My ancestral team, West Virginia, shares a complicated relationship with success. It's the FBS program with the most wins all-time... but only out of schools who have never won a National Championship. It's a maddening compromise between unfettered success and sustained irrelevance.
My high school team? Thomas Dale is a historic program in the state of Virginia, but during my tenure there, they were a nobody. I graduated on June 4, 2009, and six months later, they won the 6A State Championship.
Clearly, they were freed of an incredible burden -- my presence. However, as any Physics nerd could tell you, energy can never be created or destroyed; it can only be transferred. (Editor's note: Chase Kiddy knows almost nothing about Physics.)
So on October 10, 2009, during my first game in BFS, it was merely the hand of fate that reached in and knocked the football loose from redshirt freshman Justin Thorpe's hand, as he rushed up the middle on the opponent's 6-yard line with less than a minute to play in regulation. The then-No. 13 Dukes would lose that game, 21-17, and drop to 2-3 on the year.
The opponent? The defending National Champion, No. 1 Richmond Spiders.
You know what happened next... or, more aptly, maybe you don't. One year removed from the National semifinals, JMU would finish the 2009 season out of the FCS polls with a 6-5 ranking, completely irrelevant and wholly forgettable.
A year later, the 2010 Dukes notched a feel-good win over Virginia Tech. That win will always have value as it echoes throughout time, an important parable against scheduling Monday night games -- regardless of who your next opponent is.
But another way to look at that season is that it took an upset of hugely historic proportions for JMU to avoid a losing record on the season. For the second year in a row, the Dukes finished 6-5, out of the Top 25, and way, way out of the playoff picture.
When you take out the Virginia Tech win, the final five years of the Mickey Matthews' era of football is completely defined by heartbreak and missed expectations. Thorpe's fumble comes to my mind, as it was my first big game in Bridgeforth Stadium. But you can't leave out the 2OT Maine game in 2011, the second half vs ODU in 2012, or the inexplicable Stony Brook debacle of 2013. There was the frustration of an offense that switched identity almost at will, sometimes even mid-drive. There was getting beat out for a playoff bid by a directional school in Kentucky. There was the sudden loss of interest by large percentages of the student body. And don't get me started on realignment.
As Matthews slouched away from the program just a few short months ago, his legacy marred by mediocrity, we needed a new era. To paraphrase Patrick Stewart's Professor X in Days of Future Past, "Please... We need you to hope again."
What JMU got wasn't Everett Withers. What it got was hope.
Withers took a Georgia Tech transfer and a handful of pass rushing pieces and turned them into a team to be reckoned with in FCS football in 2015. JMU, slotted to finish eighth in the CAA this past season, shocked the nation by hanging with Villanova in September, blowing the doors off a good UR squad, and crashing the playoff party, finishing third in what is still the best conference in FCS. (I don't buy this 'Iron sharpens Iron' shit for the Missouri Valley. NDSU is a good team, but the MVC is the beneficiary of the most consistent program on this level, and not the other way around.)
Optimism is running at it's highest in Harrisonburg since September 12, 2010. That's a direct result of the changing of the guard. Credit Bourne and his staff for making the change -- I vividly remember wondering aloud, in a very public forum, if dumping Matthews was the right move. "Coach Matthews deserves the trust of his fan base," I wrote. "I'm not a believer in National Championships buying free rides, but there just isn't enough here to trade Coach Matthews for someone who will only treat JMU as a stepping stone."
Withers may indeed one day forfeit his right to coach JMU's football team and bail for bigger, greener pastures. But for now, the fan base can exhale. Sure, there have been miscues. Withers had his share of Andy Reid-esque blunders, mismanaging timeouts and leaving some points on the board. There's been a fair amount of Monday Morning Quarterbacking, speculation -- particularly after the the Liberty game -- that if we had taken the points here, or gone for it there, or not run Iso in that spot, that JMU might have had an even more memorable season. All that is normal for a freshman head coach. It won't all go away, but it will at least get better with time. Players need reps to get better; coaches are no different.
Liberty was a hard loss to swallow, particularly because of the haughty nature of their fan base and its geographic proximity to Harrisonburg. But don't for a moment mistake the Flames for a bad team. They beat JMU at the line of scrimmage, they found holes when the Dukes played too soft of a zone, and they went on a behemoth of a drive (11 minutes!) to win the game in the fourth quarter. At the end of the day, one quarter of JMU's best football wasn't better than three quarters of LU's best football. Liberty was a good team playing its best ball at the right time, and I can't wait for the rematch next year.
And it's been a while since a fan could say that. It's been too long since a fan could look forward, months into the future, and circle a game on their calendar. It's been a while since I've had this much fun tailgating, hanging out with Officer Conley in Upper Convo and downing too much vodka out of the trunk of a friend's car.
I can't wait to see what new wonders the #EverettEffect elicits as we go forward. But mark me down for predicting this much: Record Season Ticket numbers for 2015; an uptick in Donations over the next fiscal year; a top-3 preseason ranking for JMU in the CAA; a Top 25 Recruiting Class after National Signing Day.
And hope. It's immeasurable, but there's plenty of it to go around.