JMU to join Sun Belt in June, will compete in fall sports


Courtesy of James Madison Athletics

The No. 1 Mountaineers fell 35-32 in their last meeting with the Dukes in 2008.

Zach Smith, Reporter

James Madison University will join the Sun Belt Conference July 1, the university and the conference announced in a joint press conference Wednesday morning. This news follows a Nov. 6 announcement that JMU will join no later than July 1, 2023. The move marks the first new addition to the Sun Belt since Coastal Carolina joined in July 2016.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to have that timetable accelerated,” said Keith Gill, Sun Belt conference commissioner. “We’re just through the moon that we can have JMU be a full member of our conference a year sooner than we thought.”

James Madison moves to the Sun Belt from its former FCS conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, and looks to have a successful transition into the Sun Belt. App State similarly jumped from the Southern Conference of the FCS in 2014. The Mountaineers have appeared in all but one conference championship football game and had success in other sports such as basketball, where they won the men’s conference championship in the 2020-21 season. Gill compared JMU’s move to other successful, recent transitions in the Sun Belt.

“I think it’s really important to know that the Sun Belt has a great track record of FBS transitions, so think App State, Georgia Southern, think Coastal Carolina,” Gill said.

Although the Dukes will play a full conference schedule, part of the NCAA’s reclassification rules bar JMU from competing in the postseason, which includes a conference championship game or a bowl game, in their first season. Despite the rule, Gill expressed confidence James Madison would be able to compete at a high level in the conference. The Dukes went 12-2 in their final FCS season, including a postseason semi-finals appearance for the fifth time in six years. In the three years since head coach Curt Cignetti took over, the team has gone 33-5.

JMU will become the first school to play home games against five FBS opponents in its first year in the FBS since 1997. Its five home FBS contests will feature Middle Tennessee and four Sun Belt Conference opponents as part of the conference schedule, which will be released March 1.

Jeff Bourne, James Madison director of athletics, also expressed excitement about the accelerated timetable surrounding the school’s move to the Sun Belt.

“We’re excited for this,” Bourne said. “I think it’s a wonderful new chapter for JMU to be a member of the Sun Belt and what that will afford.”

JMU will petition the NCAA in hope it will allow what is normally a two-year transition to become a one-year plan. The Dukes also had some difficulties scheduling, as their announcement to join the Sun Belt a year early came toward the end of most conferences’ scheduling periods for the fall football season. Another hurdle JMU has to jump is that it also features other sports, including some that are not sponsored by the Sun Belt Conference.

“This move … it’s good, not just for football. It’s good for all of our sport programs at JMU,” Bourne said. “There are three that are impacted by this and aren’t under the Sun Belt halo, and I want to talk a little bit about that. We are very close to being able to release information on new homes for those programs, and we will do that as those contracts are final, executed and signed.”

JMU’s move to the FBS also comes after controversy involving its former conference. The conference announced Nov. 6 since the school was withdrawing from the conference, the CAA would invoke a bylaw stating JMU would be ineligible for any conference team championships, with the exception of those already in progress. 

JMU student-athletes met the announcement with anger. Around 200 of the school’s student-athletes showed up to the Dukes’ home football matchup against Campbell University and stood on the sideline while holding a sign that said “#AthletesUnited” in protest of the conference’s ruling. Bourne expressed disappointment on behalf of the student-athletes and the university.

“We are disappointed that the conference has dug its heels in on this outdated bylaw when it had the opportunity to make the right decision for student-athlete well-being — something that it professes to prioritize,” said Bourne on social media following the Nov. 6 announcement.

JMU filed a waiver to the CAA which would allow their teams to compete in postseason conference play, but the waiver was denied. The conference announced its decision to reaffirm its initial decision in a press release Nov. 10.

“The opportunity to compete for a Conference championship should be reserved for institutions and student-athletes that are committed to being part of the Conference,” the conference said.

Despite the ruling by the CAA, the Dukes bring more than just football competition to the Sun Belt. JMU’s volleyball team finished third in the CAA in 2021 after going 5-3 in conference play and 11-5-1 overall. The Dukes also have a consistently dominant softball team, winning five of the last seven CAA championships, including each of the last two.

James Madison will become the first of four schools to join the Sun Belt in the next two years. Marshall, Southern Mississippi and Old Dominion all will transition into the Sun Belt no later than July 1, 2023. This move is part of a larger mass conference realignment in the NCAA.