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Former JMU coach Mickey Matthews: It's time to bring back the old CAA

Former JMU coach Mickey Matthews: It's time to bring back the old CAA

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Mickey Matthews coached college football from 1978 to 2017 and was James Madison’s coach from 1999 to 2013. He led the Dukes to the 2004 FCS championship and most recently was a defensive assistant for the Dallas Renegades in the XFL. Matthews hopes one outcome of the coronavirus pandemic is a return to college athletic conferences aligning by geography. He shared his thoughts with The Times-Dispatch.

It is a vivid memory. Each May, the CAA would host a two-day meeting, usually in Boca Raton, Fla. (always a rough trip!) In attendance would be the athletic directors and the football and basketball head coaches of each school. It was always enjoyable. This one, in 2000, was different.

Richmond football coach Jim Reid and his AD, Jim Miller, were in their own world. They separated themselves from everyone else in attendance. Strange. I do not think I saw the usually affable Jim Reid smile the entire two days. When we returned to Virginia, everyone found out what all the secrecy was about.

Richmond was withdrawing from the CAA. Everyone — I mean everyone — was stunned! To this day I question the wisdom of this move. The rivalry between James Madison and Richmond — in all sports — was intense and a lot of fun! Coaches, athletes, both student bodies, fans … everyone had a great time.

My hope is that a byproduct of this pandemic situation is that we will come to our senses and revive the old CAA.

My observations:

1. Our administrators need to take bold action. UR, VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion should all rejoin the CAA in applicable sports.

2. The atmosphere at JMU when competing, especially at basketball games, was wonderful. It was a ton of fun to be in attendance. I’m sure this was true at the other campuses. Not to overstate the obvious, but a VCU-JMU game will always draw a larger audience than a VCU-Duquesne game. I’m sure the Richmond faithful are sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the St. Bonaventure game each year. Likewise for ODU-Florida International.

3. In my experience through more than 40 years in intercollegiate athletics, one fact has always been true: The best leagues are bus leagues.

Expansion, by and large, has been a financial disaster for college athletic department budgets. When much of the expansion happened about 10 years ago, I thought many of the moves were ludicrous. I still think so. We are fortunate to live in an area where there are ample institutions that can support a major conference in practically every sport. Many of our schools share a well-deserved reputation as excellent academic institutions. If everyone rejoined the CAA, missed class attendance would be at a minimum. Rivalries and fan attendance would go through the roof.

4. If ODU had stayed in the CAA, CAA Football would be the best FCS league in the country. If all the departed basketball schools had remained in the CAA, it would be a 2-3 bid league in the NCAA basketball tournament — just like the Atlantic 10 is now.

5. I have coached all levels. There is not much I haven’t seen. Colleges need to take a lesson from our high school friends. When two high schools in close proximity compete, there are large, enthusiastic crowds. This has nothing to do with the athletic ability of the participants. Everyone simply wants to beat their neighbors. While I was at JMU, the ODU games were terrific at both venues. The stands were packed, with lots of excitement! THIS IS NOT HARD!

6. Athletic departments are hemorrhaging money. The main cause of this is we are sending our athletic teams all over the country because of this expansion craziness. I’m sure missed class attendance is at an all-time high.

The Power 5 Conferences are not going to share the wealth — this is a reality. I coached at Coastal Carolina in the Sun Belt. Our football team had one thing in common with the other sports: we flew almost everywhere. How much do you think that costs?

Very few of the Group of 5 games draw a better attendance than most FCS games. The numbers just aren’t there. The Power 5 world is a closed fraternity. It is a pipe dream to think anyone is moving up. This will not happen!

7. Recognizing football is a different beast, I would recommend CAA Football have the following members:

  • William & Mary
  • Richmond
  • James Madison
  • Old Dominion
  • Villanova
  • Delaware
  • Elon
  • Towson

This is a bus league. My northern CAA friends will be upset with me, but present day economics are forcing this move. The SEC is by and large a bus league. When I was at Georgia, we bused to South Carolina, Auburn and Tennessee. Many schools in the SEC bus to their games, not only in football, but other sports as well. The ACC was primarily a bus league before they lost their minds and added Boston College and Syracuse.

I coached in the Big 8 (now Big 12) in the late 1970s at Kansas State. That league was and still is predominately a BUS league. We bused to Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. It probably would be difficult to bus to West Virginia from Manhattan, Kan., now. THIS IS NOT HARD!

8. In my opinion, we have simply lost our way. The A-10 is not the same basketball league it was when Xavier, Temple and Butler were members. It’s not. ODU is a poor fit in Conference USA. ODU has nothing, and I mean nothing, in common with its sister institutions. Also, ODU’s athletic program is losing millions every year. It takes a lot of money to send your athletic teams to UT-San Antonio and UT-El Paso.

On a side note concerning getting the CAA back, I would contact Charlotte and gauge their interest. I know for a fact they had an interest. One last thought on FBS football, unless you are a Power 5 Conference school, you will not receive a major bowl invitation. Ask SMU. They had their best record in 30 years (10-2). They were excited in Dallas and thought a big-time bowl invitation was on the way. The Mustangs wound up in the Boca Raton Bowl. This is the reality.

9. I would ask Villanova to join in most sports, obviously allowing them to keep their Big East basketball affiliation.

10. There are many institutions around the country that are re-evaluating their athletic programs. We do not need to start dropping sports, which limit opportunities for students. This is already happening, and I think it is a mistake.

Having many sports serves a strong purpose for a first-class institution. Compete against your neighbors. Our higher education leaders need to wake up. This pandemic could have a positive side effect. Our presidents and administrators need to understand three things: 1. Where we were. 2. What mistakes and decisions were made. 3. Let’s correct it. This is not hard!

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