HARRISONBURG —James Madison’s football team has underachieved in recent seasons — most notably by rarely reaching the Division I-AA playoffs — but new coach Everett Withers doesn’t think major surgery is needed to pull the Dukes out of their five-year funk.
“This is not a dormant football program,” Withers said. “This is a football program that’s really just asleep a little bit right now.”
Consider Everett Withers the Dukes’ alarm clock.
More than two weeks after Withers was hired, JMU introduced Mickey Matthews’ replacement Tuesday at Bridgeforth Stadium’s Club Room.
The event drew a small media contingent and perhaps 100 onlookers. What they heard from Ohio State’s former co-defensive coordinator was a commitment to energize a program with a showcase stadium and one of the biggest fan bases in I-AA.
“This is one of those programs that the sky’s the limit,” he said, “and I truly believe that.”
Withers promised a fast-paced, multiple-formation offense designed to produce plenty of points, something that should please JMU administrators who have seen attendance at recently expanded Bridgeforth Stadium dip from about 25,002 during its inaugural season in 2011 to 21,011 this season.
His defensive philosophy is similarly aggressive.
“I want to die fast if I’m going to die,” Withers said. “I don’t want to go real slow and let people bend but don’t break. I want to go try to get the quarterback. We want to be aggressive on defense.”
Withers takes over a team that finished 6-6 in 2013 and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons, going a modest 33-25 overall and 20-20 in the Colonial Athletic Association during that span.
A final contract has not been signed, but JMU and Withers agreed on a binding “memorandum of understanding” with a base pay of $325,000 annually for five years. Of that, $295,000 will come from university funds and $30,000 from the JMU Foundation, the school’s fundraising organization.
Athletic director Jeff Bourne said it is the first time a James Madison coach’s salary has been supplemented with privately raised money, though some faculty salaries have included JMU Foundation funds for more than a decade.
Why the change? Bourne said Withers’ salary is the first to be supplemented by donors for two reasons: 1) it’s the most JMU has ever paid a coach, and 2) it’s the first time JMU has raised enough money to do it. In 10-15 years, Bourne said, the Duke Club has gone from raising $150,000 a year to $2 million a year.
As expected, the agreement includes a provision to renegotiate Withers’ contract if JMU jumps from I-AA to I-A, as many expect it do to in the wake of a consultant’s report that said the university is ready to make the move.
The agreement says Withers can renegotiate “within three months” after the school announces a change in conferences, with his salary “adjusted to meet or exceed the 50th percentile level” for a head coach in whatever league JMU joins. Madison is believed to be interested in Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference, with only slight interest in the Sun Belt.
When asked about a I-A move, Withers stayed on message.
“I know about the feasibility study,” he said, referring to the I-A study conducted by Carr Sports Associates, which also handled JMU’s coaching search. “I know about all that went on with that. But even if [a I-A move] would have gone on, this is still a gold mine. And the opportunity to come to a place like JMU and win football games and be successful here — I really believe this is one of those programs that, no matter the level it’s on, it’s got a chance to be successful.”
Bourne was noncommittal on I-A, saying the university has not received an invitation from a I-A conference, an NCAA requirement.
Withers and JMU officials signed the memorandum of understanding on Dec. 20, and it will be in effect until a more complete contract is signed by April 1. Bourne said the memorandum functions as the equivalent of a regular contract, and that it’s not unusual for it to take a while for full contracts to be finished as both sides work out the finer details.
“There’s already an overarching agreement in there,” Bourne said.
Withers’ high salary — Matthews made $222,000 a year — was dictated, in part, by his CAA peers, Bourne said. As for rumors that donors were boosting Withers closer to his $580,000 OSU paycheck, Bourne said that was not the case, and that there was “no money above the 325 base salary, other than things like the car stipend, discretionary funds and things like that.”
The car stipend is “not less than $1,000 a month,” and the discretionary funds are “not less than $10,000 a year.”
Four football players attended Tuesday’s press conference: tight end Ian Fisher, tailback Dejor Simmons, cornerback/wide receiver DeAndre’ Smith and wide receiver Marquis Woodyard.
Most of the players are home on holiday break and won’t return until Saturday for the football banquet. A team meeting is scheduled for Monday.
Withers — energetic, always smiling and wearing a dark suit — apparently made an impact.
“I loved him, as far as his energy,” said Smith, a rising senior who met with Withers on Monday for 30-45 minutes about the state of the team. “And the main thing was his wanting to have a relationship with the players and being in our lives. I loved that.”
The 50-year-old Withers spoke for about 30 minutes Tuesday and then submitted to one-on-one interviews with the media, addressing what it would take to get Madison back among the CAA’s and I-AA’s elite. After glancing at the Dukes’ scores last season — their games were decided by an average of four points in 2013 — Withers said completing games will be a focus in 2014.
“We have to learn to finish as a football team. That’s what I gathered from watching film,” said Withers, Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach in 2012 and 2013. “And with everything I’ve gathered through this process and studying this football team, if we learn how to finish, we should have a chance to win some games.”
Bourne said JMU hired Withers because of his commitment to being good in more than just football, something that Bourne said struck him early in the interview and hiring process, which included hot dogs at Jess’ on East Market Street. (Bourne said Withers wanted to try local fare.)
“The fact that he hit on the academic element and his deep commitment to that really meant a lot to us,” Bourne said.
Withers’ only previous head-coaching experience came in 2011 at North Carolina, where he served as interim head coach following Butch Davis’ firing amid academic misconduct allegations.
Bourne said JMU extensively checked into what happened in Chapel Hill, and had no misgivings about hiring Withers from a pool of about 100 applicants and six interviewees.
“We did a lot of research at a lot of different levels on that question, and we were convinced, after going through all those different levels, that we’re very comfortable with him,” Bourne said.
Withers said he has “a lot of respect” for Davis and “the way he treats people,” but that he learned a lot from his experience as UNC’s coach. He went 7-6 overall and 3-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference in one season before becoming an OSU assistant under Urban Meyer.
“Being a defensive coordinator and an offensive coordinator, sometimes you live in a bubble,” said Withers, the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator before taking over for Davis. “As I lived in that bubble, I guess there were things happening that I wasn’t really privy to, and again, I still don’t know. People ask me to this day, and I still don’t know [what happened]. … Learning to be aware of your surroundings, that’s probably the biggest thing I learned.”