After a nearly perfect season, the loss of a head coach, and the denial of bowl eligibility by the NCAA earlier this year, the JMU football team has defied the odds and is headed to play Air Force in the Armed Services Bowl in Dallas, Texas this coming Saturday.
While JMU wasn’t eligible for a bowl game, NCAA rules allow 2nd year-transitioning teams to play in a bowl game if there are not enough other teams with a 6-6 record. That happened this year, and JMU became one of two transitioning universities to snag the opportunity.
Associate Athletic Director for Communications and Strategic Initiatives Kevin Warner said that for the university, it’s an opportunity to show the country what JMU has to offer. With the game being played on a Saturday in the middle of the afternoon before a major holiday, more people will tune in and that will give JMU greater visibility.
“We earned a spot, but not only that, we earned a pretty good spot,” Warner said. “We got an attractive game on national television, two days before Christmas on a Saturday in the middle of the afternoon.”
The bowl game announcement followed the disappointing news that Head Coach Curt Cignetti resigned to take another head coach offer at Indiana, leaving the team without the leadership that led the team to an 11-1 record this year.
Warner said that while many on the team needed a little time to process Cignetti’s departure, they are excited to play together one more time on the national stage.
“I think with any change, especially as a young college-aged person, there’s the immediate trying to grasp what has happened,” Warner said. “You know, you have this great season, and suddenly in the flash of the eye, your coach is gone. There was a process to try and understand, but kids are also resilient. They flipped the switch pretty quick to get ready for the game.”
While acting coach Damian Wroblewski will lead JMU in the bowl game, newly hired Head Coach Bob Chesney will take the opportunity to evaluate the players and assess what is needed for next year.
“It’s a unique opportunity for the players to play for him and show him what they’ve got,” Warner said.
And so, a massive machine of people have spent the last few weeks booking tickets, scheduling activities, and gearing up for the bowl game that many thought would never happen.
“The football players, everyone in the athletics department – at the university even – are really excited,” Warner said.
JMU expects a large turnout of fans, including students, JMU staff, family members of the student-athletes, donors, and alumni, as well as President Jonathan Alger, Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne, and incoming Head Football Coach Bob Chesney.
Gearing up for the game of the year
Getting everyone to Texas is a big undertaking, and JMU staff have been working overtime since the announcement to make sure every detail is taken care of. In addition to the entire football team, organizers are sending the coaches, the cheerleaders, several employees in the athletics department, several members of the administration at JMU, the alumni association, and half of the JMU band.
“We have one of the largest bands in the country, which is great,” Warner said. “But when you think about moving one of the largest bands in the country, it’s significant.”
The team will travel on the 19th, and administrators will travel on the 20th. The band will travel on the 21st. Following the game on Saturday, they plan to get everyone on a plane home in time for Christmas Eve.
The alumni association will be tasked with planning events for alumni and donors over the weekend, of which there is a large contingent in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area.
Bowl games are usually a multi-day experience, according to Warner. There are usually days of activities surrounding the bowl game for the fans to take part.
The team will have a mix of practices to get ready for the game as well as fun activities like banquets and social activities. There will be a Ladies Day out for the coaches’ wives, a Kids Day Out for the coaches’ children, meet and greets for the band and the cheerleaders, and a pep rally on Friday night. Both Wroblewski and Chesney will address the crowd during the pep rally.
Warner said the bowl game is a celebration of student-athlete accomplishments – the culmination of a great season and a great team.
“The student-athletes have been through a lot with the coaching change, with the highs of a good season, getting a bowl game and then the coach leaving,” Warner said. “So, there are uncertainties about the future, but they get this one more game with this team, with their teammates, to celebrate a good season. I think that means a lot to them.”
The day after the bowl was announced, JMU held a meeting with around fifty employees to figure out how to move that many people in such a short time. Working with the administration, communications, ticketing office, donor relations, marketing, the alumni office, the band director, and various other stakeholders, they were able to mockup a plan to get everyone to Dallas.
While the school doesn’t participate much in games of this caliber, they are well-versed in the logistics of large-scale events.
“We do this all the time,” Warner said. “Our football games take a large amount of planning, so when something like this hits, we can put everything in motion.”
Who pays for what
Before JMU moved to the Sun Belt Conference, they played in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. During the FCS years, there was no financial windfall for universities.
“When you played on those playoffs, it was entirely your budget,” Warner said.
At the FBS level, the Sun Belt Conference provides a distribution for each of the schools that earn a bowl bid, which helps offset the cost of such an expensive undertaking.
“Ultimately it’s a reward for those schools who earn that opportunity,” Warner said. Airfare, hotels and per diem expenses are covered by the distribution.
Warner was not able to provide the exact amount that the university received from the Sun Belt Conference for expenses. He said that while the distribution is significant, it’s not enough to cover all of the costs. The university pays for the band as well as essential staff to travel.
Anyone else must pay for themselves to get there. The university provides tickets for the players for friends and family to attend the bowl game.
The band worked with the university budget office to see what the university could afford and how many band members could attend. At nearly 500 band members, JMU could not afford to send everyone. They opted to send half the band – about 285 members – and with good reason.
First, the band will have a big opportunity. University bands usually perform at the bowl halftime shows but must split the time with the other school’s band. However, because the Air Force does not have a marching band, JMU is allowed to perform the entire halftime show, giving them more opportunity to shine.
But Warner said that is a well-deserved trip for band members as well.
“As much as it is a reward for the football team, it‘s a reward for the band too,” Warner said. “They were there at the games, they have been a part of this experience and they should be there.”
The bowl also provides each university with a block of tickets that are then sold to the general public.
Saturday the 23rd – Game Day
For those who have a sudden desire to get to Texas, tickets to the game are still available. The stadium holds 50,000 fans, and while they don’t expect a sold-out game, they are anticipating a big crowd.
For those back in the ‘Burg, the game will be broadcast on Saturday afternoon on ABC at 3:30 PM. For those who don’t have cable, several spots around town will be hosting watch parties, including Sage Bird Ciderworks and Brothers Craft Brewing.
Warner said that the team is ready for Saturday’s big game.
“There was a lot of uncertainty all year long,” Warner said. “We knew we had a really good team. But there was never a guarantee that this game would happen by nature of the transfer rules. For all this team has been through, they are really excited to have this opportunity.”
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