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Five-a-Side: James Madison's Mickey Matthews

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - As head coach Mickey Matthews laments what could have been with James Madison football last season, one number stands out amid all the statistics.

Matthews says his players had 33 surgeries last season.

"That has to be an NCAA record," he laughs.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda ... that was JMU's season.

The Dukes reveled over their amazing upset at Virginia Tech last September only to lose five of the first six games on their CAA Football schedule. They won their final two games to wrap up a second straight 6-5 campaign, but that's not what Matthews is accustomed to considering he led the program to the 2004 FCS (then NCAA Division I-AA) national championship and as recently as 2008 saw it finish 9-0 in conference play.


Mickey Matthews is the only two-time winner of the Eddie Robinson Award.
With a healthier team, including the return of quarterback and 2009 CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Thorpe from the merry-go-around of injuries, JMU expects to have a much better season and light up the renovated, 25,000-seat Bridgeforth Stadium that is now envied across the FCS.

His Dukes return 17 starters and were selected second in the CAA's preseason poll.

This season marks the 25th anniversary of the Eddie Robinson Award, which The Sports Network presents to the national coach of the year and is sponsored by Fathead.com. Matthews is the only two-time winner of the award.

In Five-a-Side - In the FCS Huddle's monthly feature of "five questions, five answers" with an influential person in the FCS - Matthews discusses the season ahead as well as being the only two-time winner of the Eddie Robinson Award.

Let's kick off:

Question: What will it take to improve on last season?

MM: The last two years we've had the best football teams we've ever had at James Madison. We just have been so bad on offense, and particularly bad at quarterback. We have had very poor quarterback play; we've turned a 9-2 football team into a 6-5 team. We've had very good defensive statistics. If we have had good offenses, there's no telling what our statistics would have been. Because really in '08, when we went to the (national) semifinals, we were average at best on defense, we just had a tremendous offensive football team.

"I've said many times, if you're going to win the thing, you have to be good in all three areas (offense, defense and special teams)."

Question: Coach, you've been open about some of the offensive shortcomings. What have you seen this offseason from your coaches and players that they're taking it on their own to change that?

MM: I asked Coach (Bear) Bryant one time after a game when they didn't play real well, 'Was there some dissention in the locker room?' And he said, 'Well, if there's not, I'm gonna cause some.' There better be at our place as poor as we were on offense. What I did is I took the play-calling duties away from Coach (Jeff) Durden (JMU's offensive coordinator). I'm going to assume the calling of the plays and the coaching of the quarterbacks.

"There were some things that were out of (Durden's) control, but, at the same time, I thought we needed to change directions in terms of our play-calling. I feel good with what we did. Now that I've been into it for six months, I'm really glad I did it.

"We need to continue to play the defense that we've been playing, which we think we are. And we need to get a lot better on offense in a hurry.

Question: Would you consider the CAA almost very similar to the SEC on the FCS level?

MM: I think it even dominates FCS football more than the SEC dominates because like last year the third week of the season, you'd look up and like six of the top 10 teams (in the FCS) are all in our league. You don't see six SEC teams in the top 10. So it really dominates it more than the SEC. I've said it before, I think we need to take six teams out of our league into the (playoffs). I think that's how good our league is. There are that many good football teams. When you talk to NFL scouts when they go watch everyone practice in our league, they feel very much that we have Conference USA-type players.

Question: Considering the depth then in your league, is the second-place prediction warranted with the team coming back?

MM: Oh, I don't know that. We have a lot of kids returning. We thought this last year that our of our top 30 players, we had about 25, 26 of them returning from last year's team. But the big problem we have is at quarterback. If we had a top quarterback coming back, we'd be picked to win it all. We've got to do something at quarterback.

Question: Coach, this is the 25th anniversary for the Eddie Robinson Award and you're the only two-time winner. What does that mean to you?

MM: You know, I'm old enough to remember segregation, and I knew what a tremendous football coach he was and he was very well known and popular in Texas and Louisiana football circles when I was a kid. The word I would use is it's very humbling to be mentioned in the breath as Eddie Robinson. I've been fortunate to win it twice. We've had some great players and God's been very good to us.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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