McFeely: Persistence key to James Madison scheduling FBS teams; NDSU can only wait
FARGO — If James Madison of the Football Championship Subdivision has a secret sauce for scheduling an FBS opponent, the Dukes aren't sharing. After announcing it had secured a 2022 contest with Louisville of the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with a tidy paycheck for $600,000, the school turned down a request from me to interview Kevin White, the associate athletic director of sports programs who handles football scheduling.
An athletic department spokesman said JMU prefers to all things scheduling close to the vest.
I made the request to chat with White for the sole purpose of asking one question, partially seriously but mostly tongue-in-cheek: How in the name of our Founding Fathers did you get a legit high-level team to schedule you, because apparently our local school in Fargo can't get most teams to even return phone calls?
It's the curse of being highly successful in FCS, according to North Dakota State. The Bison have defeated six straight FBS teams, including teams from Power Five conferences like the Big Ten and Big 12. They won at top-25 Kansas State and top-10 Iowa. They've won six of the last seven FCS national titles. James Madison, we've been told, is running into the same problems. The Dukes have won a couple of FBS games, won the FCS championship after the 2016 season and finished second to NDSU last season.
Nobody in FBS is supposed to want to play NDSU and James Madison because the lower-level team might win, thereby embarrassing the higher-level team that's writing the big check.
Yet the Dukes convinced—tricked?—Louisville into a game and now they have a nice slate of FBS games over the next several seasons.
"It has taken persistence," assistant athletic director for communications Kevin Warner said in offering an on-the-record comment. "We've been told 'no' many times and have to keep trying. We face many of the same challenges that I'm sure NDSU does: When you establish that you can compete with FBS programs, they are more hesitant to schedule you. We also try to keep our FBS games within a reasonable distance and are fortunate to have a number of possible opponents within a few hours' drive."
Well, that doesn't help much. Does White have a personal connection to Louisville? Is he just that darn charming? Did they reach some other deals involving other sports? Did he tell the Cardinals that Mike Houston likely won't still be the Dukes' coach in 2022? Did he bribe them? Does he have incriminating photos of somebody? Did he make a deal with the devil?
What's the trick?!
James Madison will play at North Carolina State ($425,000 payout) in the season-opener this year. The Dukes have West Virginia to open 2019 ($550,000) and will play at North Carolina in 2020 ($500,000). JMU is still looking for an FBS opponent for 2021.
White did give an interview to James Madison beat writer Greg Mada of the hometown Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va., following the Louisville news. He stressed the importance of finding FBS opponents close to home and said Dukes coach Mike Houston was very supportive of the Louisville game.
"This whole scheduling thing, it's moving all the time," White told Madia. "So I've got some holes to fill and hopefully I'll get on it over the next month to make an inroad or two to find another game and put the puzzle together. But Louisville is a great game for us on a lot of fronts and we're excited."
It's not like NDSU doesn't have any FBS games scheduled. In fact, the Bison have three on future schedules compared the four James Madison has. But the Bison last played an FBS team in 2016 (a 23-21 NDSU victory at Iowa) and don't have another scheduled until 2020 when they play at Oregon. They also are scheduled to play at Arizona in 2022 and at Colorado in 2024. That means NDSU won't play an FBS game for three straight years and, if the scheduling shutout continues, will miss five of eight seasons.
The games the Bison are able to schedule are also farther away than Big Ten and Big 12 opponents, so not only will their fans not have an FBS game to enjoy for most years they will also have to travel farther to attend those that are on the docket.
As big of an issue is the financials. NDSU is missing out on big paydays during a time (paying athletes for the cost of attendance, rising cost of college, increasing coaches' pay) when every dollar counts. Bison football is still among the wealthiest programs in FCS, and will remain so, but James Madison will be banking a total of $975,000 this year and next while NDSU won't get similar checks.
To counter, NDSU has seven home games this year instead of the usual six and in 2019 the Bison will play Butler at Target Field in Minneapolis, which they'll presumably make a few extra dollars from.
But as long as the Bison continue to dominate FCS—and it looks like this season's team has a good chance of challenging for another national title—getting big-boy opponents on the schedule will be difficult.
That's why I wanted to chat with White, to find out his secrets. James Madison isn't willing to hand them out. Maybe it's time to break out the Groucho mustache and glasses and book a flight to Harrisonburg.