Following former JMU football head coach Everett Withers’ departure it was clear the Dukes were on the cusp of becoming a perennial contender, making it more important for JMU director of athletics Jeff Bourne to make the right hire.
When Bourne chose Mike Houston as JMU’s football coach, Bourne wanted to find someone that was a perfect fit. Not only was it important for the Dukes to embrace the university, but the Harrisonburg community as well.
Houston’s coaching career began at the high school level in North Carolina, where he served as the defensive coordinator at Forbush (East Bend, NC) and T.C. Roberson (Asheville, NC). He earned his first college opportunity at Division-II Brevard College as defensive coordinator before being hired to the same position at Lenoir-Rhyne.
He coached the Bears’ defense from 2007-10, where he quickly established a hard-nosed defense that ranked high in multiple categories. In 2011, he was promoted to head coach. His first season saw Lenoir-Rhyne finish 7-3 (6-1 SAC), but just two years later he took the Bears to the Division-II National Championship.
It was clear early on that Houston had a championship mentality.
He was hired by The Citadel in 2014. In his second season he led the Bulldogs to their first conference title since 1992, catching the eye of many — including Bourne.
Houston had an important task when hired by JMU. Former quarterback Vad Lee was graduating and the team needed to be unified, meaning the spring season was crucial for laying the foundation for a successful first season.
“I knew this fanbase was going to rally around the way he rallied a team,” Dave Thomas, host for ESPN Radio Harrisonburg, said. “And that’s what they needed. The fan base needed it, the team needed it, and I knew it was something that would be really, really special.”
The first task was finding Lee’s replacement. Houston had two primary candidates: Bryan Schor and Connor Mitch. Schor was a rising junior at the time and had played significant minutes in 2015 after Lee suffered a season-ending injury while playing against Richmond over a month before the playoffs. Mitch, on the other hand, brought SEC experience as he spent three years at South Carolina before transferring to JMU.
Schor won the job, allowing Houston to craft the Milford, Pennsylvania, native into the perfect candidate for Houston’s spread offense.
The first task on Houston’s 2016 slate was Morehead State. The amount of firepower held by the offense quickly became evident as JMU notched 28 points in the first quarter via touchdown runs from former running backs Khalid Abdullah and Cardon Johnson, and two from Schor. The Dukes would go on to win 80-7, setting the program record for points in a single game.
After another impressive offensive showing against Central Connecticut State the following week, the Dukes traveled to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to take on former UNC quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and the Tar Heels.
“I think any player who’s played for Coach Houston can tell you no matter the circumstance, the stipulations, whether the team is ranked No. 1, not ranked, in the playoffs or not, it’s full throttle all the time,” former offensive lineman Mac Patrick said. “Our coaches were great … With Coach Houston, it was never a problem of we’re taking a team lightly — we took everyone serious.”
On the first drive of the game, JMU marched 82 yards to take a 7-0 lead. The two teams went back and forth for the remainder of the first quarter, but after the first 15 minutes it was the Dukes that led, 21-14. But, the momentum quickly shifted as UNC scored 28 unanswered points to take control and win the game.
Trubisky finished 24-of-27 with 432 yards and three touchdowns and would eventually be chosen second overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. That didn’t change anything for Houston. Despite facing a larger program with high caliber NFL talent, he expected JMU to leave Kenan Memorial Stadium with a win. This was the mentality Houston brought to the table and served to be a critical moment in the season.
“When JMU lost to North Carolina 56-28, Coach Houston was mad,” Thomas said. “He was mad that they didn’t win the football game. That got his team’s attention. The following week in practice was different; there was a different tone about it, there was a different feel, even though they were doing the exact same things, it had a different meaning to it.”
The following week the Dukes traveled to take on Maine. After taking a 10-6 lead, the Black Bears stormed 75 yards on five plays to take a 13-10 lead into halftime. With two quarters to play, JMU needed to snatch momentum to avoid dropping its second game.
Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Abdullah took off for 85 yards to reclaim the lead. While Maine would score again shortly after, a touchdown pass from Schor and a 52-yard scamper from Johnson solidified a victory for the Dukes.
Following Maine was a commanding 43-20 win over Delaware and a 31-24 triumph over in-state rival William & Mary. Sitting at 5-1 (2-0 CAA), JMU headed north once again, but this time to visit New Hampshire for another difficult CAA road test.
With over seven minutes remaining in the game, the Dukes held a 42-12 lead. It seemed done and dusted, but the Wildcats scored four touchdowns in 6:46 to make it 42-39 with 1:15 left in the contest. Their comeback effort stopped there once JMU recovered an onside kick, avoiding a memorable meltdown.
The offense was clicking, but the near collapse against UNH showed the defense needed to be staunch. Then-defensive coordinator Bob Trott made necessary adjustments and for what would be the remaining eight games, the Dukes gave up more than 20 points twice.
“We just found a way to come out with a victory that game,” former safety Adam Smith said. “I think after that, we knew that we could really win any game. No matter what the situation was, Houston was going to have an answer for something.”
JMU followed the New Hampshire win by breaking the record it set against Morehead State. This time, Rhode Island fell victim to the Dukes’ potent offense, as JMU ran away 84-7. A thrilling 47-43 win over Richmond, 20-7 victory over Villanova and 63-14 blowout of Elon later, JMU wrapped up the regular season as CAA champions with an 10-1 (8-0 CAA) record, earning the No. 4 seed in the 2016 FCS Playoffs.
The road to Frisco wasn’t going to be easy. After New Hampshire defeated Lehigh in the first round of the playoffs, it set up a rematch that UNH head coach Sean McDonnell was hoping for. However, revenge wasn’t on the cards as JMU ran away 55-22, setting up a showdown with a high-powered Sam Houston State team.
Broadcast on ESPNU, Bridgeforth Stadium was in the national spotlight once again in what was supposed to be a battle to remember. It quickly turned into a night to forget for the visiting Bearkats, and one that Dukes fans think about fondly.
Behind Trai Sharp’s 144 rushing yards and two touchdowns, Abdullah’s 141 yards on the ground and three touchdowns and the relentless defense, JMU sent a clear message to the remaining teams in the playoffs. That message came in the form of defeating the No. 5 team in the FCS, 65-7.
With the Dukes riding high off a statement win, the battles were going to get more difficult. The next task was traveling to Fargo, North Dakota, to take on the FCS behemoth North Dakota State.
“[Houston] was the kind of coach where we were prepared for everything that came our way,” Smith said. “There really wasn’t anything that we weren’t prepared for or weren’t able to adjust to. I think we were one of the best teams in history to be able to adjust to gameplans in the middle of the game. I think it really showed when we played North Dakota State.”
The Bison had won five consecutive national championships and were led by former quarterback Easton Stick. Many knew the talent JMU possessed, but Houston made sure his team was ready. It wasn’t a game; it was a business trip.
The Dukes took care of business in the first half as they raced out to a 17-0 lead. NDSU scored before the half but the country began to take notice that the Bison dynasty was potentially getting derailed.
Being down 17 at home didn’t faze NDSU. It scored 17 unanswered to level the score before the end of the third, meaning the fourth quarter was set to be one for the history books. With under 12 minutes remaining, former kicker Tyler Gray hit a career-long 45-yard field goal to give the Dukes an edge. Four minutes later, Schor found former wide receiver John Miller open in the end zone to make it a two-possession game.
The upset of the decade was coming together and JMU finished the job, winning 27-17 and setting up a date with Youngstown State in the 2016 FCS National Championship — just the second time JMU had reached the title game in program history.
It seemed like destiny that Houston would lift the national title trophy. Defeating the best program in the FCS was a monumental task, and all that was left was to defeat the Penguins.
It took the Dukes 39 seconds into their first possession to score, eventually leading to a 21-0 margin. YSU scored to make it a 14-point game just before the half, but Abdullah powered into the end zone from two yards out to make it 28-7, proving too much for Youngstown State to come back. JMU was crowned FCS National Champions for a second time, winning 28-14.
The following season had sky-high expectations from the beginning. With Schor, Johnson and other veterans returning, as well as Houston looking to capitalize on a historic season, the scene was set for the Dukes to try for a repeat and further upend the NDSU dynasty.
A 34-14 win over FBS East Carolina only heightened the standard. As the season progressed and the Dukes remained unbeaten entering the playoffs, JMU earned the No. 1 seed. It handled CAA-foe Stony Brook 26-7 in the second round of the playoffs, before the team faced its toughest game of the season.
Weber State came to Harrisonburg with the goal of playing spoiler to an undefeated season. The game was neck and neck throughout, but with three minutes to play the Wildcats took a 28-20 lead. Bridgeforth was riddled with nervousness but Houston’s team stood strong. Schor threw a pinpoint 40-yard pass to former wide receiver Riley Stapleton and after a successful two-point conversion, the game was tied at 28 and set to go to overtime.
However, a late drive during the dying embers of the game set up current redshirt senior kicker Ethan Ratke to attempt a 46-yard field goal to send the home team to the semifinals. On a cold Virginia night, the ball sailed through the air and snuck in between the goal posts, sending fans into pandemonium.
A semifinal matchup with South Dakota State was in the cards, but it was a similar story as before: Houston knew how to get his team ready for intense games and against the Jackrabbits, the Dukes were more than prepared, beating them 51-16 and forcing 10 turnovers. This sent them to Frisco once again, but NDSU was waiting for them — and it wanted revenge.
Houston’s second time in Frisco didn’t go as planned. The offense stalled and the Bison went up 17-3 in the first half. Although JMU pulled within four points and had the ball late in the fourth, it couldn’t muster enough luck to earn a third national title, falling to NDSU, 17-13.
Next season wasn’t like the first two seasons under Houston. After dropping its first game to North Carolina State 24-13, JMU won four straight. Then, it was upset by the Dukes’ current head coach Curt Cignetti and Elon at home, showing that JMU wasn’t invincible.
A sloppy 35-24 loss to New Hampshire quickly called into question if Houston needed to make a quarterback change from Ben DiNucci to Cole Johnson. DiNucci was still given the nod for the rest of the season but turmoil took over the program as it entered the postseason.
Rumors began to swirl about Houston’s potential departure as the team was preparing for a second-round contest with Colgate, adding uncertainty to the team’s mentality when it needed the utmost focus. JMU fell to Colgate 23-20 after a game-winning field goal as time expired, and Houston departed for East Carolina shortly after.
The Mike Houston era of JMU football saw the most success in the shortest amount of time. Two CAA championships, two national championship appearances and one FCS title in three seasons is an incredible feat, but it meant that his successor would have to meet incredible expectations.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.