadium; manicured practice fields; spacious, well-appointed locker room and player lounge; new indoor practice facility under construction.
"I don't know if there's another (situation) as good as we (have), where I can sit in my office and see every facility that we've got," Beamer said. "It's all there. It's very easy. You're not having to go a long way to the practice field or a long way to the indoor practice facility. It's all right there. I think we're fortunate in that regard.
"So, from a facilities standpoint, we've always been good. It's not state money. It's money raised from our supporters. Our supporters want to be very successful and they've showed it. It's demonstrated by how much they've given to us to build facilities."
Beamer's new boss, athletic director Whit Babcock, is the son of a college coach and spent 20 years in athletic administration across a breadth of Division I schools before coming to Blacksburg. Though his specialties include fundraising and marketing, he is convinced that people play the greatest role in championship programs.
"I probably learned it from my dad being a coach," he said, "really the best way to win is to surround yourself with the best coaches possible, give them the resources to be successful and then hold them accountable. If you do that, if you hire the best coaches you can possibly hire, you give them resources to be successful and you let them run the program their own way and hold them accountable with high expectations, that's as good a recipe as I can come up with."
Babcock said that he routinely meets with recruits and asks them their draw toward Virginia Tech, or some of his previous schools.
"Some people say facilities and other things," he said, "but almost every one of them says relationship with the coaching staff. Facilities are important, resources and all that, but I still believe it comes down to the relationship business."
Like Kelchner at CNU, Bobby Wilder started Old Dominion's program from scratch. He arrived in Norfolk in 2007 after a lengthy tenure as an assistant at his alma mater, the University of Maine. The Monarchs began playing in 2009. Two years later, they were a force in the Colonial Athletic Association and FCS. One year after that, they were headed to the Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA, where they will compete starting this season.
Wilder has had the support of the administration from the moment he stepped on campus, whether it was infrastructure and facilities, or staff size and salaries commensurate with the Monarchs' new venture. Administrators made over ancient Foreman Field, which has sold out every home game. A comprehensive campus master plan calls for a new stadium to accompany the move to FBS.
Wilder said administrative support and a commitment to facilities allow the program to recruit and retain both players and staff, which are critical in assembling a quality program. But when he discussed the ingredients for building championships, he skewed toward football factors.
"First and most important," Wilder said, "is putting together a coaching staff that likes each other. I know that sounds pretty fundamental, but a group of guys that work well together. I'm not talking about finding the best X-and-O guys in the country, I'm talking about finding guys that like each other. That's No. 1."
Second, he said, is having a quality quarterback. He's been blessed with two, in Thomas DeMarco in the program's start-up phase and now with record-setting Taylor Heinicke.
"You can be the sharpest X-and-O guy, you can have a wonderful defense, a great kicking game," Wilder said. "But if you don't have a quarterback, you're not going to win. Look at NFL teams, look at college, high school, any level of football. If they have a good quarterback, they probably win. If they have a quarterback that turns the ball over and doesn't complete passes, they probably lose."
Third, Wilder said, is balance and continuity in recruiting. Without that, veteran players find themselves on the bench. Younger players are thrust into roles before they're ready. Team dynamics can fracture.
"If you get an all-star freshmen class that comes in and your senior class isn't very good, it's not going to work," Wilder said. "You've got to have talent equally distributed throughout the classes. If you do that, then you can redshirt kids, you can develop them over five years. And that's where it's been hard on us, because we've had to play so many freshmen."
Kelchner echoed Wilder's thoughts about the importance of support staff – assistant coaches, trainers, medical personnel, academic tutors, everyone involved with the program. He mentioned that longtime equipment manager Lou Serio has a greater impact than anyone can imagine.
"Having the core people around you being quality people," Kelchner said. "I'd rather have a great person as a coach than the most phenomenal X-and-O guy. You've got to know Xs and Os and you've got to know techniques and schemes, but you need a better person. You've got to have good folks. Who you surround yourself with is important."
Kelchner tweaked his priority list as he's become established. He used to rank talent and recruiting second to administrative support, ahead of coaches and support staff. No longer.
"I thought the players were more important than the coaches and people around you," he said. "If you're in the right place, you're going to get the right kids if you work it right. If we do our work in recruiting, we're going to get the kids we should. And every now and then you get a kid that allows you to take the next step."
Virginia is years removed from the success under George Welsh. The Cavaliers struggled the past two years under Mike London, who nevertheless is well acquainted with successful programs, from his time as an assistant at William and Mary, Boston College and U.Va., to an FCS title as head coach at Richmond in 2008.
"I was fortunate to win a national championship at Richmond," he said, "so I know there are a lot of things that have to go your way to make it happen. We came pretty close to getting a second shot at playing for the national title again the next year and that shows you how close the line is between winning and advancing, and having your season end. Football is unique. Lose once, and your chances are probably over."
London listed execution, eliminating mistakes and consistency as primary ingredients on the field. He mentioned offensive production and stopping opponents on defense, with dynamic plays – sacks and turnovers.
"Then, there is unity," London said. "There is no substitute for when a team buys in and makes a commitment to come together. Unity bonds the team. It is a key ingredient to any championship."
Befitting a man in his fourth decade at the same position, Laycock preached the importance of continuity and staying the course – a consistent vision, consistent approach, consistent message.
"I've seen it too many times when people have a setback," he said, "they say that didn't work, so let's try this or let's try that. I think you send a mixed message to everybody involved."
William and Mary operates out of a support facility that bears Laycock's name and has the necessary upgrades to compete on a relatively even playing field in the CAA, but that wasn't always the case. His teams in the 1980s, '90s and early 2000s were marvels at maximizing the limited resources available. The fact that he attended W&M helped him adapt to the culture of the school.
"To be successful at one place is not always the same key to being successful at another place," he said. "You've got to learn your place, learn what it's about. I think that was one of the things that helped me early on. I kind of realized at William and Mary which battles to fight, which ones not to; where to put the energy and where not to waste my time, and where not to get frustrated, because certain things are going to be the way they are."
William and Mary's academic profile shrinks the available talent pool. It places a premium on identifying recruits that can do the academic work and on player development.
"I think you've got to recognize what you're talking about in talent," Laycock said. "You want good players, obviously, but you've got to get good people before you get good players. You've got to get good, solid people that are going to work at it.
"One of the things I talk to people about, or recruits about, or coaches about, what we want to do is we want to help develop (players). We want to get good, solid players that have potential and help them reach their potential. That's what it's all about. To me, if you get solid people that have potential and if you help enough of them come close to reaching their potential, the wins and losses take care of themselves."
Maynor fashioned a 45-6 record in four years at Winston-Salem State, with three NCAA playoff appearances. His championship teams, he said, were products of both talent and discipline.
"I always tell my guys, you're going to suffer one of two things in your life: the pain of discipline or the pain of disappointment from regret. If you're disciplined enough to put in the extra work and time in the weight room, on the field, in the film room, in the classroom, you're going to have Ws and win championships and make good grades and you're going to graduate.
"If you're not disciplined enough to do that stuff, you're going to be disappointed and regret it, because you didn't work hard enough, you didn't watch enough film, you didn't lift enough, you didn't go to class, you didn't go to study hall. Now you're going to make Cs and Ds, you're going to flunk out, you're not going to graduate. So there's one of two things you can do. You can be disciplined enough to do the right thing or be disappointed and regret it because you didn't."
Facilities are part of the championship equation, as well. Upgrades abound across the state. Virginia Tech's indoor practice facility is expected to be complete within a year. Virginia opened the George Welsh indoor facility, a 78,000 square-foot structure, in the spring of 2013.
Hampton U. installed a state-of-the-art artificial turf surface at Armstrong Stadium this summer. Richmond's four-year-old Robins Stadium is a functional, attractive, 8,700-seat venue tucked into campus. James Madison's recently expanded Bridgeforth Stadium has a tangible wow factor and is one of FCS' top game-day facilities. W&M's Laycock Center, which opened in 2008, is top-shelf in FCS.
"Facilities play a huge part in the final say-so in what athletes you get," said Maynor, who emphasizes quality over spaciousness when he talks to recruits. "As long as you've got what you need — your weight room is big enough, you've got ample practice fields. You're not going to get stronger just because you're at Texas. If we've got the same machines they've got, they've just got more of them and more space. You're not going to get any stronger because you're lifting at Texas than if you're lifting at Hampton or ODU, with that same equipment."
Facilities and structural improvements carry weight beyond recruiting.
"Everybody thinks it's about the players," Laycock said, "but it's important for the coaches to see that there's commitment. It's important for the equipment managers, it's important for the trainers, it's important for everybody to see that there's a general, overall commitment to doing things as well as you possibly can."
Appealing as shiny, new facilities and weight rooms and training rooms and locker rooms are, it's the occupants that provide the best opportunity to win titles.
"You've got to surround yourself with good people," Laycock said, "and trust those good people to do a good job."
Norm Wood contributed to this report. Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun