A.M. Commentary: JMU, Brady Close?

Posted: April 22, 2013

HARRISONBURG — This must be very confusing to people outside of Harrisonburg.


Matt Brady wins 21 games, takes his James Madison basketball team to its first conference championship in two decades, secures a berth in the NCAA Tournament, wins a “First Four” bout and is named Coach of the Year in Virginia.


Good stuff, right? Enough to persuade JMU and Brady to quickly embrace each other, a la VCU and Shaka Smart, right?


Well, no.


A month after the Dukes were eliminated by Indiana in the national playoffs, Brady and Madison still had not announced a contract extension by Sunday night.


I’m assuming they will do so before Brady’s current five-year deal expires at midnight Wednesday, perhaps even today, thanks to movement in their negotiations last week. If the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Wednesday, I’m told, JMU officials might continue chatting with Brady, albeit reluctantly, and allow him to work briefly without a contract.


Or they might not. Seriously.


The reason for the awkward delay in re-signing Brady is obvious. A few weeks ago, JMU offered him a new deal with terms that were a tad parsimonious: most likely three years, but only two guaranteed, plus a modest pay raise.


Not exactly what coaches expect when their school’s fan base turns giddy over a rare NCAA Tournament appearance.


I wouldn’t be surprised if the final deal, assuming it happens, isn’t more generous, but the lack of rapport between Brady and his bosses has to be startling to people who haven’t followed the Dukes the past five seasons. (Just say “Marist lawsuit” or “Crozet” to JMU officials and listen to their reaction, sometimes subtle, sometimes less so.)


Brady arrived at Madison with a Philly focus on basketball he felt would trump all non-hoops issues. Nothing mattered, he told me in 2008, except what happened on the basketball court.


Silly? I think so. But had Brady built on his first-year success (derailed, perhaps, because of injuries) and won a string of Colonial Athletic Association championships, his premise would have been correct: His salary (second-lowest in the CAA, according to one good source) would have ballooned and contract extensions would have become routine, regardless of whether his bosses were displeased with his presence in the community.


Brady didn’t build on that success, though, at least not dramatically. His now-familiar stat line — alternating three 21-win seasons with two 20-loss seasons — bugged JMU officials, who pointed to a lack of consistency, while acknowledging that Brady’s progress has been crippled by injuries to key players.


No one disputes that Brady has done infinitely better than his two immediate predecessors, Dean Keener and Sherman Dillard, and I think he might well have been offered a longer extension had his public-relations skills not been so primitive. There’s also no doubt he deserves an extension, given the bottom-of-the-barrel program he inherited.


While Madison was wise to hedge its bet on Brady’s future success, considering how it was burned when it over-extended Dillard in 2000, a slightly better deal than what JMU apparently offered might have been smarter for two reasons: 1) It would have put a more upbeat spin on JMU’s confidence in Brady’s prognosis, and 2) it would have, perhaps, elicited a quick signature instead of this increasingly weird stalemate.


Why not a truly long-term deal, as one of ESPN’s wagging tongues, Seth Greenberg, suggested? Because the list of accomplishments I enumerated earlier look much better in the abstract than in reality.


No one can deny that luck played a big role in Brady even surviving at JMU this spring. A late-season surge boosted his stock in Alumnae and Godwin Halls, reversing the university’s inclination to fire him. Even before the CAA tournament, Madison officials had all but decided to keep Brady, but they weren’t delusional: They understood that the Dukes’ success this season was, at least partly, due to an emaciated conference. VCU had moved up to the Atlantic 10; Old Dominion stank; two other contenders, Towson and Georgia State, were barred (like ODU) from what became a MEAC-esque seven-team Colonial tournament. Then, the Dukes got a fortunate call or two in the semifinals to advance to the CAA title game, where they didn’t have to play nemesis George Mason, which blew a 24-point lead in the other semifinal. That’s not all. Coming from a weak conference, JMU was relegated to a play-in game — more luck. It allowed the Dukes to notch a tournament victory before being swatted aside by Indiana in the first full round.


JMU freshman Andre Nation, meanwhile, became a play-in game starlet, the lively face of a young team heralded as a Colonial contender for years to come, thanks to Brady’s keen recruiting.

Brilliant stuff.


Now, it all seems so long ago. If JMU were a major program, the blogosphere would be fixated on the standoff. Instead, it’s a hyper-local story, a minor embarrassment.


I’m guessing the chances of Brady not signing today, tomorrow or Wednesday are close to zero. If Brady doesn’t sign, Madison will either have to keep negotiating or try to explain to outsiders what the heck happened.


Whatever the scenario — a tardy signing, extended negotiations, or no signature at all — it’s not the smoothest way to conclude an NCAA Tournament season.

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