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James Madison University is ready for the big time

Photo Credit: Daily News-Record, Michael Reilly, Associated Press

James Madison University has a way of seemingly coming out of nowhere.

Driving along Interstate 81 in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, it’s easy to become entranced by the beauty of the rolling farmland walled off in the distance by the Blue Ridge Mountains, before suddenly the bustling college town of Harrisonburg appears.

Then it’s no longer the hay fields and horse barns that catch the eye. It’s the towering bright purple grandstand popping against the dark mountain silhouettes. One side of JMU’s Bridgeforth Stadium rises to the sky with thousands of seats, 16 suites and a state of the art press box. But that’s just one side. The bleachers to the west of the field seat look different. Small time.

From some angles, Bridgeforth Stadium looks like it is half complete. Perhaps that’s fitting for a school potentially in the middle of a meteoric rise from Division III to elite levels of major college athletics.

Yes, James Madison University has a way of coming out of nowhere.

In the mid-to-late 1970s the closest thing to big-time college sports they had in Harrisonburg was the stream of coaches from Kentucky, North Carolina, neighboring Virginia and dozens of others visiting to recruit a high schooler named Ralph Sampson.

JMU’s fledgling football program was just a few years old and competed in Division III. The basketball team was Division II. But the 1980s brought a move to Division I. Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell brought excitement to the hoops program and the Dukes made the I-AA football playoffs in 1987.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw the Dukes turn into an FCS power, winning a national title in 2004. During that period Harrisonburg’s population more than doubled and the metro area grew to more than 120,000. The university enrollment nearly tripled.

Quietly the town, JMU and its athletic department grew from a small rural afterthought, to a thriving city and institution worth keeping a close eye on.

Particularly if you are a conference that might soon be looking for new members.

The Big 12 is heading toward expansion and seems likely to pluck at least a team or two from the American Athletic Conference. The Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote that the possibility of JMU moving to the FBS level will likely be a hot topic at the Colonial Athletic Association media day.

Conventional wisdom when it comes to the hierarchy of Division I conferences suggests the AAC will turn to the FBS bottom feeders, the MAC, Conference USA and the Sun Belt when it comes time to replace Big 12-bound members and that will open up a spot for JMU in one of those leagues.

But maybe that’s selling the Dukes short.

James Madison should be ready to pitch itself to the American, and the conference really ought to consider buying low on stock with potential to surge.

The AAC may think it’s above adding a current FCS school, but should remember that JMU is an FCS school that stacks up quite well with its members in terms of athletic revenue, enrollment, academic reach and results on the football field.

The Dukes went to AAC member SMU last season and won, which perhaps shouldn’t have come as a surprise considering the Dukes have resources unlike other FCS programs.

JMU reported athletic revenues of nearly $45 million for the 2014-15, greater than Houston and Memphis, on par with East Carolina and South Florida and dwarfing most Group of Five programs not in the American or Mountain West.

The 2011 renovation of Bridgeforth Stadium brought the capacity up to 25,000 with room for further expansion. Last season the Dukes averaged more than 19,000 fans per game to rank fourth in FCS. There are also plans in the works for a new 8,500-seat basketball arena. Attendance and revenues would only grow in premier conference like the American.

“The Convocation Center will help us grow our brand and place us in a position for relevance on a national stage,” athletic director Jeff Bourne was prominently quoted as saying on a website for the arena. “This is one piece of our continued efforts to make us a viable option to compete at the highest level of Division I athletics.”

That doesn’t necessarily read like a man simply setting his sights on the Sun Belt.

And the Dukes could be good for the American in ways that go beyond the playing fields. JMU is now a large state school with an ever-expanding campus, an enrollment that’s swollen to more than 20,000 and an endowment of about $82 million.

And as the university grows, so will its alumni base, which already is 30,000 strong in the Washington DC area with a significant presence in the Richmond and Hampton Roads metro areas as well.

With Navy a football member only, adding JMU could help the AAC solidify itself in important Mid-Atlantic markets. Conference officials need only look at their own members — UConn, South Florida and East Carolina among them — to see how quickly and successfully programs can make the jump to FBS. With all JMU has going for it there is no need to make the Dukes pay dues with a stint in Conference USA.

And if the American needs any more convincing, current members should think selfishly. The conference holds a significant negotiating advantage over JMU. The Dukes already have the budget to compete at that level and would be motivated enough to take a smaller slice of the pie, which would surely still be a significant increase over CAA money, just to get a seat at the table.

Realistically, odds are better JMU winds up in the Sun Belt or Conference USA once this round of realignment shakes out.

But if a few years from now the Dukes are playing in the AAC title game with a major bowl game on the line, just remember James Madison University didn’t actually come from out of nowhere.

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