Image credit: JMU Sports YouTube account.
There’s no doubt Mike Houston is the right person to lead JMU football. With that being said, former head coach Everett Withers deserves credit for the success of the JMU program the past few years.
While Withers has been leading a less than stellar Texas State team, his former recruits have been showing out in Harrisonburg. The Dukes are 28-2 under Houston with two CAA titles and one national championship. I don’t believe they would’ve reached this level of success under Withers, but that doesn’t mean the former Ohio State defensive coordinator doesn’t deserve at least a little credit.
It’s easy to take jabs at Texas State’s record, but instead, let’s overview seven ways JMU still feels Everett Withers’ impact.
7. Reengaged fan base
After a few mediocre years, especially offensively, under Mickey Matthews, the JMU fanbase was ready for a change. In 2013, Matthews’ last season, the Dukes dropped their final three games to miss the playoffs and finish 6-6 overall. This came one season after dropping their final two games to go 7-4 and fall short of the postseason. Enter Everett.
Withers came to JMU and immediately added a jolt to the program. After starting 2-3 in 2014, the Dukes reeled off seven consecutive victories behind Vad Lee before succumbing to Liberty 26-21 in a home playoff game they could’ve (and maybe should’ve) won. The next season brought ESPN’s “College GameDay,” nine more wins and a playoff bye before falling to Colgate in another game the Dukes had opportunities to win.
6. Added swagger
Withers coached, and recruited, some confident dudes. When I think of the Withers era I think of the freshman version of Jimmy Moreland and guys like Vad Lee, Domo Taylor, Rashad Robinson, Trai Sharp and Bryan Schor. Withers added talented players with tons of confidence. Not only did Withers bring out the best in returning players, but he brought the best out of many returning players, especially those on the offensive side of the ball.
Add in the 45,879,617 new uniforms the team added under Withers, and the team’s swagger took a noticeable jump forward. While I’m sure fans would’ve traded playoff wins for new helmets, those additions do, and did, play a role in recruiting.
Not sold on the moxie of these players? Watch these videos.
5. Offensive explosion
In 2013, an average JMU offense trotted onto the field every week. In 2014, a Vad-Lee led offense improved each week, and became a formidable force. In 2015, the offense became elite. The numbers tell the story.
Touchdowns – 44
Total yards – 4,884
Points per game – 28.25
Touchdowns – 60
Total yards – 6,300
Points per game – 35.69
Touchdowns – 71
Total yards – 6,345
Points per game – 44.25
JMU’s 2014-15 teams were the original creators of #PartyInTheEndZone.
4. Improved recruiting
I’ll start this by saying Mickey Matthews brought incredible talent to JMU. This isn’t meant as a comparison of those two coaches, but rather an explanation as to why Withers deserves credit for JMU’s current success.
He brought in guys like Rashad Robinson, Bryan Schor, Vad Lee and Riley Stapleton just to name a few. He wasn’t a perfect coach, but his abilities as a recruiter put him in an elite field among FCS coaches. Some of these recruits are All-American caliber players heading into the 2018 season.
3. “College GameDay”
Lee and Withers both contributed tremendously to ESPN’s “College GameDay’s” 2015 appearance in the ‘Burg. Withers had ties to Urban Meyer’s coaching tree and helped put the Dukes at 7-0 heading into the highly-anticipated showdown with Richmond. GameDay helped put the team on the national radar, and Withers is a big reason why the show came to Harrisonburg.
2. Vad Lee
Thanks to ties to Lee during the quarterback’s high school recruiting process, Withers drew the star quarterback to Harrisonburg after the gunslinger grew tired of running the triple option at Georgia Tech. This ignited JMU’s fast rise to national prominence.
Imagine if Lee doesn’t get injured in 2015. Yes, the defense was subpar. Yes, the team probably still would’ve fallen to Richmond. On the flip side, with Lee, JMU has a good chance of beating William & Mary and entering the postseason with a single loss and a bye. Colgate played a great playoff game, especially in the opening possessions, but I don’t think there’s an FCS expert that thinks the Dukes would’ve lost to Colgate with Lee at quarterback.
The next week, JMU would’ve hosted an unseeded Sam Houston State team in what would’ve likely been a shootout. Most don’t remember it, but the weather in Harrisonburg for that potential December game was 60 degrees and sunny. Perfect for a high-octane offense like JMU’s to excel. The ideal weather also entices more fans to attend the game.
While the Bearkats had plenty of firepower in their own right, I like JMU winning a home shootout with Lee running the show. The Dukes would’ve then traveled to top-seeded Jacksonville State and faced North Dakota State in the title game, assuming a win over the Gamecocks. JMU wouldn’t have won the whole thing with those two programs in its way, but an FCS Semifinal appearance looks good on the resume and puts the Dukes a defense away from seriously contending for a title.
Obviously, Lee did get hurt and the scenario played out differently, but it’s unfair to say Withers failed expectations in 2015 when he lost arguably the nation’s best player.
If you don’t remember the extent of Vad’s greatness, watch this.
Lee helped put JMU back on the national radar, and Withers brought Lee to the Friendly City.
1. Setting the stage
JMU’s defense struggled under Withers. The team allowed over 400 yards per game and roughly 28 points per game in both seasons with the defensive-minded coach at the helm. There’s no doubt the team needed to improve defensively in coming seasons to compete for national titles.
Mike Houston fixed the defense. He changed the locker room culture. He kept an explosive spread offense. He won a national title. There’s no debating Houston’s value to the JMU program. Withers also deserves credit. He provided a jolt of energy to a frustrated fanbase, brought Vad to Harrisonburg and lead the team to 18 wins in two seasons.
Houston is a perfect fit for JMU, but as days, weeks and months turn into years, let’s not forget the impact Withers had on JMU’s program. He set the stage for Houston to take the wheel and quickly turn the Dukes into a national power.
While many saw flaws in JMU’s 2015 team, the Dukes entered the postseason as the No. 5 seed. Withers built a team ready to be molded into a title contender. Houston did that and more.
Abrasive or not, Withers helped JMU’s program tremendously and deserves at least a little credit for the current state of the program.