On Friday, James Madison will leave the Colonial Athletic Association behind forever. Well, kind of.
The Dukes, a founding member of the CAA in 1979, will officially join the Sun Belt Conference on July 1, ending a once proud, but lately more contentious affiliation with the Richmond-based league. Despite quarreling with the rest of the CAA for the past year, JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne said the Dukes remained open to scheduling Colonial opponents in the future. In particular JMU sees value in keeping a relationship with regional foes.
“There are schools that are in the Colonial that we’ll still try to play in a number of sports,” Bourne said. “I don’t see us walking away entirely from competition there. It makes sense on a number of levels in a number of sports to still play those schools.”
JMU is scheduled to play against William & Mary, also a charter member of the CAA, in field hockey this fall and Dukes’ men’s basketball coach Mark Byington has also expressed interest in facing as many in-state opponents as possible, including the Tribe.
In football, Richmond is a member of the CAA along with Williams & Mary. Both schools remain at the FCS level while JMU is jumping up to the FBS, but it remains possible both football rivalries could continue, at least sporadically.
While home-and-home series with the Spiders and Tribe are likely gone for good, Bourne said the Dukes will likely continue to schedule one FCS opponent in most years — JMU plays host to Norfolk State this fall — and he’d like to see games against Richmond and W&M. But if that happens it will likely mean the Dukes paying those schools to visit Bridgeforth Stadium without a return game.
“In-state rivalries against William & Mary and Richmond, those are great games for us, they really are, and in several different sports,” Bourne said. “I think you’ll still see on the ticker tape JMU continuing to schedule those opponents. But when I look long term at the kind of institutions I consider similar to us and probably have a more identified mission for their athletic program, I think JMU matches up better with the Sun Belt.”
While frustrations between JMU and the CAA go back several years as the Dukes athletic budget and football aspirations began to outgrow the league, hostilities came to a head in late 2021.
JMU officials had criticized the CAA’s media rights deal with FloSports since its announcement in 2019 when the Dukes were the only conference member to vote against signing with the streaming provider.
By the fall of 2021, the rest of the CAA was well aware JMU was in talks with both the Sun Belt and Conference USA about moving to FBS and joining one of those leagues. Coming off an academic year deeply affected by COVID-19, JMU officials believed presidents from the other nine CAA schools would vote to waive a longstanding league provision that banned outgoing programs from competing in the Colonial’s postseason tournaments.
But after a vote in November, the CAA upheld the bylaw and excluded the Dukes from most league championships for the 2021-22 school year.
While several JMU coaches and employees continue to hold a grudge against CAA administrators, the hard feelings generally do not extend to their coaching counterparts, who handle their own scheduling in many sports.
Byington, for instance, remains friendly with Towson coach Pat Skerry, as both are former assistant coaches at College of Charleston. As JMU looks to continue to expand its profile in the Washington and Baltimore metro areas, a future basketball series between the Dukes and Tigers remains a possibility.
Still, JMU has largely moved on from the CAA. As the Dukes move into a league that generally produces a higher-level of play in most sports, JMU’s focus on scheduling in-state opponents also shifts. Old Dominion, also joining the Sun Belt on Friday, once again becomes a conference rival of the Dukes.
Bourne and his coaches would also like to start scheduling two-for-one deals in football and men’s basketball with Virginia and Virginia Tech, bringing those programs to Harrisonburg in exchange for two games at their places.
But for the most part, JMU’s focus is on the Sun Belt, which provides the Dukes with potential new rivals such as Marshall and Appalachian State.
“Particularly when you look at this (Sun Belt) East Division, those are schools that mirror JMU and who we are as an institution,” Bourne said. “I think the scope of where their athletic programs are is a good fit.”