Mickey Matthews, James Madison football still reveling in upset of Virginia Tech

By Mark Giannotto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 12:16 AM

HARRISONBURG, VA. - As usual, James Madison Coach Mickey Matthews was at Ham's Restaurant on Monday for his weekly media luncheon. The athletic department began holding these sessions back in 2007 as a way for fans to ask questions and interact with Matthews following a game.

But this Monday, less than 48 hours removed from the biggest victory in team history, the scene at Ham's was anything but normal. Harrisonburg resident Jack Hale, a retired teacher and a regular at these weekly interviews, said he'd never seen this many show up to talk with the coach, estimating there were three, maybe even four times the amount of people compared with a usual week.

When Matthews walked through the double doors of the sports bar, the packed restaurant went quiet for a moment. There was no need for an introduction; every patron simply rose up and gave their football coach a standing ovation.

These are unprecedented times in this college town of more than 40,000 nestled within the hills of the Shenandoah Valley, 130 miles southwest of Washington. Though the Dukes won a division I-AA national championship in 2004, Saturday's 21-16 upset of Virginia Tech, just the second time a division I-AA program had defeated a ranked I-A opponent, perhaps was more meaningful.

"The '04 guys will probably tell you [the national championship] was bigger, but for us to go down to Lane Stadium, I think it's huge," said Matthews, who called the win the biggest of his career. "The benchmark for football success in our state the last 10 or 15 years has been Coach Beamer and [Virginia] Tech. They set the mark for all of us, they dominate recruiting in the state."

Senior quarterback Drew Dudzik said a crowd of more than 500 greeted the Dukes when their bus returned to campus Saturday night. Some of those fans then broke into Bridgeforth Stadium, James Madison's home field, to celebrate some more.

Matthews said he could barely get his car out of the parking lot to drive home, equating the parties that took place on campus to Christmas morning.

"Obviously, we're all over the news and everything, so it's great for JMU," said Dudzik, a 2005 All-Met from Centreville High who scored the game-winning touchdown for the Dukes. "It's gonna do a lot for our program now and in the future. But we're not gonna get too cocky off this one game."

Dudzik admitted it was "perfect" that the Dukes have a bye this weekend and won't have to play again until Sept. 25 against Liberty, giving them plenty of time to come back down to earth.

But for Matthews, a west Texas native who served as an assistant under Jim Donnan at both Marshall and Georgia before arriving at James Madison, the win is particularly gratifying. With his job in jeopardy after going 21-24 during his first four seasons, tragedy struck twice in a seven-month span.

His son Clayton, a former James Madison wide receiver, was in two car accidents - in August 2003 and in April 2004 - breaking his neck both times. With his family in crisis, though, Matthews had his finest season in 2004, finishing with a 13-2 record and leading the Dukes to their first national championship.

Clayton is still paralyzed from the middle of his chest down, but his recovery has been remarkable. He's served as his father's wide receivers coach since 2006, a time when the Dukes have become one of the elite football programs in division I-AA.

"I was on the ropes in '02 and '03," said Matthews, who has a 59-20 record since 2004 and has more wins than any coach in program history. "But since then, we just got over the top. We won some close games and all of a sudden when we looked up, we had a championship season and we've been on a roll ever since."

Before the landmark victory Saturday, the program had already sold out its 16,000-seat stadium for the season. Offseason plans are in place to add 9,000 more seats, luxury suites and a new club level.

This week, James Madison received 11 votes in the division I-A Associated Press poll. Matthews said he thinks the top two or three teams from the Dukes' conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, would make bowl games if they were division I-A programs.

Meanwhile, Matthews's Texas twang and aw-shucks attitude have been on display in more than 50 interviews. But he worries about the negative effects of all this attention. He wonders how Saturday's win will affect future scheduling, since other division I-A foes will be wary of facing the Dukes.

But the novelty of it all has yet to wear off. While driving Monday morning, Matthews had his satellite radio tuned to a national sports-talk show. The host said they would be speaking with Mack Brown, Nick Saban and Mickey Matthews . . . from James Madison.

"That was the only way I knew he had it right," Matthews joked. "It was like, 'Whoa, now I'm hanging out with the national radio boys.' I nearly got in a wreck. That's just the way it's kind of been all day."

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