A trip to Harrisonburg, Va., for two days last October revealed this about the institution of higher education located there: James Madison University has lofty goals, and that includes moving its athletics program to a higher level.
It seemed, after talking with Dukes athletic director Jeff Bourne and others around campus including president Jonathan Alger, that the itch was there to substantially grow JMU's enrollment from its present 22,000 and to explore moving from being a mid-major Football Championship Subdivision athletic program to being a higher-major Football Bowl Subdivision one.
The key, as always, is whether JMU was going to someday receive an invitation to a bigger league and whether that league was attractive enough for the Dukes to make the leap. Although they didn't say so explicitly, it seemed Bourne and Alger believed the Sun Belt Conference, Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference were non-starters. There's no interest in Harrisonburg in moving to one of those lesser FBS leagues.
The one conference that sparked interest was the American Athletic Conference, a 12-team league that includes Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston and Memphis. It is considered a notch above the Sun Belt, Conference USA and the MAC while not quite being at the level of a Power Five league.
When I asked Bourne whether he'd return a call from the AAC, his reply was: "I think we'd probably give them a call back."
He was smiling and being purposely understated. What Bourne didn't say, although voices in his head were probably screaming it, was, "IN ONE SECOND!"
This is relevant today because the AAC is about to lose a member. The University of Connecticut, a basketball-first school, is moving back to the Big East Conference in 2020. That will leave the AAC with 11 teams, fueling speculation that it will add another team to replace UConn.
With JMU being one of the powers in FCS football, a program with the resources and will to challenge North Dakota State's supremacy atop the division, it's something on which to keep an eye in Fargo. Strong FCS programs like Appalachian State and Georgia Southern have moved up in recent years, weakening the division. Losing the Dukes would be a blow to FCS.
Officially, JMU is in a wait-and-see mode. It's a safe bet the school has already made it known they'd be interested in replacing UConn. On last October's visit, some boosters in Harrisonburg said they believed the athletic administration had been calling the AAC just to let the league know JMU would like to join if the opportunity became available.
Asked via email for a response to UConn leaving, a Dukes athletic spokesman replied: "JMU Athletics has been fortunate to enjoy success across a wide span of sports in recent years with competitive excellence in the Colonial Athletic Association and at a national level while continuing to emphasize a holistic student-athlete experience. Our outlook on conference membership has not changed with recent events this summer. We have not received an invitation from another conference. Should an invitation be received, we will evaluate it according to key criteria and make the best decision for James Madison University."
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From an FCS perspective, it looks like JMU would be a perfect fit for the AAC. Geographically, Harrisonburg sits nicely in the league's East Division footprint that includes Central Florida, Temple, Cincinnati, South Florida and East Carolina. James Madison already has an athletics budget of about $50 million, which aligns with other AAC schools (NDSU's is about $27 million, by comparison). The Dukes' football stadium seats 25,000, but the school already has architectural plans for an expansion to 40,000 just in case.
JMU is ready for the move.
But what appears so attractive from one perspective doesn't look that way from another.
The AAC might view the Dukes as a small school not ready for prime time. The league is a basketball power, too, and admitted Wichita State as a hoops-only member several years ago. JMU doesn't measure up in that regard, although it does have a new arena opening this fall. This is not a conference desperate to add just any team. As commissioner Mike Aresco told CBS Sports, the AAC has options. That includes not expanding at all.
"We're a strong conference now. This is nothing like seven years ago (when the league formed)," Aresco said. "In terms of strength and membership, we could stay at 11 and be very strong. We're a strong basketball league, very strong. Memphis has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. Houston, with Kelvin (Sampson) now. Wichita State, Cincinnati and the Florida schools. Football, we're very powerful. We could strengthen ourselves. We could stay at 11. We're not sure what we're going to do."
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Aresco spoke of the value, monetary and otherwise, a new school might bring to the AAC. UConn, even though it stinks at football, is a traditional basketball titan. The men won a national championship as recently as 2014. And you might've heard of the UConn women and Geno Auriemma.
Asked if he had a feeling whether the AAC was going to stay at 11 teams or expand to 12 once UConn left, Aresco said:
"It's not something we have to do. Unless you can get somebody who enhances our brand and our strength, it's not worth doing. Geography is a factor but not the biggest factor. We didn't take Wichita State (in basketball) because they happen to be close to our schools. We took them because they're a tremendous basketball team. I think we'll have a serious discussion. If we can't find anyone that makes sense, we would stay at 11."
Translation: The AAC is feeling pretty good about itself right about now and that might not be what the folks in Harrisonburg want to hear.