HARRISONBURG — If you’re peering through a chain-link fence trying to watch a James Madison football practice, Everett Withers is the one in the white long-sleeve shirt with “James Madison University” emblazoned across the front.
He won’t be saying a whole lot, probably standing by himself most of the time. But when JMU’s first-year coach does say something, his words carry more weight than an anvil.
“Water ’em up!” he screams at trainers, always pushing the army of water carriers to do their jobs just a little bit faster. There’s a sense of urgency as Withers tries to change the culture of the football program while preparing his team for Saturday’s season opener at Maryland.
“In the past, things were a little different,” said senior safety Dean Marlowe, one of three team captains named Tuesday. “Now it’s how it’s supposed to be. I like how Coach Withers gets on anybody if they do something wrong.”
More than anything, Withers praises effort and energy in practice. What he doesn’t tolerate, however, it missed assignments and broken rules.
That even applies to the media.
Two weeks ago, WHSV-TV sports anchor David DeGuzman filmed part of a preseason scrimmage that Withers considered off-limits. As DeGuzman was taping an interview after the scrimmage, Withers approached him and said DeGuzman had broken the rules.
“That’s it, you’re done, you’re out,” Withers said sternly, motioning for the reporter to leave.
A member of the football staff even took DeGuzman’s memory card, the New York City native and Syracuse University journalism school graduate confirmed, though the card was returned the following week. (Sports information director John Martin on Wednesday took the blame for the incident, saying he gave DeGuzman inaccurate information on what could be filmed.)
It’s a stark change from the uncommonly open access the media had during Mickey Matthews’ reign as the Dukes’ coach. Withers exercises much more control, especially in making sure the team speaks with one voice.
The 51-year-old Withers, who took the JMU job after a two-year stint as co-defensive coordinator on Urban Meyer’s staff at Ohio State, has decided to make only the same 12 upperclassmen — part of a leadership council he has created — available for interviews at practice.
Under Matthews, most players usually were free to speak to the media.
“That’s been a problem here in the past,” Withers said. “I just believe in too many voices cause the message to be watered down. I’ve always felt that way.”
Restricting access, Withers said, allows the Dukes to avoid unnecessary distractions.
“When you do that, you know what the message is going to be,” he said. “You know what’s going to be said in the media. You don’t have to worry about whether or not so-and-so is going to screw up in front of a camera. I don’t worry about that because I know who’s talking.”
Think of Withers’ personality as more Bill Belichick than Pete Carroll, more Nick Saban than Steve Spurrier. He’s not averse to one-word answers during interviews, often declining to go in-depth on open-ended questions. He’s cordial if the question and answer puts his program in a good light. If it doesn’t, Withers will shut it down.
“If it’s something positive that’s going to sell the athletic department and this university, I’m all for it,” Withers said.
Is Withers — a 26-year coaching veteran with stops at multiple Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference schools as well as six years with the Tennessee Titans of the NFL — controlling the message?
“It’s not necessarily controlling the message, it’s making sure the message is what we all want it to be,” Withers said.
Senior defensive end Brandon Lee, who along with Marlowe is a member of Withers’ players cabinet, echoed Withers in saying the changes from JMU’s more open policy under Matthews are for the better.
“It was more separated at that time,” said Lee, who said he’s not allowed to reveal what goes on in the leadership meetings. “We kind of had different people saying different things and that’s where a lot of the chaos came from. It’s not a control thing, it’s more of an accountability thing. We know what we need to do, we have core values on the team and we know the right thing and the wrong thing. His motto is do it right every time.”
That applies to on and off the field.
“He’s pretty unique because he cares so much about us and he don’t put up with a lot of stuff, which is good for us so we can have each of us going into battle each and every game and not have all these headlines come up in the season where somebody did something stupid,” Georgia Tech transfer quarterback Vad Lee said.
Withers has coached at so many high-profile places that a Google search for “Everett Withers JMU” doesn’t even turn up his jmusports.com biography. That big-time status seems to have transferred over to his first permanent head coaching job (he was the interim coach at North Carolina in 2011).
“The CEOs that I know and the head coaches that I know, it’s about everybody saying and doing one thing,” Withers said. “When you get the ship going in one direction, it usually goes pretty good, pretty straight and pretty fast.”
Where does the Charlotte, N.C., native get these ideas from? He’s coached under Meyer, Butch Davis, Mack Brown and Jeff Fisher, among others, and says he’s drawn inspiration from every coach he’s worked with.
He said he’s kept all those ideas in five notebooks over his career, ideas he comes back to every now and then. The lists have travelled with him from job to job, along with a list of potential coaches he would hire if he one day became a head coach.
“You formulate what you want to be,” Withers said. “Mack Brown and Urban Meyer both told me, ‘Go be you,’ and I try and be me every day.”
If being “me” means making sure the message remains pure, then so be it. It’s all for the good of his players, Withers said.
“I’ll always put the players first and I think that’s something throughout coaching that I’ve learned from the successful coaches,” Withers said. “Try and do everything you can for the players. When you try and do everything you can for the players, within rules, then they will go out there and spill it for you. We can go coach them really hard if they know we love them.”