Former James Madison football coach Mickey Matthews has always considered himself to be a friend of the media.
This fall, he’ll be moving from the sidelines to the TV booth – at least temporarily.
The 60-year-old Texan said Thursday he has agreed to a one-season broadcasting contract with ESPN. He’ll work his first game next week on ESPN3, the network’s streaming video outlet, when Pittsburgh hosts Delaware and said he’s been contracted to work a “full schedule” of college football games this season.
“I always felt like those guys have a job to do, and you have to understand that,” Matthews said of his approach as a coach when it came to dealing with the media. “Sometimes it’s going to agree with me and sometimes it didn’t. Now that I’m doing this TV, I have a job to do and [I hope] that I’m an announcer the coaches will be really good with.
“I was just there last year, so I certainly understand what’s going through their brain when they’re talking to me.”
ESPN did not return messages for this story.
In the months after being fired by JMU last November, Matthews said he was approached by multiple college football programs looking to fill coaching openings, though he declined to name them.
Also in that time-frame, Matthews – who went 109-71 in 15 seasons at Madison, guiding the Dukes to the I-AA national championship in 2004 – said a few TV networks, including ESPN, raised the possibility of the longtime coach launching a broadcasting career.
“I’m really anxious; we’ll just have to see,” the folksy Matthews said. “It’s something you’ve never tried. … I’ve been coaching 38 years and I’ve never been in a TV booth.”
Staunton resident Sonny Randle, a four-time former NFL Pro-Bowler who went on to broadcast games for two decades, said he advised Matthews to look into a television gig after his departure from JMU.
Randle and Matthews first became aquatinted during Matthews’ time as an assistant head coach at Marshall in the early 1990s, and the two have grown into close friends in the years since.
Matthews said he started making connections at ESPN during his assistant coaching tenure in the late 1990s at Southeastern Conference power Georgia, which ultimately helped lead to his current broadcasting deal.
“I think he’ll do very well,” said the 78-year-old Randle, a former head coach at Virginia, East Carolina and Marshall who retired from commentating on TV games after last season and lives in Staunton. “You know, he doesn’t have any trouble talking. And he knows the game as well as anybody. I just think he’ll do a whale of a job, I really do.”
Looking to the future, Matthews said he has made no decision as to whether he’ll pursue more coaching opportunities when his broadcasting contract expires. That decision, Matthews said, will be influenced heavily by how he does in the booth and what coaching openings become available.
“Broadcasting’s like anything else: When you first start, you got to start at the bottom,” Matthews said. “I’m certainly not going to be doing the Georgia-Florida game this year. And I understand that I’ve got a lot to learn. So we’ll see how it goes. It’ll be interesting.”
Recently, Matthews said, he’s been attending college football practices simply as an observer – taking in preseason sessions at New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rutgers, Villanova and Delaware all over a four-day span last week. Those trips have come in addition to his numerous stops in Charlottesville to visit with Mike London and his Virginia team.
“This is the first time since the fall of 1966 that I’m not involved with organized football as a player or coach,” Matthews, who played for West Texas State, said. “So certainly it’s different. I’ve never been through an August like this.”
Matthews’ résumé includes assistant coaching stints at Georgia, TCU and Kansas State.
To prepare for his new career, Matthews – at the advice of several ex-coaches now in the television game, he said, including former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel of the Pac-12 Network – has been practicing commentating on NFL preseason games in the basement of his Penn Laird home.
“The neighborhood cat’s been downstairs listening to me,” Matthews joked.