Image courtesy of JMU athletics communications
By Bennett Conlin
I sent a tweet Thursday night that generated conversation in the JMU sports Twitter community.
While Twitter limits users to 280 characters per tweet, JMUSportsNews.com has no such limit. With JMU men’s basketball upsetting Hofstra 104-99 in overtime on Saturday to improve to 13-16 and 6-10 in the CAA, I wanted to explain my tweet and share why the win over Hofstra doesn’t mean Louis Rowe will return next season. On the other hand, the win may signify the beginning of an era of success under Louis Rowe. I believe Louis Rowe is on the hot seat for a few reasons. I also believe there’s now a clear path for him to cool it off.
We can’t talk about the state of JMU men’s basketball without talking about Sean O’Regan’s women’s basketball team. The Dukes sit at 22-4 and 14-1 in the CAA. The 22 wins make this the 14th consecutive season the Dukes will finish with at least 20 wins. JMU women’s basketball is the CAA’s top team and has contended for conference titles for well over a decade.
Why does this affect the men’s team? While the women’s basketball results don’t directly affect how the men’s team plays, it’s impossible for Athletic Director Jeff Bourne to ignore the disparity between the men’s team and many of JMU’s other athletic programs, including women’s basketball. Bourne shouldn’t worry about O’Regan’s squad when the new arena opens for the 2020-21 season. The same can’t be said for the men’s team.
It’s not just about the women’s basketball team’s success, though. Nearly every other athletic program contends for CAA titles or is clearly headed in the right direction.
Recent accomplishments of JMU’s athletic programs
- Lacrosse won 2018 national title
- Men’s soccer made Elite Eight in 2018 NCAA Tournament
- Women’s soccer won 2018 regular season CAA title
- Football won the 2016 FCS National Championship, lost in 2017 title game
- Women’s basketball has 14 consecutive 20-win seasons
- Softball has earned six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances
- Swimming and Diving won the 2018 and 2019 CAA championships
- Volleyball won the 2016 and 2017 CAA titles
- Cross country won the 2017 CAA title
Other programs have shown bright spots as well, but JMU men’s basketball has been frustratingly inconsistent for three seasons in a row. The Dukes are among the worst of JMU’s athletic programs, yet Rowe makes significantly more money than many more successful coaches. According to The Breeze’s salary database, which was last updated in September, here are the salaries of many of JMU’s coaches.
Curt Cignetti, football: 425,000 per year, according to Greg Madia
Louis Rowe, men’s basketball: $275,888
Sean O’Regan, women’s basketball: $190,999
Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe, lacrosse: $123,600
Marlin Ikenberry, baseball: $101,794
Lauren Steinbrecher, volleyball: $84,888
Loren Laporte, softball: $81,600
Rowe’s salary isn’t the issue. There’s a good argument to be made that JMU needs to pay more money to its men’s basketball coach. It’s difficult to find the exact salaries of many CAA men’s basketball coaches, but Rowe is closer to the bottom of the conference in regards to salary.
The issue is that Rowe isn’t doing enough with his salary. He’s earned close to $900,000 for leading the team to a 33-61 record and a shockingly bad 10-35 record in true road games. Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe, on the other hand, makes less than half of Rowe’s salary and led the Dukes to a national title in 2018.
Men’s basketball is considered a revenue sport, while women’s lacrosse isn’t, so the salary differential makes sense. The men’s basketball coach is going to make more than the lacrosse coach. That’s fine. But if you’re going to pay a JMU employee nearly $300,000 a year, there needs to be an emphasis on results.
Let’s look at JMU’s three-year resume under Louis Rowe.
Best win in my opinion: 104-99 (OT) at Hofstra on Feb. 23, 2019
Worst loss in my opinion: 75-48 at Fordham on Dec. 20, 2018
Overall record: 33-61
CAA record: 19-33
Home record: 21-20
Road record: 10-35
Neutral floor record: 2-6
Record in games decided by single digits: 22-39
Record in games decided by double digits: 11-22
It’s not a great resume. JMU doesn’t win consistently and the Dukes have struggled mightily on the road. It’s hard to look at the overall body of work and expect Rowe to definitely return for the 2019-20 season. There are too many questions with this team’s ability to win.
The case to keep Rowe is simple — and gaining steam. He’s bringing in a strong recruiting class next season, which includes three-star small forward Michael Christmas. Mike Fowler, a two-star recruit, is a 6’8” forward with the ability to space the floor by making perimeter shots. Quinn Richey is another two-star recruit and he provides a shooting option at the guard position. Julien Wooden, the fourth and final member of next season’s recruiting class, is an athletic freak who attacks the basket and has a tremendous shot fake. He can shoot as well and is listed as 6’7” or 6’8” depending on the website.
Keeping Rowe means accepting a slow rebuild and allowing him to recruit talented players to Harrisonburg to develop a promising team over many years. For Jeff Bourne to accept this route, he needs to believe 100 percent that Rowe is the coach to make JMU a strong mid-major team that finds itself in multiple NCAA tournaments in the next decade. The talent doesn’t mean much if the Dukes continue to flounder in the middle or bottom of the CAA.
The team needs to be more consistent, and there’s no way to know how impactful the four commits will be without actually seeing them against college competition. The group is talented, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to wins.
With that being said, it’s nearly impossible to tell what Bourne is thinking. Given the team’s legitimate chance to win 15+ games, which would be a five-win improvement from last season, it’s likely Bourne gives Rowe at least another year to develop his team, but this is far from a sure thing.
What needs to happen for Rowe to feel safe
More winning. Beating Hofstra is great, but one victory doesn’t erase the team’s body of work under Louis Rowe. Winning the final two games of the regular season — home matchups against Elon and William & Mary — would go a long way. I also believe a CAA semifinal appearance is necessary for Bourne to feel completely comfortable sticking with Rowe.
Matt Brady was fired after a 21-win season because the Dukes didn’t advance far enough in the CAA tournament. Granted, he was in his eighth season. Even Dean Keener, who went 18-68 through three seasons, earned a fourth season at the helm before getting the boot. It’s hard to see Bourne moving on from Rowe if the Dukes capitalize on the win over Hofstra.
I don’t believe, however, that Rowe can lose out, finish 13-19 with a first-round CAA loss, and feel confident in remaining the head coach. On the other hand, a 15-16 regular season paired with a CAA tournament win or two likely buys him another season. The Hofstra win is massive for Rowe’s job security. He has a chance to have the Dukes win six of their final eight games if they win the final two games of the season.
On Thursday, I didn’t envision a scenario where Rowe could keep his job unless the Dukes finished the season with a flurry of wins. After Saturday’s victory over Hofstra, JMU has a chance to do just that.
JMU wants Rowe to find success. He’s a fantastic guy and an alumnus. I’d expect Bourne to look for reasons to keep him rather than reasons to make a change. Wins over Hofstra and the College of Charleston this season are two strong reasons to stand behind Rowe. Unfortunately, the overall body of work the last three seasons is poor. With a new arena coming soon, the Dukes need to win sooner rather than later.
If the Dukes can win the next two games and 1-2 CAA tournament games, I believe Rowe stays. If they drop into the bottom four of the CAA with a loss this week and they don’t advance out of the first round, Bourne might be forced to make a switch. It’s easier to envision Rowe staying than it was prior to the Hofstra game, but I don’t think it’s a sure thing either way. It’s going to be an exciting, and important, finish to the season.