The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

JMU moved to the top level of college football. It hasn’t stopped winning.

James Madison began the season with a blowout win over Middle Tennessee State in Harrisonburg, Va. (Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record via AP)

HARRISONBURG, Va. — The lampposts along Bluestone Drive, which curls around the happiest of happy places on fall Saturdays at James Madison University — Bridgeforth Stadium — are adorned with alternating banners. Every other one says “JMU,” in purple and gold, a message both old and obvious. In between are those bearing “SBC,” which represents a whole new world.

Those letters stand for Sun Belt Conference, in which the Dukes are competing for the first time this fall. What they might as well say is “FBS” because James Madison is now rubbing elbows with college football’s most successful programs, bringing both unbridled optimism and unabashedly brash goals.

“I think we can be a force at this level,” fourth-year coach Curt Cignetti said. “Our goal is to play in that College Football Playoff.”

That sounds ludicrous. It is not. But deep breaths. How did we get here?

Through the years and with several coaches, the Dukes have been a force in the Football Championship Subdivision — the old Division I-AA. They won national championships in 2004 and ’16. They reached the national title game in 2017 and ’19. They had made the playoffs for eight straight years. They won the Colonial Athletic Association title six times in the past seven seasons.

And last November, they announced they would leave all of that — the familiarity, the tradition, the success — behind.

Middle Tennessee. James Madison. How lesser-known teams do enchant us.

“Maybe we found ourselves in a position — I’m not going to call it complacency — but after a while, once you’ve been to the championship game so many times, there’s a certain thought that grows inside you,” said Jeff Bourne, in the midst of his 24th year as JMU’s athletic director. “Is there something more? Is there something different that we could be doing that would allow us a different opportunity but something that would be very meaningful for our program?”

That something, Bourne and Cignetti believe, is the Sun Belt Conference. That something, by extension, is the Football Bowl Subdivision. It is a bold bet that would seem to depart from a tradition that was established and comfortable. Think about how the Dukes used to lure players to this beautiful little slice of the world in the Shenandoah Valley.

“One of our recruiting pitches was: There’s only five places in the country you can compete for a national championship year-in and year-out,” Cignetti said. “Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, North Dakota State — and JMU.”

Suddenly, JMU isn’t competing with North Dakota State, Montana and Montana State as a traditional FCS power. Suddenly, its coach is thinking, “Look, if they’re going to expand the playoff field to 12, I got to believe there’s going to be a sixth spot for the highest-ranked non-Power Five school.”

Why not us?

“The culture is such here, the expectation level, these kids believe they’re going to win every time they go out,” Cignetti said. “They just do. That’s how they are. That really hasn’t changed.”

So far, the results haven’t changed, either. JMU opened with a 44-7 pasting of Middle Tennessee State, a result that looks even more impressive after MTSU beat Miami last weekend.

The Dukes followed by beating Norfolk State, 63-7. After a week off, they traveled to Boone, N.C., to face Appalachian State. The same App State team that had taken North Carolina to the final play earlier in the season. The same App State team that went to College Station, Tex., and beat Texas A&M.

“It was a monumental game for our team,” Cignetti said.

And in the second quarter, the Dukes trailed 28-3.

“Whooo,” Cignetti said. “That’s not a good spot to be in against anybody — home, away or particularly the reigning [division] champion on the road.”

Except in so many ways, this is exactly where the Dukes felt they fit. Bourne and the JMU administration had been thinking about a move to FBS as far back as 15 years. In 2012, they commissioned a study to weigh how feasible such a move might be. In the meantime, some schools JMU considers its peers — Appalachian State and Old Dominion among them — made the jump. To remain with like-minded, similarly sized, football-playing schools, Bourne felt the move was inevitable. But he didn’t want to go before the Dukes were ready.

“I watched too many teams come into FBS football that were ill-prepared when they went in, on a number of fronts,” Bourne said. “They didn’t have the facilities. They didn’t have the infrastructure. And they struggled for a long time to try to get caught up to institutions that were already there.”

Saturday’s game showed the Dukes made the move at an appropriate time. In his Friday meeting with his team, Cignetti read a quote from Gandhi: “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” Down 28-3, the Dukes had to draw on just that.

Late in the first half, new quarterback Todd Centeio found freshman running back Kaelon Black for a touchdown that served as a tourniquet. At halftime, Cignetti reminded his players: “There’s a standard here.”

“There’s ex-players from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s that built this program into what it is today,” the coach told the Dukes. “Now you go out in the second half and make them proud.”

In the fourth quarter, sophomore linebacker Jailin Walker intercepted a pass deep in Mountaineer territory. Two plays later, Black plunged in for the touchdown that gave the Dukes a 32-28 lead. They were playing at a different level. They got the same result.

“It was euphoric,” Cignetti said.

He is 61, the son of Frank Cignetti Sr., the former coach at West Virginia who died this month. His brother, Frank Jr., is the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh. In third grade, Curt was on the sidelines in Morgantown, knowing he wanted to be a coach. He was on Nick Saban’s first staff at Alabama, became the coach at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania and moved on to Elon, where he coached a team that won at James Madison. He sees the world in X’s and O’s, often before dawn.

“Football is my life,” he said. “Football and family.”

So he knows what a significant win feels like. More than that, he knows it means nothing with Texas State coming here Saturday. The Dukes received 11 votes in the USA Today Coaches poll — more than LSU or Notre Dame. That’s a snapshot from the first season in FBS. Bourne believes going .500 in this first fall would be an accomplishment. There will be bumps ahead. But there is also belief in this move that goes well beyond a single game or a single season.

“I think this place has unlimited potential,” Cignetti said.

His team is getting others to believe, too.

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