5. Birdsong wins appeal, JMU finally speaks

This is the fifth story in the Birdsong transferring series. It’s about the quarterback winning his appeal. It also has a JMU official, for the first time, talking about the situation. The story ran April 24, 2014.

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Michael Birdsong can add three more schools to his list of transfer options.

A committee of James Madison faculty members ruled Wednesday that the Dukes’ former starting quarterback can now consider transferring to Appalachian State, Liberty and Old Dominion, overturning the ban placed on those schools by new football coach Everett Withers.

The panel, though, upheld Withers’ block on Charlotte — the fourth and final school that the first-year coach barred and Birdsong appealed — because, athletic director Jeff Bourne said, the 49ers play Madison next season.

Going 3-for-4 was good enough for Birdsong.

“Yeah, I’m happy with this decision,” the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Richmond-area native said. “And I can understand Charlotte. They’re on the schedule, so that’s understandable.”

The decision ended a nearly 1 1/2-week ordeal that started April 14 when Birdsong, feeling that he would not play after former Georgia Tech starting quarterback Vad Lee transferred to JMU, told Withers he intended to leave Madison and asked for his release.

During their initial meeting, Birdsong said, he and Withers mutually agreed to a ban on colleges in JMU’s conference, the Colonial Athletic Association. When Birdsong later sent a list of schools he might be interested in attending, Withers vetoed App State, Charlotte, Liberty and ODU, Bourne confirmed Wednesday.

Withers has not spoken publicly about the situation, turning down repeated interview requests.

Bourne and Birdsong both said no non-CAA schools were discussed in the initial meeting with Withers, and Bourne said there was no “malicious intent” on the part of Withers.

“If you’re serious enough about transferring and you want to leave, then there are probably some institutions where you have indications that you would like to go and transfer,” Bourne said. “And Michael didn’t talk about that in the initial meeting with Coach. Now, again, you’ve just informed the head coach that you’re leaving. And so I think both parties have to have time to digest that. To the coach’s point, that obviously comes as a surprise, and it takes you a while to deal with it.”

Said Birdsong: “I didn’t give him any list then. When I went in there, he’s the one who said I can’t go to any conference schools, and I said, ‘That’s fine.’ So I kind of figured that that was it. I kind of figured that, if he didn’t want me to go to any other schools, he would have said it.”

The faculty panel heard Birdsong’s appeal Tuesday, and the committee informed him in person of its ruling early Wednesday afternoon.

A spokesman said Withers was not available for comment — a source said he was recruiting three-star wide receiver Trevion Armstrong at Matoaca High School, Birdsong ‘s alma mater, on Wednesday — but Bourne said he was fine with the outcome and how it was handled by Withers.

“I think the committee made a good decision. Coach Withers and I support it,” Bourne said. “I would say, in the end, our goal out of all of this is to make sure that Michael gets an opportunity to go and play where he feels like he can make a contribution and it’s a good fit for him personally.”

Two sports ethicists this week criticized the practice of universities and coaches preventing players from transferring to certain schools. Bourne said Wednesday, in the first comments by any JMU official on Birdsong’s situation, that he supported the practice.

“I think, as long as it’s reasonable and that those requests have some rationale behind them and they’re reasonable, I think it makes sense,” Bourne said.

Bourne said the four banned schools were blocked because they are schools JMU could play in the near future. Charlotte is the only one on the schedule in 2014, and App State and ODU are now both in I-A after bolting the I-AA Southern Conference and the CAA, respectively.

Liberty still is a member of the I-AA Big South but is a candidate to jump up, too. The likely destination for the Flames is the Sun Belt, where it would join ASU. ODU is in Conference USA, which, along with the Sun Belt, are possible landing spots for JMU if it abandons I-AA.

While Birdsong would have had to sit out the 2014 season at Charlotte under NCAA transfer rules, he still might have been able to give his new school valuable insight into JMU’s playbook.

Birdsong, who has two years of eligibility left and a redshirt available, said he has an official visit to Marshall planned this weekend. He said the I-A Thundering Herd already have offered a full scholarship. Old Dominion, with its pass-friendly offense, also is high on his list, and Birdsong said his preference is to go to a I-A school. That’s why he’s OK with the CAA ban.

Birdsong, who set passing records at Madison last season, said he’s in no hurry to make a pick and has no bitter feelings toward JMU.

“I’ve been frustrated these last weeks, but overall, I’ll be all right,” he said. “It was a great time, you know? Been the best years of my life so far, and it’s taught me a lot of good things. I hope I can carry it on to the next place I go.”

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