(Editor's note: The Forum's Mike McFeely traveled to Harrisonburg, Va., in Oct. 2018 to chronicle the James Madison University football program, which has emerged as the top challenger to North Dakota State's spot atop the Football Championship Subdivision. While there, McFeely found a program with facilities, administrative commitment and a passionate fan base similar to the Bison's. Since the Bison and Dukes are meeting Saturday for the FCS title game, The Forum will re-post some of McFeely's columns from his trip to Virginia. Here is one of the reports McFeely filed.)
This column originally ran Oct. 5, 2018.
HARRISONBURG, Va. — Les Branich was the quarterback for James Madison University's first football team. That was in the fall of 1972, when the public school was still called Madison College. And it was actually a junior varsity squad.
The first game was scheduled to be at the high school in Harrisonburg, since Madison College didn't have a football field. But a rainstorm soaked the town, and school district officials told Madison that tearing up the soggy high school field wasn't an option.
So Branich, his Madison teammates and their coaches plotted out a 100-yard grid on campus, chalked it and hosted Shepherd College JV. The final score was Shepherd 6, Madison 0.
"The college president, Dr. Ron Carrier, carried two folding chairs to the field and put them down on the 50-yard line and he and one of his vice presidents, Ray Sonner, sat and watched the game. So I guess you could say our stadium had a seating capacity of two," said Branich, now a major donor to the football program. "We didn't score a point that year in a five-game JV schedule. But we did get a 0-0 tie."
The field on which that first game was played is now a parking lot, recently paved, within punting distance of spectacular Bridgeforth Stadium, the 25,000-seat home to the James Madison Dukes, the two-time Division I FCS national champions who are challenging North Dakota State as kings of the division.
The Dukes stopped NDSU's string of consecutive national championships at five in 2016 by beating the Bison 27-17 in the playoff semifinals at the Fargodome. The Bison then stopped JMU's 26-game winning streak with a 17-13 win in the national title game in January in Frisco, Texas.
The Bison are ranked No. 1 and the Dukes No. 2 in this season's national rankings, and there is hope for many in Harrisonburg, it seems, that the teams meet again in Frisco in January 2019.
"It was a competitive game in Frisco and the Bison won. No question. But we felt we left a lot of points out there, and we're looking forward to the next matchup. These two teams have separated themselves, I think, from everybody else in FCS, and to play again in Texas would be perfect," said Jim Dotter, a JMU donor who was making his way around campus Friday, Oct. 5, with his wife Cathy and daughter Ryan, a JMU sophomore, on Parents Weekend.
There is a feel walking around the expansive, picturesque, Colonial-style JMU campus that if the Bison's run at the top of FCS is a dynasty, then the Dukes want one of their own.
The word "rivalry" comes up often when folks around here discuss the two programs, even from the mouth of JMU President Jonathan Alger. That's a different vibe than the one at NDSU, where coaches and players insist two games in two years does not make a rivalry.
"I watch every score of every game they play," said Alger, wearing a suit and tie in a well-appointed conference room facing the campus quad where ESPN College GameDay twice broadcast its show to raucous crowds. "I know they beat South Dakota State 21-17 last week. I know where they are in the rankings and where we are in the rankings. I believe it's a growing rivalry."
Alger, like all presidents at universities with successful football programs, views athletics as a "front porch" to the school. He is another in a succession of JMU presidents who believe winning sports teams are a way to attract attention to a university that otherwise wouldn't get much. And it's not just football that wins, Alger points out. The Dukes women's lacrosse team won a national title last spring, an astounding accomplishment for a mid-major Division I team.
Alger believes the football program's growing profile and the visits from ESPN have helped move along the school's already stated goal of becoming nationally known. It's also helped raise money across the university, he said.
It's pretty much the same thing North Dakotans have heard about NDSU's rise to Division I football prominence.
It's huge growth from where JMU began-as an all-female teacher's school that didn't become coeducational until 1966 and didn't field a football team until 1972. By that time, NDSU already had three national titles in the equivalent of today's NCAA Division II and would add five more before turning Division I.
Today, JMU is deemed a comprehensive public university (non-research) that has about 22,000 students, mostly undergraduate. Those students provide nearly $40 million a year in fees for the athletic department, which has a $50 million budget. By comparison, NDSU students provide about $1.4 million annually for the total athletic budget of about $27 million.
JMU's football budget is nearing $10 million. NDSU's is about $5.5 million.
That's why as Dukes Athletic Director Jeff Bourne sits in his suite overlooking Bridgeforth Stadium, he seems supremely confident JMU's football program is well-positioned to win in the long-term. He looks out at a state-of-the-art stadium that ranks in the top five in FCS attendance, the Shenandoah Mountains in the distance, and says the school has drawings that could add 15,000 more seats to bring capacity to 40,000.
Would that happen only if the Dukes move up a level to Football Bowl Subdivision?
"No. We want to win championships and have enough demand that we have to put another side on the stadium. That's the goal," Bourne said. "There'll be 26,000 people here (Saturday, when Elon visits). We graduate 4,000 students a year, many who stay in the area. That's 40,000 people in 10 years. If I can get even a portion of those to come to football games, they could fill the stadium."
There is a palpable momentum at JMU. The Dukes do all the things it takes to win in football, like cover cost of attendance for athletes. A temporary indoor practice facility just opened, with hopes of a bigger one soon. They pay their coaches and support staff well, including rock-star Head Coach Mike Houston. He signed a 10-year contract extension in December that will pay him more than $500,000 a year, an eye-popping figure for FCS.
Houston is 32-3 since taking over in 2016 and is widely credited as being the final piece in JMU's challenge to NDSU. He has recruited high schools well in a talent-rich area and adds FBS transfers judiciously to fill holes.
"I knew he was going to be successful and he was a good fit for us," Bourne said. "But I didn't know it was going to be as good as it's been. It's been beyond my expectations."
Bourne, like most everybody else around JMU, keeps an eye on the Bison. He said boosters often have NDSU games streamed on their suite TVs, even if other Colonial Athletic Association games are available.
"We've seen what North Dakota State has done and we want to make sure we're right there with them," Bourne said.
It's a far cry from a JV game being played on a makeshift field, with the school president sitting on a folding chair on the sideline.