NEW: Big Q's At The State U

A Half-Dozen Questions As James Madison Starts A New Sports Season

Posted: August 27, 2014

Q: What’s up with the topic that makes JMU fans salivate the most, aka the potential move to Division I-A?

Not much. I’m told the university is on hold as college athletics continues to reinvent itself. JMU failed to meet the first requirement for switching from I-AA to I-A: an invitation from a I-A conference before the NCAA’s annual June 1 deadline for transitioning to a higher level. Now, it’s in wait-and-see mode.

After years of upheaval in league alignment, everyone appears eager to stand pat for a while, especially when a school (read: JMU) offers little monetary value. Yes, Madison has lots of alumni in the Urban Crescent (D.C. to Richmond to Hampton Roads), but it still has a modest fan base that likely wouldn’t enhance any conference’s television revenue.

So the three potential new homes for the Dukes – Conference USA (the ever-changing Texas-to-Florida-to-Virginia league that once was Madison’s first choice), the Mid-American Conference (the Ohio/Michigan-centric league of mid-level state schools that academic types at JMU like) and the Sun Belt (which Madison thinks it’s too good for) – all passed on JMU last spring.

Now, there’s another potential roadblock. The wild card in JMU’s quest to move up – and the athletics department still wants to do so – is the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, thanks to the lucrative I-A football playoff system that begins this season and the Power 5 conferences’ newfound autonomy to create rules that will make mid-level leagues even less relevant than they are now.

Money is finite, and more of it will be going to the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences. Will there be enough left over to make a move to I-A – a far more costly enterprise than I-AA football – worthwhile for Madison? Unlike the Colonial Athletic Association, which pays Madison pocket change for football, even second-rate I-A leagues have modest payouts. But would that be enough to cover additional I-A expenses, as the Carr Report promised?

One potential ripple of hope for JMU’s I-A advocates: The American Athletic Conference (where Big East football schools went if they couldn’t get into a big-time league) might be back in the market for teams. If so, that would likely open up a spot or two in C-USA.

Complex issues. Right now, I have no clue whether a move would benefit JMU financially. I doubt if Madison officials do, either. It would certainly elevate the profile of the university, and it would certainly inject an element of inherent corruption. It’s a tradeoff many schools have been willing to make.

Q: Is the new $87.5 million basketball arena still a “go”?

Sort of. JMU is continuing to try to raise enough private donations to provide seed money for the project, which then would be paid for by bonds.

One bit of news: Sources tell me that one of the locations under consideration for the new Convocation Center is near the Wellness Center off of Stone Spring Road. Unlike at the location JMU has previously identified as a probable spot for the arena – pretty much next door to the present facility – the university doesn’t yet own the site near the Wellness Center.

Q: Speaking of basketball, what’s coach Matt Brady’s status?

Duh. As usual, he’s on the hot seat. The euphoria over the Dukes’ every-star-in-the-universe-aligning-right NCAA Tournament appearance in 2013 has faded, and a combination of Brady’s third 20-loss season and the transfers of two starters doesn’t bode well for a quick turnaround.

Or does it? Brady has alternated 21-win and 20-loss seasons since arriving at JMU in 2008, and Andre Nation – assuming he manages to stay eligible (a very big assumption) – still gives the Dukes a powerful weapon in the weak CAA.

As for the transfers, it probably hurts, but nobody can blame guard Charles Cooke for upgrading to Dayton, especially in an era in which players treat colleges more like hotels than homes.

Nevertheless, if Brady has a poor season, JMU bigs would mull buying out the final year of the Philly-area native’s contract, which guarantees $302,000 annually (the school also would owe him another $20,000 for the option year). Once again, they might find it politically impossible to do so at a school where professors feel they’re underpaid.

Q: How many games will Everett Withers win in his first season as the Dukes’ football coach?

On paper, JMU shouldn’t be any better than the 6-6 team that got Mickey Matthews fired last season. Not because the talent isn’t superior – Withers has proven that his reputation as a master recruiter was well-deserved – but a new quarterback, new coach and new system in the nation’s most difficult I-AA conference isn’t a formula for success, even if the QB started at an Atlantic Coast Conference school last year (Vad Lee at Georgia Tech) and even if the coach was a defensive coordinator at one of the nation’s most elite programs last season (Ohio State).

Lightning would have to strike twice in four years for the Dukes to beat Maryland in their opener Saturday. The Terrapins aren’t anywhere near as good as Virginia Tech was in 2010, when the Dukes shocked college football, but they’re still a reasonably competitive Power 5 program with enough playmakers to smoke Madison. Villanova, Delaware, Towson, William & Mary and Richmond all enter the season more highly regarded than the Dukes. Again on paper, that’s six losses right there. Not that JMU is likely to lose to all of those teams, but it also is unlikely to escape the season without being upset itself.

Q: How can Whit Babcock, the Harrisonburg High School and James Madison University graduate, not try to hire away Waynesboro native Kenny Brooks?

I have zero sources on this, but it seems to be the no-brainer of the century (even though the job isn’t open right now). Women’s basketball at Virginia Tech, where Babcock is the new athletics director, has been lousy the past several years. Women’s basketball at JMU, where Brooks has a 281-112 record in 12 years (that’s a 71.5 percent win rate), has been outstanding. Of course, there’s a huge difference between the ACC and CAA, but ...

Q: And finally, is this appropriate or what?

James Madison has a heavy tilt toward women students – a 60-40 female-male split – so perhaps it’s only fitting that the university’s women’s sports are hugely better than their men’s counterparts.

This past school year, women’s team sports at JMU (basketball, field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, softball and volleyball) won 68 percent of their games (123-56-1), with the hoops team reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament and the softball team piling up a 45-15 record. Only the volleyball squad had a losing record. In men’s sports (baseball, basketball, football and soccer), the Dukes won 35 percent of the time (40-72-1). None of the teams had a winning record.

So give a nod to the women’s teams. But also remember this: The only sports that matter are football and men’s basketball. They’re the only sports that generate significant revenue, significant publicity and significant fan interest. If they fail to meet expectations, why have a Division I program?

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