James Madison University: An Athletics Model That Works

JMU News
James Madison Athletics: Guest Commentary
James Madison University: An Athletics Model That Works
By JONATHAN R. ALGER President Of James Madison University
As published Dec. 12, 2023 in The Daily News-Record

The rapid evolution of intercollegiate athletics can be challenging to navigate. The narrative in the media and public sector tends to focus on financial challenges and opportunities in a context that seems more and more like professional sports, often overlooking the educational mission with which I believe it must always be aligned. I currently serve on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for this very reason: to ensure that we maintain a focus on student-athlete well-being and success both on and off the field/court.

While it is true that intercollegiate athletics faces challenges and uncertainty in a complex legal and social landscape, as a university president I continue to be guided by the belief that strong varsity sports programs can actually support and even enhance the educational experience. At JMU, we have built a vibrant and nationally recognized athletics program that mirrors the recent recognition of our institution as a national research university—one that continues to emphasize the quality of teaching and a well-rounded student experience. Our athletics program has created opportunities not just for student-athletes, but also for groups such as the Marching Royal Dukes (one of the largest and best marching bands in the US) and for students studying sports medicine and related disciplines. It has also contributed mightily to school spirit, brand awareness in a crowded higher education marketplace, and community pride.

As our athletic director, Jeff Bourne, recently penned in a Bourne Dialogue piece on JMUSports.com, the accomplishments of our athletics program have been remarkable this fall. We’re one of only a handful of schools in the country with both its football and men’s basketball programs ranked in the AP Top 25. We’re the only school to have men’s soccer, women’s soccer and volleyball qualify for the NCAA Tournament while also placing football in a bowl game. And JMU is the only non-Power Five program to host ESPN’s College GameDay three times—which, by the way, delivered the show’s largest crowd in its history at 26,000. Jeff thoroughly outlines more accomplishments in his story.

These accomplishments don’t just happen; they are the result of strategic planning and investment over a long period of time. JMU’s success in moving to the Sun Belt Conference and its reclassification to FBS football have been unprecedented. Our university has planned for such a move for over a decade, and the results are a byproduct of these strategic efforts and support from across the institution. It’s important to note that while our football transition has garnered national attention, all of our sport programs have achieved at a high level—both men’s and women’s teams. It’s a model that has worked at JMU and one to which we are committed long term.

Certainly, our coaches and athletics staff are to be commended for these achievements. JMU has set itself apart, however, by ensuring that these accomplishments are grounded in academic success and the educational mission.

For the second year in a row, JMU collected the Sun Belt’s top academic award for excellence across its entire athletics program. Our student-athlete population has an excellent overall grade-point average and consistently high graduation rates. We have support staff and mechanisms in place to prioritize this success, as well as a leadership development program that prepares student-athletes for success in life after sport.

The university’s rising national profile has been grounded in academic achievements. External sponsored program funding has increased 92% since 2019. Faculty and students are conducting cutting-edge research that directly addresses societal problems. New research centers are being created, and faculty and students are winning prestigious international fellowships and awards. And at a time when demographics are changing and there are fewer college-bound high school graduates in many states, application numbers are at record highs.

These pieces all fit together. Regardless of competitive achievements and countless memories, the core takeaway from being a student-athlete is a degree and the unique academic experience on campus. Under the surface lie all the intangibles also gained from the athletics experience: teamwork, time management, organization, communication, goal-setting, handling adversity, sportsmanship, representing an organization, and more. These are the same skill sets that employers want in all college graduates, and that are critical for success in careers and in life.

Our student-athletes have been through a lot over the last few weeks, particularly in football. They’ve finished atop the Sun Belt East for the second year in a row, waited anxiously for our first-ever bowl opportunity, said goodbye to a head coach who was hired by a Power 5 institution with a much larger budget, began preparing for the Armed Forces Bowl against the Air Force Academy, and welcomed our new head coach, Bob Chesney. And of course, they are also finishing another academic semester and in the midst of final exams too. JMU’s leadership has supported and stood by them every step of the way to ensure that they have the opportunities for which they have worked so diligently.

As we turn to this next chapter, we’re grateful to Coach Curt Cignetti and his staff and now excitedly welcome Coach Chesney. He comes from a strong academic background and institution and cares deeply about the educational priorities outlined here. He also has a heart for community engagement and relationship-building, which are cornerstones of JMU’s strategic plan.

Coach Chesney will be a great fit for our university and community, and is already hard at work uplifting our resilient student-athletes.

Attracting superb students (including student-athletes), coaches, faculty and staff to JMU is made possible not only by the educational environment we have fostered on campus, but also by the exceptional community of which we are a part. Harrisonburg and Rockingham County provide a warm and welcoming setting of which people immediately take notice when they visit. That’s why we get such a high yield when prospective students, faculty and staff visit here in person. We deeply appreciate the support of the community around us, and hope to bring home a win in this first-ever bowl game. May it be a reminder, though, that the best is yet to come for our students, our institution, and our entire community. Go Dukes!

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Published: Thursday, December 14, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2024

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