Three days after JMU hired its new football coach, Everett Withers, I called a number of JMU’s better players to get their impressions of the new coach, thinking they would have talked to him. At that point, they hadn’t. The story ran Dec. 24, 2013.
HARRISONBURG, Va. — James Madison University announced at 5:57 p.m. Friday that it had hired Ohio State assistant Everett Withers as its new football coach.
Not much has been heard of him since.
Forgoing an introductory press conference after apparently spending much of the day negotiating a five-year contract worth a guaranteed $325,000 annually, Withers took a flight back to Columbus, Ohio, where he’ll continue as the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator until after the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3.
At this point — other than a few individual media interviews late Friday night — not many people in Virginia have talked to Withers or know much about the 50-year-old Charlotte, N.C., native. That apparently includes his players at JMU, and they seem to be OK with that.
“I don’t expect to talk to him,” quarterback Michael Birdsong said by cellphone Monday afternoon from his home in suburban Richmond. “He’s got his obligations at Ohio State. … If I don’t hear from him before that, I won’t be upset. I understand.”
In an interview late Friday, Withers said one of the first things on his agenda was to get in touch with Madison’s players. Several of JMU’s returning standout players interviewed Monday afternoon said they had not heard from their new coach, nor did they know of any teammates who had talked to Withers.
“I watched that interview with him and [JMU’s director of multimedia communications] Curt Dudley, and he said he was going to be calling some players in the next few days,” said Daniel Brown, the Dukes’ leading receiver in 2013, with 42 catches, 665 yards and eight touchdowns. “I haven’t heard of anyone that’s talked to him, and I haven’t talked to him personally.”
But like Birdsong, Brown said he gets that Withers, currently working two jobs, is busy.
“I understand that he has obligations at Ohio State. He still has the Orange Bowl,” Brown said. “… He still has obligations to Ohio State as far as game plans and all of that. I’m a little bit [surprised], but I don’t judge him for it because he still has Ohio State until Jan. 3.”
Said JMU free safety Dean Marlowe: “I haven’t heard of anybody who’s talked to him, yet.”
JMU’s players — who are on semester break — said they found out about Withers’ hiring Friday via an email from athletic director Jeff Bourne. Since then, there has been group texting among the players to discuss the man who replaces the 60-year-old Mickey Matthews, fired Nov. 25 after 15 seasons, a 109-71 record and the 2004 Division I-AA national championship.
So what do JMU’s players think of Withers?
With little information about him beyond Internet biographies, the players said they are excited and that he appeared to be a “players’ coach.”
“He’s not a lot younger [than Matthews ], but more people would say he’s hip to the 2013 game nowadays,” Marlowe said. “So I think he’ll be able to connect more with us.”
Marlowe especially liked that something new was happening at James Madison. The all-conference defensive back advocated a change — not Matthews’ firing, or the firing of any coaches, specifically — just something fresh to get JMU back into I-AA relevance after missing the playoffs four out of the past five seasons. In 2013, the Dukes went 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the Colonial Athletic Association to finish tied for eighth with Stony Brook in the 11-team league.
“I think we needed a change overall,” said Marlowe, who had 77 tackles, seven pass breakups and one interception in 2013. “I’m not saying just like, `Let’s kick all our coaches out or change the whole staff,’ but I think we needed just a change within the program.”
But not too much change.
Birdsong said he wants offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain to be retained as part of the new staff. Defensive line coach Jeff Hanson, who helped JMU improve from 18 sacks in 2012 to 39 in 2013, also is a player favorite.
Two coaches have already left: Ulrick Edmonds is now an assistant at Old Dominion, and Curt Newsome is the head coach at D-III Emory & Henry.
Withers said Friday night he wants to have assistants in place by the end of the month.
Under O’Cain, the Dukes had their best offensive season since 2008 and the best passing season in program history, with Birdsong — a rising junior — setting numerous individual season records, including most passing yards in a season and in a game.
“We didn’t put in all of Coach O’Cain’s offense,” said Birdsong, who last season completed 60.4 percent of 376 passes for 2,728 yards, with 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. “I’m sure that offense had so much more room to grow, and now that’s Mickey’s gone, Coach Withers is coming in, who knows what’s going to happen to Coach O’Cain? We could have just taken that offense to a whole ‘nother level next year.”
Players were most drawn to Withers’ resume, which features stops at blueblood college programs like Ohio State and Texas, as well as in the NFL. Withers went 7-6 as North Carolina’s interim head coach in 2011, but he finished the season 2-5, including a 41-24 loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl. He was not retained, and the Tar Heels hired Larry Fedora.