A.M. Commentary: Where Will JMU Go?

Posted: March 28, 2013

HARRISONBURG – It’s hard to become a football school when you play in Division I-AA, which lacks the intoxicating appeal of its big-time cousins.


But thanks to a national championship in 2004 and a dynamic quarterback named Rodney Landers, James Madison did just that – even manifesting football’s king-of-the-campus stature with a soaring new stadium.


Six or seven times as many people now attend football games at Bridgeforth Stadium as attend basketball games at the Convocation Center. If both venues were filled to capacity, football’s advantage would be only 3.5 times greater than hoops.


This is relevant because JMU – finally – has to get serious about finding a new home for its $34.5 million sports program. When George Mason surprised Madison officials by jumping to the Atlantic 10 on Monday, it left the Dukes in a position inconceivable two decades ago when Lefty Driesell fruitlessly tried to persuade his bosses to respond positively to overtures from the A-10: second-class status in state basketball.


JMU is now a distant No. 7 in the pecking order, behind VCU, Virginia, Virginia Tech, George Mason, Richmond and Old Dominion (in roughly that order when judging on- and off-court factors in recent years).


So the biggest decision Madison has to make in assessing its future in sports is obvious: Will it be content to remain in the Colonial Athletic Association, which has a suddenly dowdy basketball roster but a strong I-AA football lineup, or will it try to elevate itself? If it chooses the latter option, the question becomes even more intriguing: Will football or basketball sway the decision?


Yes, football is more popular than basketball. But, sadly, only one thing matters in college sports: money. Tradition, honor, the welfare of athletes? Secondary. And I-AA football has zero monetary value, while basketball has the potential to generate both bucks and publicity.


Matt Brady’s Dukes got more attention in 30 seconds on Selection Sunday than Mickey Matthews’ football team got in 30 months after winning the I-AA football championship nine years ago. Even a footnote athlete like Rayshawn Goins became a national story. That’s the power of the NCAA Tournament.


If not for football’s ascent at Madison, it would be a simple decision: Lobby the Atlantic 10 for membership in basketball, and keep football in the CAA, a la Richmond. JMU could continue to pack 25,000-seat Bridgeforth, while trying to turn its hoops program into a look-at-us showcase.


There is one teensy problem: I can’t imagine the metro-centric A-10 being interested in Madison – not only because of JMU’s so-so hoops program, but also because the Atlantic 10 already has two-thirds of the urban crescent wrapped up (D.C. with Mason; Richmond with VCU and UR). JMU would bring Hampton Roads alumni to the conference, but maybe not enough to matter.


So on to Plan B: joining fellow I-AA powers Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Old Dominion in moving up to I-A.


App State and Georgia Southern are joining the Sun Belt; ODU is headed to Conference USA. Of the two, C-USA is vastly more attractive, though that’s like saying a Big Mac is better than a hotdog. Neither of them is high-class.


Here’s the future full-member lineup for the Sun Belt: App State, GSU, Arkansas State, Georgia State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Texas State, Troy and Western Kentucky.


Yuck. I can’t imagine Madison would be dumb or desperate enough to hook up with those guys, if only because the rural, deep South isn’t exactly part of JMU’s desired footprint.


Conference USA is better, though Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” plays on a loop at its suburban Dallas headquarters. The membership, as of 2:36 p.m. Wednesday: ODU, Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Rice, Southern Miss, Texas-El Paso and Texas-San Antonio. (Tulsa is bolting soon.)


Translated, C-USA means new access to Dallas, Houston, Miami, San Antonio, Charlotte, Nashville, and Birmingham, whose metropolitan populations range from 6.5 million to 1.1 million people. Yeah, you also get Huntington, W.Va., and Ruston, La., but that might bode well for Harrisonburg. Plus, there’s that urban crescent argument.


Universities also always give lip service to academics, so I’m guessing Madison profs would like the idea of rubbing shoulders with Rice.


Another possibility: the Mid-American Conference, which is more than a tad yawn-inducing.


Any move to I-A would be costly. JMU would eventually need to expand Bridgeforth to its maximum capacity (40,000) and quickly commit to a new basketball arena. It then would have to hope it makes enough money from TV and the NCAA basketball tournament to justify the expenses. It also would have to hope nobody else bolts to the Conference Formerly Known As The Big East.


Wouldn’t it have been nice if athletic director Jeff Bourne’s dream of a Mid-Atlantic I-A conference had worked out: the Delawares, ODUs, App States, Marshalls of the world joining JMU in a nice, fiscally sane league?


Bourne has been incommunicado the past several days. But the university did issue an opaque statement under Bourne’s and President Jonathan Alger’s name saying, as best as I could tell, that they’re working on things. I think it was in English, but I’m not sure.


The bottom line: JMU has commissioned a study that’s due in September (though a draft will be presented in June). Until then, it’s unlikely Madison officials will make any final decisions.


Unlikely but not impossible.

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