James Madison University, named for a Founding Father and the fourth president of the United States, is not some small school, not the little engine that could, not miraculously thriving despite limited resources. It is a gorgeous college campus, where well-appointed buildings are bustling with an enrollment of nearly 23,000 students, tucked right in the heart of the scenic Shenandoah Valley. Wandering the grounds in Harrisonburg, Va., is every bit as impressive as the neighboring universities of Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Mark Byington worked at both those ACC schools as an assistant coach, and it’s why he jumped at the opportunity to lead the JMU men’s basketball program three years ago.
“Regardless of what league we’re in, everything at JMU is big-time,” he says. “We bring people on campus, and they’re blown away. They always say, ‘I had no idea it was this nice.’ So our main thing is just to get them here and let them see it.”
The trouble with that: Byington’s first recruiting class signed at the height of COVID-19 restrictions in 2020, so no on-campus visits were allowed. Instead, the coach frequently gave virtual walking tours of the campus while holding up his phone on FaceTime calls with prospects and their families. Trust me, it’s even more impressive in person. U.S. News and World Report rankings (JMU is the No. 64 public school in America) were certainly cited. Terrence Edwards Jr. was convinced and, upon arrival, not disappointed.
“That’s why I came here in the first place: They had the resources to be a big school,” says Edwards, a junior guard who is the team’s second-leading scorer. “And now we’re proving that. Now everyone can see the stuff we see, the view we have here, the buildings on campus, how everything is first-class. We’re finally putting JMU on the map.”
In what has become the Year of the Dukes, James Madison football won at Virginia in Week 2, went 11-1 as a former FCS program in its second season transitioning to FBS, hosted ESPN’s “College GameDay” and earned its first invitation to a bowl game. Then Byington’s basketball program opened the season with an overtime win at preseason top-5 Michigan State to launch its own 11-0 start (the Dukes play at Morgan State on Friday night). JMU is one of just six Division I schools — Arizona, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Ole Miss are the others — to be ranked in both the football and basketball AP polls. Football is 24th, basketball No. 20.
“It’s like a Power 5 school, basically,” says TJ Bickerstaff, a Boston College transfer who leads the Dukes in scoring and rebounding. “The way our gym gets filled up, it’s more than some games I played in the ACC. It’s a sleeping giant.”
Jeff Bourne believed the same when he arrived as athletic director 25 years ago and set into motion a series of strategic moves — and facility upgrades — that are now beginning to stir that giant. In 2011, a $62 million renovation and expansion to Bridgeforth Stadium, which now holds about 27,000 but has been designed for as-needed growth in phases. It will eventually be a 40,000-seat football stadium. In 2020, the school opened a $140 million, 8,500-seat basketball arena, Atlantic Union Bank Center, where Byington beat Virginia a year later. (Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said, “What an atmosphere. This is a beautiful building and a tough environment.”)
The decision to jump from FCS, where JMU had been a powerhouse, to FBS in football was a big one, not without skeptics. But Bourne didn’t do so without tremendous forethought. A story by Front Office Sports this month detailed how James Madison is “the FCS team that spent like an FBS team to become one.” The school spent about $10 million a year on football — more than double the average for FCS teams and right on par with most Group of 5 schools — for at least five years leading up to their transition. In 2022, the athletics budget of $58 million was larger than any school in the Dukes’ new league, the Sun Belt.
“From 2006 to 2012, we built our infrastructure based on FBS schools,” Bourne says. “We looked at North Carolina for some things, looked at strength and conditioning at Nebraska, used Wake Forest as a model in how we built our support arm. All those things were FBS-ready at that point, so there were very, very little changes we had to make once this transition started. We were pretty much already there. We’ve built this as a sustainable program, not a flash in the pan or one that will go away.”
Under Bourne’s leadership, JMU has enjoyed unprecedented all-sports success. Volleyball and women’s basketball both won the Sun Belt. Lacrosse finished with a top-10 ranking. Five sports competed in a Sun Belt championship game, and the Dukes were the only school in the league where every sport finished .500 or better last year. James Madison has won a lacrosse national title (2018), made a Women’s College World Series (2021) and been to seven NCAA Tournaments in women’s basketball the last 16 years under Bourne.
And the football program has been a well-oiled machine for two decades. Since 2004: seven national semifinals, four national championship games and two FCS national titles. Curt Cignetti was poached by Indiana after the regular season, but there’s no reason to doubt that new coach Bob Chesney, who won five straight Patriot League titles at Holy Cross, will keep it rolling. Bourne replaced Mickey Matthews with Everett Withers (19-7), then Mike Houston (37-6), then Cignetti (52-9) and they all won big.
With his legacy and the future of JMU athletics secured, Bourne announced in September that he would retire this spring. For all that success, there still was one thing stuck in his craw: the men’s basketball program’s failure to launch.
Lou Campanelli guided the Dukes through a transition from Division II to Division I and made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, where they scored first-round upsets of Georgetown in 1981, Ohio State in 1982 and West Virginia in 1983. Then the Dukes enjoyed a successful run under Naismith Hall of Famer Lefty Driesell, after his ouster at Maryland, winning five straight CAA regular-season titles. But since Driesell’s 1994 NCAA Tournament appearance, the program has had just one more in the last three decades. Three of the four coaches after Driesell left with losing records.
“We’ve always been good across the board,” Bourne says, “but men’s basketball has been the one where we’ve tried and tried to do really well and make the tournament and just couldn’t. For me, a large part of it was all the infrastructure pieces coming together. The arena now makes it easier to recruit to campus, so all the pieces of the puzzle have really fallen together.”
Building a best-in-class facility for a historically mediocre program is a real “if you build it, they will come” leap of faith. But in a case of terrible timing, that arena opened for the 2020-21 season, when pandemic protocols meant the stands were almost empty for home games.
“Like getting a sports car and having to keep it below the speed limit,” says Byington, whose team shared the CAA regular-season title that year, but was banned from the conference tournament because it decided to leave for the Sun Belt.
A combination of traits convinced Bourne that Byington was the right man to finally lead James Madison basketball out of the wilderness: that he’d grown up just 100 miles away in Salem, Va., that he’d been an All-CAA player at UNC Wilmington, that he’d worked at Virginia and Virginia Tech, that he’d been a head coach in the Sun Belt already, that he’d gone 131-97 at Georgia Southern, which was 51-106 in the five years before him and 43-57 since he left.
“He had all the ingredients,” Bourne says, and JMU had all the resources.
Now, in Year 4, Byington and the Dukes have broken through. They returned four key players from last year’s team, led by Edwards, and added Bickerstaff, a 6-foot-9 forward who is averaging 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in just 23 minutes per game while shooting 68.5 percent from the field. He had 21 and 14 in the stunning upset against Michigan State. Byington had recruited Bickerstaff twice before, out of high school and again when he transferred the first time from Drexel to Boston College.
This time, “he was really set on winning and playing in a particular style, and we fit him perfect,” Byington says. “He brings the ball up the court for us probably 10-15 times a game, which some people frown upon, but I love it. I don’t care if you’re a center or whatever else; if you can make a play, you can make a play. So he’s come here and shown his versatility. We let him make mistakes.”
Bickerstaff studied a lot of film when considering transfer options this time. He went through the NBA pre-draft process in the spring and consulted with his grandfather, longtime NBA coach and executive Bernie Bickerstaff, and uncle, current Cleveland Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff, about his next move.
“What sold me really is just the style of play here,” TJ Bickerstaff says. “We play fast and it’s free-flowing, not centered around any specific player. It fits everyone’s game. It’s very hard to beat when you have multiple players who can attack the basket or make a shot. That’s more of an NBA style of play.”
Byington says so many coaches use the term positionless, even when their style isn’t at all, that it has lost its impact. But JMU embraces “the true meaning” of positionless basketball. The Dukes rank top-40 nationally in tempo, offensive efficiency, effective field-goal percentage, turnover percentage, 2-point and 3-point percentage. They have five players who have attempted at least 30 3s and made at least 11 of them, with four players shooting 37 percent or better behind the arc. Eight players have at least a dozen assists — four of them with 20-plus — in 11 games.
“A lot of times you’ll watch us, and you don’t know who our point guard is,” Byington says. “Or you’ll see us play and it’s unscripted, but it’s spacing and movement. For the most part, I don’t want to teach my guys how to run plays. I want to teach them how to play. And play fast. So I need guys who can read and react very quickly, process information and make good decisions. I want as many of those on the floor at the same time as possible, and I want them interchangeable.”
On game days, he largely takes his hands off the wheel, except in pivotal moments, when players huddle up and direct their attention to Byington’s whiteboard. Down two with three minutes to go in overtime at Michigan State on Nov. 6, he tweaked one of JMU’s bread-and-butter plays, flipping the sides and adding a screening action to spring Edwards for the go-ahead 3.
“He lets us play free, but when it’s time, Coach draws up smart plays,” Edwards says. “He’s got tricks up his sleeve. He has plays to beat any defense. He can make it look like we’re running one play, but he tweaks it and you won’t catch it. He’s so detailed and so smart, it just gives every player on the court total confidence in what we’re doing.”
What James Madison has done lately is steamroll inferior competition. Since surviving that OT thriller at Michigan State, then a double-OT win at Kent State, seven of the last nine wins have been by at least 15 points, four by 20-plus. The Dukes lead the nation in scoring at 92.9 points per game, and they could pile up a pretty gaudy record by season’s end. There are just two games left against a current KenPom top-150 team, Appalachian State home (Jan. 13) and away (Jan. 27). The Mountaineers have already upset a very good Auburn team. Maintaining focus in games not against App State might be the biggest challenge.
“We’ve told our guys, ‘You can enjoy all this, but there’s also times when you need to take yourself away from it, too,’ because it does become mentally exhausting with everything going on around here, all the extra attention, and you can’t get caught up in it,” Byington says. “It can also build more pressure and start to feel heavy. For most teams on our schedule, very few times does a ranked team come to your campus and play a home game. In the SEC or ACC, that’s not uncommon, but in our league, when we come to town, they’re going to do a special blackout or whiteout night, have more media attention, make it a really big deal. We’re not just getting the other team’s best shot, but everything their campus can throw at us. So we’ve got to love that part of it.”
So far, so good. Old Dominion had a whiteout and drew a record crowd of 8,504 when the Dukes visited on Dec. 9. But the game was never close, JMU won by 15, and Monarchs coach Jeff Jones said, “We didn’t give them a whole lot to cheer for.”
“Having a real, real packed crowd that’s quiet all night is a good feeling,” Edwards says. “We want everyone to come out trying to see us lose, because that’s when everyone gets real locked in. We have that killer mindset. It’s fun.”
See, the Dukes don’t even talk like an upstart. They don’t accept that this is overachieving. This is just winning at the level they’ve expected all along. This is just basketball finally catching up to football and everyone else on a big, beautiful, thriving campus.
When “GameDay” visited in November — the third time ESPN’s hit college football pregame show has come to campus since 2015 — JMU fans delivered a record crowd of about 26,000 purple-clad people as far as the eye could see.
“I have not experienced anything like James Madison,” host Rece Davis later said on his podcast. “There hasn’t been an event in my nine years on ‘College GameDay’ and my now 30 years in television that captured every aspect of what you would want (the show to be). It’s right at the top of the list.”
The night before that extended JMU commercial on ESPN, Byington’s basketball team won another game in front of 8,000 fans inside a glittering arena his boss built without any real proof of concept. In a few months, Bourne can retire with no major regrets.
“I felt all along that this was just a school with huge untapped potential and we could grow and build into a top program, and that’s exactly what has happened,” Bourne says. “It happened because a lot of people pulled in the same direction for a long time and a voracious student body that loves sports has supported us. You put all that together, and you’re going to be good. It’s extremely rewarding now to sit back in the director’s chair and see it all really flourish.”
(Top photo of James Madison forward Jaylen Carey celebrating after the Dukes’ win at Michigan State: Adam Ruff / AP)