Update: JMU Might Have Its New Football Coach
JMU officials would not confirm the report, and in the fickle world of coaching searches, things could change by Friday.
But the website – which is run by an ex-college football coach and reports almost exclusively on coaching news – tweeted Thursday afternoon that the 50-year-old Withers was Madison’s choice, seemingly ending a nearly month-long search that started with Matthews’ dismissal on Nov. 25.
While not addressing whether the university has offered the job to Withers, a JMU source said in a text message shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday that “we do not have a signed agreement with anyone.”
Earlier Thursday, however, a Madison source said JMU might be ready to name a coach today, and a report out of Ohio said JMU and Withers were negotiating Thursday evening.
It is unclear what Madison would pay Withers. It is believed that JMU was initially planning to pay a new coach about $300,000 a year, but that might have changed given Withers’ current $585,000 salary.
A James Madison source said last week that the school’s choice might be a surprise, and Withers certainly would qualify. He was the last person to publicly emerge as a candidate, with the 1985 Appalachian State graduate’s name first being mentioned Thursday, only hours before his reported hiring.
JMU’s other top candidates were believed to be Oakland Raiders quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, Virginia Tech tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator Bryan Stinespring and Vanderbilt defensive backs coach/defensive recruiting coordinator George Barlow. All three interviewed this week, sources said.
Of that group, Withers, a Charlotte, N.C., native, was the only coach without a direct tie to Madison, although his first game as North Carolina’s interim head coach in 2011 was against the Dukes. UNC beat JMU, 42-10, in Chapel Hill.
Madison used Carr Sports Associates, a consulting firm run by former Florida and Houston athletic director Bill Carr, to aid in its coaching search.
Withers has spent the last two seasons at Ohio State, which went 12-1 this season, losing 34-24 to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, a loss that cost the Buckeyes a shot at the national championship. OSU will play Clemson in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3. It’s unclear whether Withers would coach in that game if he becomes JMU’s coach.
This season, Ohio State’s defense ranks 21st out of 123 I-A teams in scoring defense (21.3 points per game) and 29th in total defense (362.2 yards per game). However, the Buckeyes’ pass defense ranks 102nd, allowing 259.5 yards per game. Withers coached the safeties.
Not surprisingly, given the intense interest in football at one of the nation’s super-elite programs, Ohio State’s defense under Withers and co-coordinator Luke Fickell has been the object of harsh criticism this year.
In the final four games this season, OSU never held an opponent under 420 yards of offense, and it gave up 603 to Michigan. The Buckeyes’ best defensive performances came against 1-11 Purdue (116 yards) and I-AA Florida A&M (80 yards). Other than that, OSU held opponents under 300 yards of offense only two other times: Buffalo (258) and San Diego State (280). It also gave up 503 to 1-11 California.
Before joining head coach Urban Meyer at OSU, Withers coached at North Carolina from 2008-11, starting as the defensive coordinator and secondary coach before taking over as interim head coach after Butch Davis was fired.
As interim coach, Withers had a 7-6 overall record and a 3-5 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference, going 2-5 in their last seven games, including a 41-24 loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl. Their two wins in the span were against Wake Forest (which went 6-7 that season) and Duke (3-9 in 2011). He was not retained, and UNC hired Larry Fedora.
As Carolina’s defensive coordinator from 2008-10, Wither’s defenses allowed 365.4, 269.6 and 338.5 yards per game.
Withers also has NFL coaching experience.
He coached the Tennessee Titans’ defensive backs from 2001-06 and was the New Orleans Saints’ defensive quality control assistant in 1994. He’s also been at other major-conference programs: Minnesota (defensive coordinator in 2007), Texas (defensive backs coach from 1998-2000) and Louisville (defensive coordinator from 1995-97).
Withers’ career started at Austin Peay, where he coached from 1988-90. Next, he moved to Tulane (1991) and Southern Mississippi (1992-93).
He was a defensive back at App State.
DeFilippo, 35, played quarterback for JMU and graduated in 2000. The 50-year-old Stinespring, also an alum, has spent his whole coaching career at Virginia Tech. Barlow, 46, is a former Madison assistant under Matthews.
Former North Carolina State coach Mike O’Cain, 59 and this year’s offensive coordinator under Matthews, also is believed to have been a candidate for the JMU job.