JMU fired its football coach Mickey Matthews on Nov. 25 after 15 seasons. This is the news story. It’s also the first in a series of stories I wrote about his firing, the search for a new coach and the hiring of a new coach that I’ll be posting here. This story ran Nov. 26, 2013.
HARRISONBURG, Va. — This season, the James Madison University football team missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, finishing with its worst record since 2003 and under .500 in the Colonial Athletic Association for the second time since 2010.
The stretch of disappointing seasons cost Mickey Matthews his job.
JMU fired the 60-year-old coach Monday morning after 15 seasons because of what it felt was the program’s persistent underachieving and lack of postseason appearances — a performance unacceptable for a school with annual national championship expectations, a big budget and facilities that are among the best in Division I-AA.
“The playoff appearances, the number of wins,” Jeff Bourne, JMU’s athletic director, explained late Monday afternoon in his Godwin Hall office. “I’m not going to get down and get into all the aspects of our program. I wouldn’t do that with any other coach; I’m certainly not going to do it with Mickey or football, but primarily that’s a reason we felt like it was very important – I felt like we needed to make the change.”
Matthews — who did not reply to messages left on his cellphone Monday — went 109-71 during his tenure, winning the I-AA national title in 2004 and at least a share of conference championships in 1999, 2004 and 2008. He guided the Dukes — who finished 6-6 this year after a loss to Towson on Saturday — to six postseason appearances but just one since 2008, when they made it to the second round in 2011.
Bourne said he expects more.
“Certainly, when you look at the talent we have on this squad, both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, those are some talented young men,” he said. “We’d all gone into this year hoping that we were going to have a really good year.
“We were going to have one of those years where we would have definitely been in postseason play — and not just been in the playoffs, but a chance to work our way down into at least the quarterfinals. So, that’s where the aspirations were this year.”
When asked when he made the decision to fire Matthews , Bourne would only say, “I spoke with Coach Matthews this morning, and we’ll leave it at that.”
Bourne said he wants to hire Matthews’ replacement as soon as possible — and certainly before national signing day, which is the first Wednesday in February. A likely time for having a new coach in place is early January.
“Our goal is to move forward as quickly as we can and still do an extremely thorough search and make sure we’re talking to the right folks,” Bourne said. “If it takes a little longer, I’m fine with that if it means that we have to wait on a candidate. But my first goal is making sure we get the right person. Secondly, it’s to make sure that we’re doing it in a time frame that maximizes what we’ll do in the recruiting window.”
Bourne said JMU has hired Carr Sports Associates — the consulting group that did the university’s feasibility study on a move to I-A — to perform the coaching search. Bourne wouldn’t say how much the university is paying Carr Sports, which will submit a list of candidates to a hiring committee that consists of Bourne, JMU Senior Vice President of Finance Charlie King, Roger Soenksen (the faculty adviser to the athletic department) and Mike Battle, a board of visitors member who played football for the Dukes from 1977 to 1980.
The final interviews will be done by JMU President Jonathan Alger and Ron Devine, the chair of the board of visitors’ athletics committee.
JMU sources made it clear in the offseason that this was a potential do-or-die year for Matthews after his teams went just 27-19 from 2009 to 2012, including back-to-back 6-5 years in 2009 and 2010 — a season that included a win over Virginia Tech. The Hokies were ranked 13th at the time, and JMU, instead of using what was perhaps the biggest win in program history as momentum, lost five of its next seven games to miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
Bourne wouldn’t say if the administration gave Matthews a make-the-playoffs ultimatum this season.
“Coach and I had great dialogue, I think, in terms of talking about overall where we wanted the program to go,” Bourne said.
“Again, I’m not going to get into the nuts and bolts and the components of what was shared and what was talked about it.”
Matthews also has had problems with players, most recently tailback Jordan Anderson, who Matthews cut after the 2012 season.
Anderson complained to JMU’s administration about his treatment by Matthews, who was not formally reprimanded.
When asked if Matthews’ relationship with the players was a factor, Bourne wouldn’t say.
“Again, I’m not going to be specific to the details of our program,” Bourne said. “I don’t think that’s fair. Overall, whenever you put 100-and-some-odd student athletes together, you’re going to have some frustrations I think by some players. But at this point, I’ll tell you the student-athlete experience is important to us. It’s a significant barometer in where I see the program, and our emphasis and goals on the development of the entire student athlete are really our focal point.”
Matthews had one season left on his $222,000-a-year contract, thanks to a one-year extension he received after JMU’s last playoff appearance in 2011.
Bourne said it will cost JMU a little more than $230,000 to buy out Matthews’ contract because of raises given throughout the university last year. The money, Bourne said, will come from “private funding.” He refused to elaborate.
Matthews ‘ assistant coaches, Bourne said, will stay on through the end of their contracts, all of which are one-year deals. Most of those contracts end in January.
Bourne said he did not offer Matthews an administrative job.
JMU isn’t naming an interim coach, but Bourne said offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain, because of his experience as the head coach at North Carolina State, will act as caretaker of the program in the absence of a head coach. Part of that job includes keeping the administration informed with what’s going on with the football team.
What happens to the staff — which includes Matthews’ son, Clayton, the wide receivers coach — after their contracts end is up to the new coach. Bourne met with the assistant coaches Monday afternoon in the football office, where he said he told them they were welcome to apply for the head coaching job.
Among people JMU might be interested in as its new coach are Oakland Raiders quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, University of Arizona co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith and Virginia Tech tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Bryan Stinespring.
DeFilippo and Stinespring are both JMU alums, and Smith, a disciple of Rich Rodriguez, is from nearby Franklin, W.Va.