HARRISONBURG, Va. — Jeff Bourne must be a good poker player.
At a press conference scheduled to promote the beginning of basketball season, the James Madison athletic director fielded a barrage of questions Thursday about the possibility of the Dukes leaving the Colonial Athletic Association and the Football Championship Subdivision to join a Football Bowl Subdivision conference. Bourne didn't tip his hand as to what the future might hold for one of the top programs in the FCS.
"We wholeheartedly believe James Madison is a valuable institution to any league in the country. Our academic profile as an institution, our winning sports programs across the board, not just in basketball and football but in all sports, is valuable," Bourne said.
JMU's name has been tossed about in recent days as being a potential addition to the Sun Belt Conference or Conference USA, two Group of Five FBS leagues trying to re-position themselves as conference realignment shakes Division I college athletics.
JMU AD Jeff Bourne on a potential jump to FBS. More to come in a story soon. pic.twitter.com/NFWV1OORTR— Greg Madia (@Madia_DNRSports) October 21, 2021
Since Texas and Oklahoma announced last summer they were leaving the Big 12 Conference to join the Southeastern Conference, the ripple created by that move has reached elsewhere as other leagues poach attractive schools from each other.
Just this week, the American Athletic Conference took Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, Texas-San Antonio, Rice and Alabama-Birmingham from Conference USA. The AAC earlier lost Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida to the Big 12, as that league tried to restock.
There is speculation Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi might leave Conference USA to join the Sun Belt.
JMU has been mentioned as a possible addition to both the Sun Belt and Conference USA, depending on scenarios, as the leagues try to stock up on valuable members.
"We're very open-minded, aware that this is a dynamic, changing environment and every day brings something new. We look at everything we do from an intentional and diligent standpoint and we're going to make sure we continue to do that," Bourne said. "I'm not going to get into individual conversations and what-if scenarios, but just know ... we are keenly aware of where things are and we're working to make sure to make sure JMU's postured in the best place it can be."
While it's assumed JMU would jump at an invitation to join an FBS conference, Bourne sounded far more cautious. He mentioned the added expense of moving up, said league stability is a major concern and talked about the importance of competing against rivals and peer institutions.
Bourne's reference to stability was likely a nod to the possibility C-USA could lose Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi to the Sun Belt. There is speculation James Madison would also be asked to join the Sun Belt in that scenario. That would leave Conference USA on life support with just a handful of members.
"There's so much out there right now and so much speculation about who's in what leagues and where that might inevitably go. You do have to keep a critical eye toward that," Bourne said. "One of the things we think about today is how long are people going to be in the league they're in. You don't have to look any further than what already happened this week. A somewhat stable league just lost six members .... You have to look at, even in our current scenario, are you in a stable place and are you with members that are stable long term?"
Some speculation has Conference USA adding James Madison and current FBS independent Liberty, a private school in Lynchburg, Va.
"The most important thing is it's all about fit. It's about fit of where your institution is and where you are," Bourne said. "It's important to make sure you are aligned with institutions that you consider peers."
JMU won the FCS national title in 2016 and lost two championship games to North Dakota State in subsequent years. The Dukes have been considered the top challenger to NDSU's reign atop FCS for the last five years.