(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. — It is obvious to see how James Madison University could add another two-tier side to Bridgeforth Stadium and turn its impressive Division I FCS facility into one suitable for FBS. Knock down the old bleachers and a building sitting behind them and, presto, the Dukes suddenly have a 40,000-seat stadium that would fit perfectly in, say, the American Athletic Conference.
The plans have been drawn. When JMU expanded Bridgeforth to its current 25,000-seat capacity in 2011, architects put on paper what would need to be done to make the stadium bigger-time.
The school isn't yet ready to pull the trigger. Like the program the Dukes are jostling with for superiority in FCS, North Dakota State, JMU doesn't believe the time is right to leave FCS. And like the Bison, JMU officials say they'd pick up the phone if the right conference called. That doesn't mean they'd go, but the Dukes would listen. Perhaps intently.
JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne gets a look on his face like he's been asked about FBS a million times. That's because Bourne estimates he's been asked about the Dukes moving to FBS about a million times.
"The response to that hasn't changed," Bourne said. "We will look at options that are beneficial to us and meet the criteria for us to be successful. Right now, I don't see an option like that."
If that sounds familiar, that's because it's only the exact response NDSU president Dean Bresciani and athletic director Matt Larsen have been giving for years when they are asked about the Bison moving to FBS.
It's natural for fans to wonder about the future of both these schools, given NDSU has won six of the last seven national championships and JMU won one in 2016 and was runner-up last season. In the Bison's case, one has to ask if there's anything left to accomplish in FCS. In the Dukes' case, one need only look around at the huge campus that is home to 22,000 students and the facilities that look a notch above FCS to ask if they wouldn't be a better fit in a bigger conference.
JMU athletics has a budget of nearly $50 million, which ranks it 62nd in the NCAA, according to a database compiled by USA Today. That puts it in the ballpark with FBS schools in the AAC and the Mountain West. NDSU's budget is about $27 million, ranking it 115th.
"We have studied the issue, but right now we are focused on winning another FCS national championship and being competitive nationally every year," JMU president Jonathan Alger said.
Alger, like Bresciani at NDSU, says JMU will continue to monitor the college athletics landscape but doesn't foresee a move up being any easier soon. Alger said TV contracts for so-called Group of Five schools, lesser Division I conferences below the Power Five leagues like the Atlantic Coast Conference and others, aren't lucrative enough to make a move worthwhile in most cases.
"It's a financial model that doesn't work," said Dukes booster Larry Caudle, past president of the JMU Alumni Association. "It's purgatory, going somewhere like the Sun Belt Conference. That's what I call it. Frankly, we'd go bankrupt and we'd lose the momentum we've built in our program."
Other regional schools that had success in FCS have moved to FBS recently and joined smaller leagues like the Sun Belt and Conference USA. Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina are in the Sun Belt. Old Dominion joined Conference USA.
"I think today if the administration here was offered a spot in Conference USA they would say 'no' and they would be right to do so," Caudle said. "I just don't see the attraction of giving away what we have with a chance to play for a national championship, and the best we're going to do is get invited to the Bahamas Bowl a couple of days before Christmas."
It's the age-old debate among top-level FCS schools-do you gain enough by joining FBS?
One conference might be attractive enough to lure JMU. The AAC includes Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston and South Florida in a 12-team, two-division league and views itself a notch above leagues like the Sun Belt and Conference USA. The Dukes would fit nicely into the East Division with Cincinnati, Central Florida, South Florida, East Carolina, Temple and Connecticut.
If the AAC called, "I think we'd probably give them a call back," Bourne said.
That gives JMU one advantage over NDSU in the FBS landscape. The Dukes could fit in geographically with the AAC East. The Bison have nowhere to go and if a conference like the Mountain West called, NDSU would be so far out of the league's geographic footprint that it would be cost prohibitive.
For now, fans and the JMU administration are focused on trying to win another FCS national title and maintain their spot at the top of the division and continuing to challenge NDSU.
"With the success we've had the last five years, there's all kinds of talk about moving up," said Les Branich, a major donor and the quarterback on the Dukes' first football team in 1972. "I would like to see us stay in FCS. The chance to be at the top of the division and compete for national championships I think outweighs being a lower level FBS team."