This story ran in the Daily News-Record on March 28, 2013. It has news I broke about the Sun Belt’s interest in JMU and JMU’s lack of interest in the Sun Belt.
HARRISONBURG, Va. – James Madison to the Sun Belt? At least one side is interested.
A source said Wednesday that JMU has been on the New Orleans-based league’s “target list” for about a year and that the interest in Madison picked up after Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee State sped up their defection to Conference USA, announcing in January that they would leave this year.
While JMU has been discussed in Sun Belt meetings, it is unknown if there has been formal contact between Madison and the conference , which sponsors Division I-A football.
The Internet Wednesday was abuzz with rumors about JMU and the Sun Belt, but Madison officials appear to have scant interest in a bottom-tier conference that stretches from Texas to Kentucky.
So why the buzz? First, JMU’s conference — the Colonial Athletic Association — became much less attractive when George Mason announced Monday it was leaving for the Atlantic 10. Second, fellow I-AA football powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern announced Wednesday they were joining the Sun Belt.
JMU, in response to Mason’s exit, released a statement Tuesday saying the school is exploring its options with help from a consultant group, Carr Sports Associates. It is the same firm that helped Madison hire former men’s basketball coach Dean Keener.
The Sun Belt has been poached hard by Conference USA, which took Florida International and North Texas in addition to FAU and Middle Tennessee.
The 2014 Sun Belt football roster, barring further realignment, looks like this: Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia State (which is leaving the CAA), Georgia Southern, Idaho, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, South Alabama, Texas State-San Marcos, Troy and Western Kentucky.
App State, an established rival of JMU, would be the Dukes’ closest opponent, at about 285 miles.
Madison, the 2004 I-AA national champion, has a $34.5 million athletic budget, which is almost $9 million more than any of the 12 schools scheduled to be playing Sun Belt football in 2014. The next closest is Texas State-San Marcos, which has a budget of $26.2 million. Louisiana-Monroe has the smallest budget at $9.4 million.
Appalachian State and Georgia Southern have budgets of $19 million and $10.1 million, respectively.
The Dukes averaged 22,783 people at Bridgeforth Stadium last season, a figure that would have been fourth-best in the 10-team 2012 Sun Belt. Arkansas State led the league, averaging 26,389. App State averaged 26,358 fans, and Georgia Southern averaged 18,487. In 2011, JMU topped 25,000 in average attendance.
Tuesday’s statement from JMU did not reaffirm Madison’s commitment to the CAA. When VCU and ODU left last May for the A-10 and C-USA, respectively, JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne said, “Yeah, we are,” when asked if the school was 100 percent committed to staying the CAA.
Bourne has not returned messages in recent days seeking comment.
Madison also voted with the majority to raise the CAA’s exit fee from $250,000 to $1 million.