JMU board OKs move to FBS, Dukes a step closer to joining Sun Belt Conference


James Madison players celebrate after winning against North Dakota after a quarterfinal game in the NCAA college FCS football playoffs in Harrisonburg, Va., Sunday, May 2, 2021. (Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record via AP)

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WAVY) — James Madison University’s Board of Visitors has unanimously approved a recommendation to pursue a move up to the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level, bringing JMU a step closer to joining the Sun Belt Conference.

The board met Friday morning in Harrisonburg to hear the proposal from school leaders.

“This morning was an important step as JMU moves forward in its consideration and evaluation of an invitation to join the Sun Belt Conference,” JMU Athletics said Friday in a statement following the decision. “We are pleased by the vote of the Board of Visitors’ Executive Committee and look forward to the next steps of the process with the Virginia General Assembly’s Athletics Commission. While the excitement and anticipation builds throughout the JMU community, it is important to follow all required processes and we are thankful for the support.”

Virginia law requires colleges to get that approval from the General Assembly for a move from the Football Championship Subdivision level (FCS/formerly I-AA) to the FBS, the top Division I football level.

There is a meeting of the Intercollegiate Athletics Review Commission next Friday morning at 10:30 a.m. Coincidentally, next weekend also happens to be homecoming for JMU.

JMU would be the fourth recent addition to the Sun Belt, bringing it to 14 football members. The conference has 16 total members, but the University of Texas at Arlington and University of Arkansas at Little Rock don’t play football.

Just about two hours after JMU’s decision, Marshall became the third program to join, announcing the move on Twitter.

Southern Mississippi was the first to go, and Old Dominion University, the Dukes’ former Colonial Athletic Association rival, was the second. The Sun Belt announced the ODU addition on Wednesday and held a press conference on Thursday.

ODU, Marshall and Southern Miss. are among nine teams that have jumped ship from Conference USA in recent weeks, in a conference realignment shuffle sparked by Texas and Oklahoma’s decision to join the SEC. There are reports that CUSA is trying to stay alive by adding UConn, Liberty New Mexico State and FCS program Sam Houston State, the defending FCS champions.

On Thursday, ODU Athletic Director Wood Selig said the Monarchs’ move to the Sun Belt was like “hitting the lottery,” with regional rivalries that are close for teams and their fans, and more exposure with the Sun Belt’s ESPN contract.

The move is a big win as well for JMU, an FCS football powerhouse that had been looking for the right opportunity to step up. Since they opted to stay in the FCS in the last large round of realignment in 2012 and 2013, the Dukes built up infrastructure (including a new $100-million-plus arena) and racked up wins in nearly every sport.

Back in the early 2010s, JMU expanded its football stadium to its current capacity around 25,000, but was not the dominant force in football that it is today. They missed the playoffs in four of five seasons from 2009 to 2013.

Since that point, football and JMU’s athletic program as a whole have flourished, with two College Gameday appearances, a national championship in women’s lacrosse in 2018 and a trip to the Women’s College World Series semifinals this past spring that put the Dukes in the national spotlight.

JMU would form an eastern division with ODU, App State, Coastal, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Marshall. Georgia Southern (6), App State (3) and Marshall (2) combined for 11 FCS/I-AA national championships before moving to the FBS. JMU has two (2004, 2016) and could potentially win another this season before the move up.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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