JMU promises scholarships, new coaches pull them anyway

Administration described it as a miscommunication, and it led to two high school football players having their full scholarships revoked by James Madison’s new coaching staff. The university promised the scholarships given by the old coaching staff would be honored, but somewhere in the transition between staffs, that wasn’t expressed adequately. Officials at the high schools of the two recruits were not happy. This story ran Jan. 30, 2014.

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Cameron Skaff and Isiaha Smith went into the new year thinking their college football futures were secure. Both had committed to James Madison when offered scholarships by then-coach Mickey Matthews’ staff, and both planned on being Dukes in 2014.

That changed in the last two weeks, however.

Even though JMU had assured all recruits that their grants would be honored after Matthews was fired in November, the Dukes’ new coaches pulled the full-scholarship offers — replacing them with partial grants — apparently because of a communication problem between the administration and football staff.

At least one of the players rejected the reduced scholarship, and the situation has upset officials at the two recruits’ high schools.

JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne said Wednesday that poor communication between university administrators and the football program’s new coaching staff caused the problem.

“We thought we were fully communicating, and obviously, somewhere along the way, there was a breakdown,” Bourne said.

He expressed regret for the way the situation was handled.

It is not uncommon in college football for a new coach to ditch some of the previous staff’s recruits. Different players fit different systems. The problem in this case is that Skaff, an H-back from Battlefield High School in Haymarket, and Smith, a tailback from South Hagerstown (Md.), were told their scholarships would be honored, regardless of whom Madison hired to replace Matthews.

JMU fired Matthews on Nov. 25, and hired Everett Withers, a former Ohio State assistant and interim head coach at North Carolina, on Dec. 20.

Withers could not be reached for comment.

Before Withers was hired in December, Matthews’ staff informed recruits of JMU’s promise to honor their scholarships, sources said, and Bourne confirmed this week that those guarantees were backed by Madison’s athletics administration.

Because none of JMU’s former coaches were retained after Matthews’ firing, there was nobody in the football office to alert Withers about the university’s promise. Another problem, Bourne said, was that the new staff needed to review film on JMU’s recruits, and that pushed any decisions on scholarships closer to the NCAA’s official Feb. 5 signing day.

Both Skaff and Smith said Withers called them shortly after Christmas; both got the impression they were still wanted. When interviewed on Jan. 2, before learning that their offers had been reduced, the players were still planning to attend Madison.

Said Skaff: “Basically, [Withers] just told me that he’s excited for me coming in. He’s seen my film.”

Smith said: “[Withers] asked me if I could handle the spread offense, and that was a ‘Yes,’ because my high school does the spread. He asked if I was prepared to get 25 carries a game, and that was a ‘Yes,’ because that’s exactly about the amount I got this year.”

It is unclear if Withers had hired an offensive coordinator by late December, but at the time, he still was at Ohio State, where he served as co-defensive coordinator the past two seasons. He stayed with the Buckeyes through their appearance in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3.

Bourne said both Skaff and Smith were offered quarter scholarships by the new staff after their full offers were revoked.

“I don’t think there was any mal-intent,” Bourne said. “I think the prior staff did exactly what they thought was appropriate and what they were told, and the new staff was working to the best of their knowledge to get the job done, trying to recruit kids who they felt would fit the scheme and the format of what type of offense and defense that they see themselves running here. I really do think that’s important. …  Knowing what you’re getting into is just as important as saying, ‘I really like this institution,’ but you have to understand what it’s going to mean a year from now or two years from now, what kind of fit you’ll be for that.”

Skaff, as an H-back/tight end, probably would have been a tough fit in JMU’s new spread offense, which doesn’t have much of a role for that position. Battlefield coach Mark Cox said that was a reason JMU gave him for pulling Skaff’s full offer. It’s unclear why Smith’s offer was reduced.

Skaff has since committed to Dartmouth. It appears doubtful Smith will accept JMU’s reduced scholarship.

“Probably the right thing to do would have been to honor these kids’ [scholarships], or at least … tell them their plans and then leave it up to the kids,” Cox said. “If a head coach sat down with a family and says, ‘You know, we don’t really have a position that you play, but we’ll still honor the scholarship if you want to go here,’ some kids might’ve even said, ‘You know what, we’re going to look elsewhere,’ if given that speech. But from a parent’s and a kid’s point of view, I think it’s kind of cheesy and I feel sorry for Cameron. It was a place that he really wanted to go to, ever since he was a little kid.”

South Hagerstown coach Toby Peer, who coached at Spotswood High School in 2003 and 2004, would not comment publicly and deferred to the school’s athletic director, Mike Tesla. Tesla said he had a problem with the timing, especially because Smith had been committed since the summer.

“The bottom line is they should have done this sooner,” said Tesla, who graduated from JMU in 1975. “If they’re going to do it, do it sooner where these kids have a chance to go somewhere else, somewhere they want to go.”

Tesla said Villanova also recruited Smith.

NOTE: JMU has received at least four verbal commitments with Withers as coach: Bluffton (S.C.) defensive tackle K.J. Ford (a two-star recruit), Blythewood (S.C.) cornerback Aaron Peak, Havelock (N.C.) running back Taylor Woods (another two-star recruit) and Knightdale (N.C.) linebacker Marcell Johnson.

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