It doesn’t contain plays or defensive schemes. Instead, it’s a book of short stories with strong morals and motivational quotes from coaches and others.
“We want to focus on the good stuff,” Vermillion, the most successful boys basketball coach in Southwest Virginia in the last two decades, said. “You’re going to lose a battle or two, but you’re going to win the war with consistency and character.”
Consistency and character, built on biblical principles, are two cornerstones upon which Vermillion chooses to build his program year after year.
Vermillion is the Times News 2020 Southwest Virginia boys basketball coach of the year.
Vermillion has won 450 games in his 22 years as head coach, the first five seasons at Twin Springs before moving to Gate City.
His tenure has been blessed with 20-plus win seasons and a lot of trophies.
Vermillion guided Twin Springs to four Cumberland District tournament championships before leading Gate City to 16 regular-season district championships in 17 seasons, 17 straight district tournament titles, six Region D championships, eight Final Fours, five state championship appearances and a 2018 Class 2 state championship.
The Blue Devils have made five straight VHSL Class 2 state tournament appearances under his mentorship.
In the last five years, Vermillion’s Blue Devils have lost to only six Virginia teams and to only one Region D team. The Blue Devils lost to Graham in the 2018 Region 2D championship game before bouncing back a week later to beat Graham in the state semifinals.
IT STARTS EARLY
“We have a lot of good things happen to us,” Vermillion said. “When I say ‘we,’ that’s what I mean, ‘we.’ ”
The Gate City coach said that success is the collaborative effort of a whole lot of people.
“We have assistant coaches and assistants who are volunteer coaches that donate a bunch of their time,” Vermillion said.
Coaches like Terry Bird, Shannon Boy, Jamie Hackney, Jonathan Salyer, Chris Fugate, Austin Arnold, Hunter Jones and Jason Howell, Reagan Mullins and Chris McDonald have all donated a bunch of hours to see the program be a success, along with former Blue Devils head coach Greg Ervin, who mentors the program and the head coach, Vermillion said.
“It’s the most vital part of our program,” Vermillion remarked. “Good men leading our boys.”
The prosperity of the varsity program does not begin at the varsity level, Vermillion said. It starts much earlier.
“We have a little league program that runs about six weeks every year, and it starts in the third grade,” he said. “This year’s senior class is the first one that has gone all four years through our youth program.”
The little league consists of 10 teams and has been overseen by former Gate City basketball star Jessee McMurray.
The coaches of the league are comprised primarily of former Gate City players or individuals who have ties in one way or another to the Blue Devils.
The teams keep score and there are winners and losers, but Vermillion said the biggest thing about the program is making sure the players learn the fundamentals of the game and the Gate City system.
“We have a meeting before the season starts, and we discuss what we want to do and what we do not want to do,” Vermillion remarked. “It’s all about fundamentals. It’s getting them the right kind of reps.
“They have an idea about what we do and they believe in our system.”
The more confidence the players have at different levels coming up through the system, the more eagerly they want to play at the varsity level, the coach said.
“They play a lot more basketball in Richmond, Staunton and Lynchburg areas, it seems,” said Vermillion. “They’re tough and we have to be tough to compete with those teams. And that’s why we play in the Arby’s and play teams like Science Hill and Dobyns-Bennett.
“We’re trying to develop a culture that doesn’t flinch when you face those teams. Our plan is to beat those teams. And if you can do that, then the rest will take care of itself.”
Working toward that culture has led Gate City to become the first public school in the nation to have three successive players score over 2,000 points in their careers: Mac McClung, a sophomore at Georgetown; Zac Ervin, a freshman at Elon; and Bradley Dean, this season’s senior leader who will play at the next level in the winter.
“We find tough kids that will figuratively run through a wall,” Vermillion said. “That’s the kind of kid I keep my eye on. We play toughness over skill. You just can’t substitute for toughness.”
Beyond the program’s three stars, Vermillion said, are the key role players who have contributed quietly, but importantly, to the Blue Devils’ success.
“What’s important are the kids that didn’t shoot the basketball,” he stated. “Kids that have come through in the last three years like Drew Vermillion, David George, Jon Compton and Jon Sallee. The kids that will take a charge. They get every rebound and set every screen. And they understand the role and play it excellently.
“I don’t know that there have been as many talented role players that have played so well with all-stars. That’s the climate. Everybody is an all-star.
“We still play for the name on the front of the jersey instead of the name on the back of the jersey. You can’t beat a team with one player scoring 40 points unless everybody else doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
There are other parts of the community that feed into the culture of the team.
No one is more aware than Vermillion that the Blue Devils carry a target no matter where they play.
“We just try to keep our focus and not let things get to us. Sometimes it does, but most of the time we just worry about the next play,” said Vermillion. “We don’t linger on what the referee just called or what went wrong. We don’t linger on the last play. We just want to worry about the next play and have a culture of worrying about the next play. Because when you worry about what already happened when a team goes up by one with seven seconds left, you don’t understand the importance of going onto the next play and what you need to do.
“It’s about doing the right thing next and doing the next right thing.”