Sun Belt

How The CAA Prepared James Madison Football & Basketball

How The CAA Prepared James Madison Football & Basketball

James Madison's rise from Div. III football program to undefeated in the FBS was fueled in the wildly competitive Coastal Athletic Association.

Nov 8, 2023 by Kyle Kensing

The release of the second College Football Playoff rankings of the 2023 season promise to spark plenty of controversy among the sport's fans, but not for the placement of usual suspects like Ohio State, Michigan or Georgia. Rather, James Madison's exclusion from the Top 25 may be the most hot-button topic. 

James Madison's undefeated football team ranks among the most intriguing stories in college sports in November 2023 — right alongside James Madison men's basketball, which opened the 2023-24 season handing Michigan State its only November home loss in Tom Izzo's illustrious tenure as head coach. 

The Dukes' current place in the spotlight is part of a long and impressive history that blossomed from its lengthy tenure in the Coastal Athletic Association. 

James Madison Football Becomes A Perennial Power 

Few currently successful programs anywhere in Div. I football have more modest origins than James Madison. Launching as a Div. III program in 1972, the Dukes spent their first nine seasons playing non-scholarship ball. 

Coach Challace McMillin led the transition into Div. I and the Dukes' first-ever appearance in the NCAA Div. I-AA Playoffs before Joe Purzycki coached another couple of playoff teams. But it wasn't until James Madison joined the Yankee Conference, the forerunner to CAA football, that the program really took off. 

In 1994, their second season of Yankee Conference membership, the Dukes advanced to the NCAA Div. I-AA quarterfinals and won 10 games for the first time in program history. It was the first of 16 playoff appearances carrying the league banner, two of which culminated in national championships. 

Tough Leagues Build Tough Teams

Though James Madison enjoyed its best season to date its second year in the Yankee Conference, setting the foundation for its regular title contention in the iterations of the league that became the CAA, the Dukes didn't finish with the Yankee Conference's best mark: That distinction belonged to New Hampshire. 

And, in fact, this was a recurring theme over James Madison's time in the Yankee/Atlantic 10 Conferences and later the CAA. 

When the 2004 Dukes won the NCAA championship, they split the A-10 title three-ways with in-state rival William & Mary and league stalwart Delaware. 

James Madison didn't win its first outright conference until 2008, the second year after the Atlantic 10 evolved into the CAA. The 2008 campaign isn't memorable for the Dukes claiming the CAA crown — it's for Richmond winning the national championship. 

The Spiders' national title in 2008 was the first of two consecutive CAA-claimed championships, with legendary Villanova coach Andy Talley putting the ultimate highlight on his impressive career resume in 2009. 

CAA teams played in five consecutive National Championship Games from 2006 through 2010: UMass, Delaware (twice, 2007 and 2010), Richmond and Villanova. 

Going back to Delaware's national championship in 2003 and James Madison's in 2004 and adding Towson's run in 2013, the CAA produced title-game teams in 8-of-11 seasons. More impressive still, six different programs advanced to the Championship Game. 

Competing in the CAA for James Madison was analogous with competing nationally, and success at the pinnacle of FCS provided the springboard for the Dukes' move to FBS. 

Meanwhile, as James Madison surges to a likely perfect record and unofficial yet undeniably outright Sun Belt Conference regular-season title, it's worth nothing the Dukes shared the CAA crown in their final season before reclassifying. 

A 28-27 loss in an instant classic with Villanova split the conference's 2021 championship. 


A Lasting CAA Impression

Curt Cignetti is at the forefront of James Madison's current FBS prominence, marking another impressive milestone in what has been a meteoric rise. Cignetti is among an exclusive fraternity of currently successful FBS coaches with standout Div. II coaching resumes, along with such noteworthy names as LSU's Brian Kelly and New Mexico State's Jerry Kill

Inside The Rise Of Curt Cignetti

Cignetti perhaps won the JMU head-coaching job with his brief but winning run at Elon, headlined by a Phoenix defeat of the Dukes in 2018. 

That game is noteworthy for the current state of the CAA. There's predictably plenty of names on the 2023 Dukes roster who previously shined in the CAA, including one who did so at another program — running back Ty Son Lawton, a former Stony Brook star — as well as a budding playmaker on the 2019 national runner-up team who is now the national FBS sacks leader, Jalen Green. 

On the flipside, Cignetti's departure from Elon resulted in the promotion of Tony Trisciani to head coach. Trisciani has established Elon as a yearly challenger in the CAA, with the 2023 Phoenix heading down the stretch vying for a first-ever league championship. 

Elevating SBC Basketball

While Dukes football flourishes in the FBS, James Madison basketball's upset of Michigan State scored a huge win for the profile of Sun Belt basketball. 

CAA basketball has long been stronger than the SBC. Producing two Final Four teams in the last 17 years is a testament to the CAA's hardwood prowess, and the breakthrough of College of Charleston into the 2022-23 Top 25 continued the league's basketball tradition. 

JMU was, for the better part of its CAA tenure, an also-ran in basketball. However, the hire of Mark Byington — himself a former College of Charleston coach — elevated the Dukes' immediately at the tail-end of their CAA tenure. 

The 2020-21 regular-season co-championship shared with Northeastern was a high point for Dukes basketball, and foreshadowed James Madison's impending contending for the Sun Belt title. 

It also gave Byington some firsthand familiarity on how to beat a Tyson Walker-led team: JMU knocked off the current Michigan State star before when he was at Northeastern. 


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