Harrisonburg celebrated in 2004. The Dukes won the I-AA National Championship for the first time in program history. They bounced back from a 6-6 season in 2003, and the freshmen that saw the Dukes’ 2-9 season were the first to raise the trophy.
After 2004, JMU fell to the middle of the pack and it watched other Atlantic 10 rivals win the championship, The Dukes were inconsistent at times, and the coaching staff was questioned.
Head coach Mickey Matthews wasn’t done yet, though. While Matthews didn’t bring another championship back to JMU, years later he gave JMU something that many argue was more valuable than a championship win.
On Sept. 11, 2010, JMU defeated Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, 21-16.
“It was a perfect storm situation,” JMU Director of Broadcast Services Curt Dudley said. “We got a big play in that game, we got a fumble recovery. It all worked out well.”
This wasn’t just any win. Virginia Tech, which plays in the ACC, was coming off an 0-1 start with a loss to Boise State the previous Monday and thought it was prepared to take on the FCS Dukes. The Hokies were ranked No. 13 nationally and were stunned by JMU at home.
Led by senior quarterback Drew Dudzik, the Dukes halted the Hokies and brought a win home to Harrisonburg that Matthews called “the biggest win in my professional career.”
After the two-hour drive down Interstate 81 to Blacksburg, JMU collected $400,000 in the upset and became the second FCS team ever to defeat a ranked FBS team. The first was Appalachian State in 2007 against Michigan.
“I remember saying [on the broadcast] that right now we are getting a lot of attention around the country,” Dudley said. “As people saw [on the ticker] JMU 21, Virginia Tech 16, we [were] getting a lot of exposure.”
Fans celebrated. People drove around with custom license plates commemorating the win, custom shirts were made, the fan base grew and JMU became a bigger name on the college football map. People argued about which success was bigger, the Dukes winning the 2004 National Championship or beating in-state rival Virginia Tech.
For Matthews, both were big accomplishments. He brought the first football championship to JMU and defeated the Hokies. The Dukes had previously beaten Virginia in 1982 and Navy in 1989 and 1990.
“As a Division I program, they were probably taking the Dukes for granted,” Dudley said. “It did create that debate, the ‘Which is bigger, the championship or the Virginia Tech game?”
Matthews coached the Dukes from 1999 to 2013. JMU ran a heavy, powerful offense and with him as coach, JMU grew to be a known name. The Dukes started making headlines, growing as a team and became a national name.
“I remember coach Matthews was always spoken of with such high regard by everyone in the JMU and Harrisonburg communities,” former JMU Student Athletic Trainer Andrew Russo said. “If he was out at the grocery store, people always interacted with him and he talked with them about football and JMU.”
After Matthews left in 2013, JMU was searching for a new coach for the first time in 14 years. During the last few years under Matthews, the team was in a progressive decline. Most JMU fans describe the Virginia Tech win as Matthews’ last major accomplishment. JMU made the playoffs in 2011, but missed in 2012 and 2013.
On Dec. 20, 2013 Everett Withers was hired as the next head football coach. Withers served as head coach at the University of North Carolina in 2011 and a defensive coordinator for Ohio State from 2012-13. He came to JMU with a new offensive energy and a younger look for the program, something fans were excited about.
“2013 was a rough ride. We just went 6-6 and two years removed from a $50 million plus stadium renovation, attendance dragged, we were running the ball on third and long and the fan base had enough,” alumni and season ticket holder Michael Evangelista said. “We needed someone that understood the CFB landscape, ‘modern’ recruiting, how to engage fans of all ages and how to reignite a program — Withers was exactly that.”
Withers stayed with the team for only two seasons, but the two years he was head coach of the Dukes were historical. With the help of quarterback Vad Lee, Withers led JMU back to the FCS playoffs in both years, and into the FCS top 10.
In 2014, JMU went 9-4 (6-2 CAA) with the partnership of Withers and Lee. The Dukes averaged 36.9 points per game offensively, but slipped on the defense side and gave up about 29.3 points per game. Fans often thought the team had to score at least 35 points to stay in the game.
“I think Coach Withers brought a lot of energy and really put JMU football on a national stage,” Russo said. “He expected a lot from the team and wanted each player to be at their best. Practice was always up-tempo, and that translated to how we played on the field those few years we had Coach Withers.”
However, the team’s best was something the Dukes were capable of under Withers. Lee broke JMU records during his time in Harrisonburg. He was a two-time — and the first back-to-back winner — of the Bill Dudley award, which goes to the state's best Division I player. He tied JMU’s all-time passing touchdown record at 51, and is a three-time All American. Lee also has JMU’s single-season records for total passing yards, touchdown passes, passing yards and total offense.
The Dukes fell in 2014 to Liberty 26-21 at home in the first round of the FCS Playoffs. However, fans had lots of hope for the season to come, as both Withers and Lee returned for the 2015 season.
“Vad Lee was a dream. He had a great personality, amazing skills and brought stability to a team that had a history of off-the field issues, particularly at the quarterback position,” Evangelista said. “He helped build JMU as a brand — we were going to play exciting football, win a lot of games while being engaged in the community.”
JMU started the 2015 season ranked No. 12 in the polls, but after quick wins over Morehead State, Lehigh and Albany, the Dukes rose to No. 9. After their 48-45 upset win against SMU, in which Lee had a career-setting game, the Dukes jumped even higher to No. 6, and then after another victory, to No. 5.
JMU stayed at No. 5 for two weeks until it moved to the No. 4 seed. The Dukes were still giving up major points on defense, but their offense made up for it, averaging 48.7 points per game.
In Week eight of the season, JMU finally faced a real FCS test; none other than in-state rival Richmond.
The Spiders were No. 11 and rising when they came to Harrisonburg, but Richmond coming into town wasn’t the only major event happening at JMU that week.
ESPN’s College GameDay came to Harrisonburg for Richmond week, and it had the entire campus buzzing. Students slept outside the night before to get good spots, the Quad fizzled with alumni and there seemed to not be enough purple and gold streamers to go around.
“We had a uniform rebrand, the locker room was renovated and updated, and College GameDay made their first appearance on campus,” Russo said. “All of those events were huge moments in JMU football history that really put us in the front of people’s minds — having millions of people tune in to ESPN on a Saturday morning ... People definitely knew who we were after that.”
People made signs to get them on TV, the College GameDay crew loved the JMU atmosphere and football analyst Lee Corso even walked out of Wilson Hall dressed as James Madison to pick the Dukes as the game’s winners. It was a day everyone would remember and the game hadn’t even begun.
However, the game didn’t go in JMU’s favor. The Dukes kept up wit/h Richmond for three quarters of a game, but former Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta did his homework and knew how to get past the Dukes’ defense. In the fourth quarter, Lee was injured and sophomore quarterback Bryan Schor came in to finish the game. The Dukes ultimately lost, 59-49.
“Vad was by far the most dynamic player I’d ever seen play,” Russo said. “Later on in the year, it was a bummer to see Vad end up getting hurt, but that last half of the year was the first time we saw Bryan Schor starting and he eventually led us to a national championship.”
Lee wouldn’t return for the rest of his season, which was the last of his JMU career. The Dukes finished the rest of the season 2-2 as the year went downhill for JMU after the Richmond game. The team landed the No. 8 seed in the FCS playoffs, which came with a bye week, but it wouldn’t be enough time to rest as JMU lost to Colgate in their first playoff game that year 44-38.
“ [Withers] certainly injected a lot of enthusiasm and elevated the program very quickly,” Dudley said. “They took advantage of some offensive things that were changing around the country, and the culture was definitely different.”
The 2016 season of football was up in the air. Lee graduated and it seemed like Withers would stay for another year, even though fans were unhappy with the defense. Then, on Jan. 6, 2016, Texas State hired him as their head coach and the Dukes were left coachless. Fans didn’t know how they would recover as both the head coach and starting quarterback left Harrisonburg.
“Withers was tremendous. When he first came to JMU, he led a massive culture shift and many players either quit or were cut,” Evangelista said. “To sum it up, Coach Withers was exactly what JMU needed at the time and his impact helped propel the program to where it is today.”
On Jan. 18, 2016, the gate was unlocked for Mike Houston, the next head coach and eventual National Championship winner at JMU.
Contact Savannah Reger at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.