James Madison University staying in I-AA/FCS

The NCAA deadline for an FCS/I-AA school to reclassify (go FBS/I-A) is June 1. Speculation that JMU will jump up has been ongoing. This story reports that JMU isn’t going anywhere until 2015, at the earliest. The story ran in the Daily News-Record on May 28, 2014. JMU remains in FCS/I-AA.

HARRISONBURG, Va. Time is quickly evaporating on James Madison University’s possible desire to begin transitioning to Division I-A this year.

The NCAA’s annual deadline to begin the process is June 1 — this Sunday — and administrators from two of JMU’s most likely I-A destinations, Conference USA and the Sun Belt, said Tuesday they do not believe Madison will receive an invitation before that date.

Nobody from the Mid-American Conference, another possible landing spot, could be reached for comment Tuesday, but a source said he was “99.9 percent” sure the league does not plan to expand.

Under NCAA rules, Division I-AA schools must receive an invitation from an existing I-A conference before moving up football’s pecking order. A source close to the situation said it is unlikely JMU will be extended an invitation by Sunday.

James Madison is currently a member of the I-AA Colonial Athletic Association.

Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig, whose school left the CAA for C-USA last summer, said Tuesday that Conference USA is not considering new members. Selig, who has openly lobbied for the Dukes to join the Monarchs in C-USA, also said he has seen no indications that Madison will receive an invitation from any other I-A conference by the deadline.

“If I’m guessing, they’re going to be in the CAA ’cause I haven’t heard any rumblings from other conferences,” Selig said. “That doesn’t mean anything, honestly, but June 1 … is pretty close. But all of those conferences have just conducted their spring meetings, and that’s usually the time when announcements might be forthcoming.”

Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said in a statement last week that his league would remain at 11 members for at least the next year. Benson and MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher both declined through a spokesman Tuesday to comment on realignment and JMU’s status. A voicemail for C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky was not returned.

Each of those leagues has finished its spring meetings, which all were this month, and it is clear that it would take a very surprising turn for JMU to not be in the CAA on June 1.

C-USA met in Destin, Florida, two weeks ago, and Selig said members didn’t discuss adding new schools.

“Conference expansion was not even a topic of conversation,” Selig said. “So we didn’t spend five seconds discussing pros and cons of adding additional membership. We’re going to be in transition from 16 schools to 14, and there was no feeling among the athletic directors that we should try to get back to 16.”

East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa are leaving Conference USA for the American Athletic Conference, and Western Kentucky is defecting from the Sun Belt to C-USA. When that’s all effective July 1, Conference USA’s membership will have dropped from 16 to 14 schools.

University of Texas-Arlington athletic director Jim Baker, whose school is in the Sun Belt, echoed Benson: The league will stay at 11 members for now.

“This is the first year we’ve had where there wasn’t a team leaving or a new team coming in, so … I think the makeup of it is good right now,” Baker said. “We talked in meetings and put off [expansion] for another year, but I think we would all like to get that 12th team, and then, we get to two divisions.”

Spokesmen for several MAC athletic directors Tuesday deferred comment to the league office, which cited a policy of not publicly discussing conference membership.

But Selig and Baker both said realignment, which left their respective leagues picked over, is slowing down because of realignment fatigue.

“We want to leave it alone for a while and see how we operate as a 14-team conference,” Selig said of C-USA. “We have enough [teams] that we can have the championship game with our football. We’ve got plenty of scheduling opportunities within our league, given the 14 schools, and we like the competitive balance that we have going on within our league. So there’s really no rush to add schools or change the composition of our league.”

Conference USA, despite its massive geographic footprint, long was considered the destination of choice for Madison, thanks to the potential for natural rivalries with ODU, Charlotte and Marshall. The MAC became trendy later, and Delaware athletic director Eric Ziady told the Wilmington, Delaware News Journal in April that if UD were to leave the CAA, it would be preferable to do so as package deal with JMU. The News Journal also reported that the MAC is the only I-A league that “holds any appeal” for the Blue Hens.

As for the Sun Belt, JMU officials have always regarded it as a safety net to get out of I-AA.

UT-Arlington’s Baker, who declined to discuss specific teams when asked about JMU, didn’t rule out another surge of national realignment. He said that would be up to the “Big Five” conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. An example would be if one of those BCS leagues poached an American Athletic Conference school such as Connecticut, which would open an AAC slot for someone in C-USA, the MAC or the Sun Belt.

Sources said the industry belief is that the AAC — the best of the non-major conferences — would prefer an established I-A football school and not a program transitioning from I-AA, making JMU’s odds of getting an AAC invite slim.

“In the last two years, you can see that it’s slowed down, but it’s basically all in the control of the Big Five,” Baker said. “That’s where it all started, and it will finish with them.”

If Conference USA does decide to add schools, though, Selig said he would still endorse James Madison for membership.

“I can’t speak for the other athletic directors. I don’t know how familiar they are with JMU, but my position has not changed,” Selig said. “If we are looking to expand — which we are not — but if we were seeking to evaluate and consider additional institutions for Conference USA membership, I would think JMU would be a great choice and make a lot of sense.”

An independent study commissioned by JMU — the Carr Report — concluded that Madison is ready to make the jump to I-A.

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