Rivalries In Danger
But JMU Hopes To Keep Playing ODU, VCU
Posted: December 14, 2012
HARRISONBURG — In 1989-90, the “Electric Zoo” reached its pinnacle. With Lefty Driesell in his second season coaching at James Madison, the Dukes averaged a program-high 6,802 fans for men’s basketball games at the Convocation Center, which seats 7,156.
Through four home games this year, JMU has averaged 3,321 – which is less than half of that ’89-90 average, but about par for the past decade for the slumping program.
“Obviously, we want to find a way to get that arena full again,” athletic director Jeff Bourne said. “That’s the ultimate goal – to fill it. To do that, you have to win consistently.”
JMU hasn’t had consecutive winning seasons since the end of the last millennium, but there appears to be another way to boost attendance for select home games: schedule good, nearby opponents. Traditionally, the home games that have drawn the most fans have been against Colonial Athletic Association and state rivals George Mason, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth.
VCU left the CAA this year and ODU will be gone next year, meaning that JMU will have to organize games against those schools on its own if it wants to renew the rivalries.
So far there have not been any serious talks about scheduling series against VCU and ODU, but JMU coach Matt Brady said future matchups could happen.
“I would think Old Dominion – there’s a good chance we’ll continue to do something with them,” Brady said. “I think we should. I mean, I’d like to play them both, but I wouldn’t mind skipping a year with Old Dominion and then at some point starting it back up. I think we should start four-year series with both those programs, but I just think it’s going to take some finagling. Scheduling’s really a tricky thing; it’s really become one of the harder points of the job.”
VCU coach Shaka Smart said the Rams, who moved to the Atlantic 10, would be interested in maintaining a series against JMU.
"It's certainly something we'd be willing to talk about," Smart said through a VCU official. "We reached out last spring, but it was so late in the year that their schedule was pretty much already set. We were in transition with conferences and needed a bunch of games. It's definitely something moving forward we would be happy to discuss."
Old Dominion’s Blaine Taylor, reached this week, was optimistic about annual JMU-ODU games. The Monarchs are moving to far-flung Conference USA, a move prompted by the school’s desire to play Division I-A football.
As part of his farewell season in the CAA, Taylor said he plans to speak to some league coaches – Brady included – face-to-face about establishing series in years to come.
“We’re trying to figure out a little bit of balance there,” said Taylor, who already has a four-year series with VCU, beginning this year. “We’re playing a lot of games at a greater distance than we’re used to. We’re going to look at playing some Virginia schools.”
The reasons are obvious: 1) It costs less money to take a short bus trip than to fly halfway across the country for a game; 2) the players don’t have to miss as much class time; and 3) fans get excited to see state rivals, and that excitement translates to currency at the gate.
JMU had averaged 2,978 in its first three home games this season, and then drew 4,351 on Saturday night when Richmond came to town with a 7-2 record. It was the first game between the former conference rivals since 2001. The Dukes will play at Richmond next season on a date yet to be determined.
“The Richmond game is a good game for us to play,” Bourne said. “I’m really encouraged by finding ways to get back in the Richmond area, give fans and alumni there a chance to see the team play.”
As for home games, even the non-paying students show up in thicker swaths against nearby teams.
Student attendance maxed out in the home opener against nearby George Washington (716 of the school’s roughly 20,000 students attended), and then a next-best 648 students went to the game against UR.
JMU did not play VCU at home last year, and it played Old Dominion when students were on break. But in 2011, when the Dukes hosted both in February, the VCU game drew 895 students and the ODU game drew 971.
“They’re good teams, they’re great games. They’re great for our fan base,” Brady said. “And I think we’ve played them – both those teams well. Even though we haven’t won the majority of the games, I think we’ve been in the games. They’re competitive games. … It’s a competitive series. I think with the recruiting class that we have – our young nucleus of players – those are the kind of games our guys want to play, and I think we have a chance to be really good going forward, so I think this would be a good time to start challenging your team.”
JMU has lost its last eight against Old Dominion, with three of those games decided by six points or fewer and four of those games decided by 16 or more. The Dukes had better success against VCU, going 3-6 in the last nine meetings.
Bourne said matchups with ODU and VCU are “not necessarily games I want to play on a consistent basis.”
Asked if that had anything to do with the programs traditionally being very difficult opponents, Bourne did not answer directly.
“To me, I think you probably want to have them interspersed periodically,” he said.