Rivalry? Not Really
Posted: November 16, 2012
Here’s why people roll their eyes when you mention Division I-AA — or simply look perplexed when you use the NCAA’s absurd designation for it, the Football Championship Subdivision.
Old Dominion is coming to town Saturday for a contest that is being billed as a “rivalry game.” How many times have the schools played in this storied series? Once.
Last season in Norfolk, the Monarchs beat JMU 23-20 in late October. That’s it. That’s the sum total of a matchup the Colonial Athletic Association tried to market as a passionate rivalry by saying last year that it would be both schools’ regular-season finale in the foreseeable future.
The future turned out to have a one-year ceiling. ODU, facing a CAA basketball league without Virginia Commonwealth, decided to put its young football program on hyper-drive and jump to I-A in 2013 by joining Conference USA.
Madison, with a state-of-the-art stadium and one of Division I-AA’s biggest fan bases, was left to ponder life as a football footnote in the commonwealth. Virginia Tech and Virginia always will be the state’s top two programs, and — soon— Old Dominion will bump JMU as No. 3, thanks to a metro fan base that appears to have embraced the program (it filled its roughly 20,000-seat stadium to capacity last season and is doing it again this season) and thanks to the football equivalent of a trout farm in its back yard (meaning all it has to do is throw out a fishing line to snag quality players from one of America’s most talent-deep pools).
There is, of course, plenty of logic in trying to turn JMU-ODU into an insta-rivalry. Not only do the schools have a history in basketball, but Madison also still hopes to mine Hampton Roads for football players. Still, I think it stretches the definition of the word to anoint a matchup a rivalry after a single game.
Regardless, Dukes coach Mickey Matthews clearly isn’t dealing with Old Dominion’s ascent well, taking a gratuitous shot at the trendy Monarchs early in the season for a weak schedule. But he’s playing along with the rivalry thing.
“I hate to use the hate word ’cause I don’t hate anybody,” he said at his weekly luncheon. “Let’s say a strong dislike on both sides of the river among the ODU crowd and the JMU crowd. I’m going to miss it, actually. Regardless of what happens Saturday, I think it’s a great thing — and I think ODU’s going to miss it, to be quite honest about it.”
He might be right, at least until Conference USA paychecks start coming in (they’re miniscule compared to those distributed by BCS leagues — about $2-3 million a year, compared to about $20-25 million a year — but still more than the pittance offered by the Colonial), and at least until ODU starts seeing its name listed among the big boys on websites (not that the Monarchs will be a big boy, but they’ll theoretically be in the same universe as the Alabamas and Ohio States), and at least until they use C-USA as a stepping-stone to the Big East.
Meanwhile, JMU will be playing Stony Brook.
OK, that’s a little harsh. The Dukes will have something Old Dominion doesn’t possess: real back-yard rivals in football. Richmond, William & Mary, Delaware and Villanova all are schools that JMU fans get up for. They’re good programs with reasonably deep ties to Madison, a university that has had a football team for only 40 years. The Dukes have played William & Mary 35 times, UR — a program it once sought to emulate but now has surpassed — 30 times, Nova 21 times and Delaware 20 times (but, sadly, not this season because of the CAA’s size).
Is that reason enough to stay in I-AA? I’ve been told by two good sources at JMU that the university is more interested in I-A than many believe. Don’t get too excited about that, though. For the time being, it’s still committed to I-AA.
Should it be? As I’ve written before, the choice is stark: 1) Stay in I-AA, which would keep football from turning into a monster that eats away at a university’s soul, but which also would guarantee continued anonymity in sports; or 2) go to I-A, which would mean spending a lot more money (hoping you eventually reap financial windfalls), risking all the inherent corruption that accompanies big-time football and losing most of your rivals, but which also would mean raising the university’s national profile and sparking more excitement in the program.
From a football viewpoint, the answer is simple: Go I-A. The other factors make it a much more difficult decision.
JMU does have time to ponder a move. One thing Madison officials are keeping their eyes on is the NCAA’s landscape. Will it shift enough to put more separation between the haves (the current BCS conferences minus the Big East) and the have-nots? And if that happens, won’t JMU have plenty of opportunities to align with geographically compatible schools in some sort of I-A league?
In the meantime, Madison would be able to resurrect its men’s basketball program (with a new arena likely to be built by 2016) and even expand Bridgeforth to 40,000 by 2020, assuming the fans keep coming — the stadium has been filled at 91.3 percent capacity so far this season, down from the overflow crowds of 2011. If Matthews, now 59, decides to retire before a move to I-A (and JMU should hope he sticks around a long time), the Dukes could turn to … maybe Rod Smith, the Franklin, W.Va., native and Rich Rodriguez disciple who’s now co-offensive coordinator at Arizona (after productive stints at South Florida, West Virginia and Michigan developing passing games).
Who knows, the Dukes might even end up in a league with Old Dominion in a few years — and begin a real rivalry.