Putting Down Roots?
HARRISONBURG — Kara Withers, the wife of new James Madison University football coach Everett Withers, is no stranger to the moving process.
The couple, who will celebrate 20 years of marriage this June, has bounced from city to city over the past two decades, landing in locales from Austin, Texas, to Columbus, Ohio, and some in between. With Withers, 50, now the sixth football coach in JMU’s history, he is looking to finally put down some roots.
“When I took this job, my wife and I talked about it a lot, this is the part of the country that we love,” Withers said following an introductory press conference Tuesday at Bridgeforth Stadium. “I’m from the Carolinas and we’re not very far from my home. I’m at that age where you start thinking about settling in at a place, but I’m excited more about the future of this football program.”
The slogan “The Future Is Now” – plastered on high-definition screens and across Madison’s website since the then-Ohio State co-defensive coordinator was hired two weeks ago – suggests the degree of change JMU hopes to incorporate into its sagging program.
Just how long the future takes is anybody’s guess, especially if Madison decides to jump from Division I-AA to I-A, as many expect. Withers will be breaking in two first-time offensive coordinators without much depth at quarterback and in the secondary.
He also will be the top man at a program for just the second time ever, and for the first time without the interim tag.
The time spent as the interim coach at North Carolina in 2011 prepared him for the pomp and circumstance of the press conference, he said, and he handled the moment with precision.
Fans were invited to the event, and Withers – wearing a purple tie and a JMU lapel pin – smiled as they gave him a 13-second round of applause before the Charlotte, N.C., native made an opening statement and handled the peppering of questions from the media with ease.
“I’ve done it enough that I feel comfortable up there,” Withers said later. “It’s about getting your message across and what you want people to know about you and what your plans are.”
Withers’ formula for winning games and hiring a staff – “energy plus creativity equals production” – sounds simple, but it starts from the ground up. During his brief time around the JMU facilities (he stayed in Columbus to coach Ohio State in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3), Withers said he thought there were too many white walls and blank spaces, something he wants to change.
He wants murals of players on the walls of the Plecker Center because he wants it to be fun for the athletes, he said. Families are welcome, too.
“We’ll have a business-like atmosphere, but that building is going to be live and with a lot of juice in it,” Withers said. “I want our kids around that building as much as possible. I believe this, you take that building and you paint the walls and put up murals… I like that building to have some life in it.”
A life is something Withers will balance outside the confines of the Madison campus. The former defensive back at Appalachian State said he routinely logs 16- to 17-hour work days during a football season, waking at 4:30 a.m. and leaving the office “until it’s done.” He gets a coffee and goes in the morning, he said, leaving his wife and two kids at home.
His daughter, Tia, is a high school senior currently shopping for colleges, and his son, Pierce, is an eighth-grader who will be choosing between several Rockingham County and Harrisonburg city schools to attend and play football. His wife and children will remain in Columbus until the school year ends.
“He’s decent,” Withers said of Pierce, referring to the 5-foot-9 receiver/defensive back’s football prowess. “I think he could do some things better, but he’s decent. I try not to [coach him up]; I try and stay off of him.”
Withers said his wife wants to get involved in charity work in the Harrisonburg area.
Mack Brown, who recently stepped down at Texas, is Withers’ biggest coaching mentor. Brown was Withers’ coach for his junior season at App State, and the two had a meeting in the spring of that year (after the 1983 season) about Withers’ post-college plans. Withers thought he had an NFL future, but after that idea was shot down, he decided he wanted to coach. He went on to become a graduate assistant at App State before climbing the coaching ranks on the defensive side of the ball.
“From that point on, it’s been in my DNA and blood ever since,” Withers said.
Withers’ grassroots beginnings might have something to do with the confidence he has in his young assistants. Except for defensive backs coach John Bowers, Withers’ current staffers all are under 40.
Former JMU coach Mickey Matthews had a highly experienced staff – including three older coaches who had spent time in the Atlantic Coast Conference – but there were doubts whether they were in touch with the current generation of players.
“This is a different world that we’re in today and it’s such a fast-paced, PlayStation, Xbox world today and you got to have guys that understand that, coaches that understand that, understand kids today,” Withers said. “Sometimes, and I know older coaches that understand it also, but young coaches seem to have a grasp on that nowadays.”
Withers will look to stabilize and lift up a program that has slipped since its last Division I-AA playoff appearance in 2011. As Withers met the media, his staff was in the office working on recruiting.
“[Fans are] looking for somebody to help them get back to where they belong, where JMU football belongs,” Withers said. “I think this community deserves a winner.”