Nearly a month after he was fired, Mickey Matthews finally responded to interview requests. I went to his house and interviewed him for two hours for this story, which ran Dec. 19, 2013.
PENN LAIRD, Va. — Mickey Matthews said the conversation was brief, about 10 minutes, and that he didn’t argue. He said he met with James Madison University athletic director Jeff Bourne and associate athletic director Kevin White at about 7:30 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 25 in Bourne’s Godwin Hall office, where they told him that he was being fired as JMU’s football coach after 15 seasons.
“They just said I didn’t win enough games. And they were making a change,” Matthews said Wednesday afternoon at his Penn Laird home in his first public comments since being dismissed.
Three weeks after his firing, which was made following a 6-6 season in which Madison missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, Matthews (109-71 all-time at JMU) said he’s frustrated but not bitter about the decision, and that he’s still mulling his next career move.
Matthews sat in the basement of his house, which he and his wife Kay had built in 2000. The 60-year-old Texan had just returned from the gym — Matthews, since being fired, said he’s lost about 10 pounds because of near-daily workouts and stress — and lounged in an arm chair, legs up on an Ottoman and backlit by the daylight beaming through French doors that overlooked 20 pastoral miles to the mountains.
It’s the house that Matthews said he planned to retire in after “three or four more years” coaching JMU. But before that could happen, he said, he had the “rug pulled out from under” him.
“We’ve been here longer than we’ve been anywhere in my career,” said Matthews, who also has been an assistant at, most recently, Georgia and Marshall. “Our best friends in the world are in Harrisonburg. Our family’s here.”
But Matthews said he doesn’t hold a grudge and referred to his firing as a “professional divorce.”
“A lot of people ask if I’m bitter, and I’ve always thought it was a conscious decision to be bitter,” Matthews said. “You have to wake up in the morning and decide to be bitter, and I’m not bitter in the least. I’ve had to fire coaches, I’ve had to fire players, and I know decisions have to be made. And I always heard Bum Phillips say it. … He had to cut players, and he always said when it came his time to be cut, he was going to take it like a man, and I think that’s exactly the path I want to go down.”
Matthews said his firing “stunned” him, but he also said that he understood it, especially after the Dukes went .500 and missed the Division I-AA playoffs again. Matthews admitted to minor apprehension leading up to that Monday morning with Bourne and White, although meeting with Bourne wasn’t unusual. Matthews said he met with Bourne, the head of the I-AA-playoff selection committee this year, once a week as a postseason adviser.
“There were some concerns because we didn’t play well the last three games,” said Matthews , whose team went 0-3 during that stretch. “But when you get as much experience as I have, nothing surprises you.”
Still, Matthews said he believed he would be back in 2014, despite swelling administrative pressure following a 7-4 2012 that featured a late-season collapse. (Matthews said he never got a do-or-die ultimatum, though.) Matthews had one year remaining on his $222,000-a-year contract, which Bourne has said was bought out with private funds.
“We just lost those last three games. We went 6-6. The frustration I have was, if we had been 2-10, I’d have been prepared for the meeting,” Matthews said. “When you’re 6-6 — they were mad last year after I was 7-4, but I think that’s where coaching is right now. I think there’s a lot of guys getting fired now for 6-6 and 7-4, and that didn’t used to be the case.”
Hired in 1999, Matthews won 60 percent of his games at JMU, captured three conference titles, reached the playoffs six times and won the 2004 national championship. During his tenure, Madison spent $62.5 million to expand Bridgeforth Stadium to 25,000 seats. It also built an athletic center, which houses locker rooms, a gym, a training room, and Matthews’ spacious corner office that afforded a view of the football field.
Now, JMU is the final stages of shopping for a new head coach. Among the serious candidates are believed to be Vanderbilt defensive backs coach George Barlow, Oakland Raiders quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and Virginia Tech tight ends coach Bryan Stinespring. An announcement on the new coach is forthcoming, perhaps as early as Friday.
Matthews said he doesn’t have any immediate plans and that he will take his time deciding what to do next. He said he’s flirted with some coaching jobs (no formal applications), including the vacancy at Stephen F. Austin, which announced a new hire last week.
Matthews said he’s had discussions with “TV people” about potentially becoming a color analyst. He wouldn’t say which TV people. He also said he considered starting some kind of business in Harrisonburg. He didn’t know what.
But the most important thing to Matthews was to move on, a task that includes finding a new wardrobe — and not just to accommodate his svelter figure.
“James Madison football was my passion; it was my life,” Matthews said. “And I think the worst thing you can do is to dwell on all the things that could have been. I think anyone who knows me, my day-to-day life was JMU football. I didn’t wear anything that didn’t have JMU football on it. I had to buy some clothes. I had to go buy some clothes that didn’t have JMU on it.”
Matthews’ impact on Madison football makes him an obvious candidate for JMU’s athletics hall of fame, at some point.
“I’m sure the wounds need to heal, probably on both sides,” Matthews said when asked about coming back. “I was raised to be loyal to people, not buildings, and certainly — I just refuse to be bitter. I’m just not going to be. I really, from the bottom of my heart, I understand that people have to make decisions, and all of us — Mickey Matthews, [senior vice president of finance] Charlie King, Jeff Bourne — all of us work at the pleasure of the president, you know? That’s the way the university operates. When they decide to make a change, regardless of what it is, you have to understand that they want to make a change.”