Is the Grass Really Greener? How Former Head Coaches Fare After JMU

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

When a head coach makes the decision to leave a school, fans of the school the coach departs become understandably irrational. The immediate aftermath of a coach leaving is pure chaos among the online community.

When Everett Withers left JMU football for the job at Texas State, JMU fans were stunned. When Kenny Brooks left the women’s basketball program to join Virginia Tech, fans were sad. When Mickey Dean left JMU softball for Auburn, fans were surprised. When Mike Houston left JMU football for Charlotte East Carolina, fans were feeling frustrated and disappointed.

Losing a coach and continuing to win at a high level isn’t easy, but it’s exactly what JMU’s athletic programs have done. Let’s take a deeper dive into the coaches who left JMU for bigger jobs and the success, or lack thereof, they’ve found at their new destination.

Everett Withers

Set the scene: The local media rejoices, frats lament putting an end to their “I have to watch the film” press conference drinking game and Russian hackers spend every waking moment breaking into a certain somebody’s Twitter account to subtweet a local media member. Relax, relax, I’m just kidding!

When Withers left JMU there was a sense of betrayal, though. Fans wondered why he only stayed for two years to leave for a job that didn’t seem better than JMU. Mostly, though, fans were upset at the thought of more football upheaval. Withers spent two years building JMU into a contender again, only to have a few key injuries (Vad Lee) derail a promising 2015 campaign. A home loss to Colgate left JMU’s coaches, players and fans with a sour taste in their mouths. Then, Withers jumped ship to a new program that few considered an upgrade.

Withers leaving stung the JMU community more than the other moves on this list.

Record at JMU: 18-7, 12-4 CAA

Record at Texas State: 7-28, 2-21 Sun Belt

Notable accomplishments at Texas State: A 56-54 OT win at Ohio in the first game of his tenure

JMU’s record after Withers: 37-6, 22-2 CAA

Notable accomplishments after Withers: Two national title game appearances, two CAA titles, one national title victory and a 26-game winning streak

Summary: Withers jumped the gun on moving to the FBS. If he had waited a bit longer, he may have posted a few more winning seasons at JMU and put himself in prime position to earn a better FBS job. Instead, Texas State won just seven games total in three seasons, and Houston made the Dukes one of the best teams in the country and used his success to land a job at ECU.

Was the grass greener on the other side? No. The Texas heat burned the grass and turned it to Texas State’s school colors. JMU got the better of this move.

Kenny Brooks

Set the scene: Fresh off its third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, JMU lost one of its top coaches to an in-state program. Kenny Brooks was, and is, loved by JMU fans. He’s a former men’s basketball player at JMU, loves the local area and spent years building JMU women’s basketball into a consistent postseason participant.

When Brooks left, there was no sense of betrayal. There was a sadness at losing a valued member of the JMU community. There was an understanding that JMU would continue to lose elite coaches to Power 5 programs that can pay more. Most of all, there was gratitude that Brooks spent 13 seasons leading the Dukes.

Record at JMU: 337-122, 193-56 CAA

Record at Virginia Tech: 56-32, 14-26 ACC

Notable accomplishments: Three consecutive 20-win seasons for the Hokies.

JMU’s record after Brooks: 78-26, 48-6 CAA

Notable accomplishments: Three WNIT appearances, a 29-win season in 2018-19

Summary: Despite not making an NCAA Tournament in three seasons, Sean O’Regan has picked up right where Brooks left off. The Dukes are winning at a high rate and recruiting well. They’re the heavy CAA favorite heading into the 2019-20 season.

Brooks has fared well in nonconference games as Virginia Tech’s head coach, but the Hokies haven’t gotten over the hump in conference under his watch. They’ve also yet to make an NCAA Tournament under Brooks.

In this situation, you can’t fault either side. Brooks gave a ton to JMU’s basketball programs, and he ultimately accepted a higher-paying job at a good school. JMU replaced him with one of his assistants, and the Dukes are showing signs of progress under O’Regan. This split was nothing like the Withers move, and both sides have found their fair share of success, although JMU has had slightly more success through three years, including a win over Brooks and the Hokies.

Was the grass greener on the other side? Not yet, at least in terms of results, but Brooks is making a whole lot more green at Virginia Tech than he did at JMU.

Mickey Dean

Set the scene: JMU set a program record for wins in each of Dean’s five seasons. The Dukes came within one hit of making the Women’s College World Series in 2016 and played in an NCAA Regional in 2017. The Dukes were on fire under Dean, and life was good.

Dean built JMU softball into a power, and then the experienced head coach left Harrisonburg for the SEC. He inherited a program reeling after alleged sexual harassment by coaches. Auburn was a proud program, but he inherited a bit of a mess. Despite the program’s wounded reputation, Dean opted to join softball’s elite conference as head coach of the Tigers.

Record at JMU: 237-56, 88-9 CAA

Record at Auburn: 80-38, 21-26 SEC

Notable accomplishments: Two NCAA Regional appearances

JMU’s record after Dean: 94-24, 39-3 CAA

Notable accomplishments: Two NCAA appearances, one Super Regional appearance, the first season in program history with 20 conference wins

Summary: JMU softball hasn’t missed much of a beat without Dean, as the Dukes are 70 games over .500 since his departure. Megan Good helped that cause, but Loren LaPorte has proven herself as a quality coach. JMU looks to make another deep postseason run in 2020.

Auburn has seen success under Dean, but the SEC is loaded. Winning conference games has been a struggle for the Tigers, which is to be expected when facing tremendous competition. With four players in the transfer portal, the 2020 season could be another challenging year for Auburn. The team hopes to make its first Super Regional under Dean.

It’s hard to fault Dean for leaving JMU. He’s an elite coach, and he belongs in an elite conference like the SEC. With that being said, he’s yet to find elite success at Auburn, and JMU looks solid without him. He deserves credit for setting a strong foundation and helping mold LaPorte into the coach she is today.

JMU shouldn’t, and likely doesn’t, feel any ill will toward Dean.

Was the grass greener on the other side? Not yet, but like Brooks, Dean’s paycheck is larger at Auburn. It’s too early to accurately judge this move, as Dean has only completed two seasons as the Tigers’ head coach.

Mike Houston

Set the scene: A tweet sent at 3:31 p.m. on Nov. 28, 2018, sent JMU fans into a frenzy. Head football coach Mike Houston was expected to leave JMU to become the head coach at Charlotte. The next few days were wild.

Houston didn’t end up accepting the Charlotte job as JMU’s upcoming playoff game with Colgate made Houston wait to make a final call. Charlotte eventually withdrew its offer before East Carolina officially offered Houston the job. Houston and JMU lost to Colgate and shortly after the defeat he accepted the ECU job. Fans were frustrated, but happier he left for ECU instead of Charlotte.

Record at JMU: 37-6, 22-2 CAA

Record at ECU: 0-0

Summary: Houston enters the 2019-20 season at East Carolina with the goal of building the Pirates into an AAC title contender. If he succeeds in making ECU an elite Group of 5 program, he may find himself leading a Power 5 school in a few years.

JMU brought in Curt Cignetti, who has decades of coaching experience and a fantastic coaching pedigree. The Dukes expect to contend for an FCS National Title in 2019, even without Houston.

Both JMU and Houston are likely fine with the current situation. The Dukes got three great seasons from Houston, and they had to imagine he’d leave eventually. Houston boosted his profile and now joins the FBS ranks.

Given ECU’s current AAC standing and JMU’s roster, there’s a chance the results of this split fair similarly to the other coaching moves. Expect JMU to have the better record, and maybe even the better team, for at least one season as Houston works to build ECU. JMU lost a great coach, but the Dukes should be just fine with Cignetti.

Will the grass be greener on the other side? JMU is expected to continue winning, so the ball is firmly in Houston’s court. If he makes ECU into an AAC contender and parlays this job into a Power 5 gig, the grass will absolutely be greener on the other side.

The bottom line

It’s impossible to fault a coach for moving up to accept a higher-paying job with more prestige in a bigger conference. If someone offered you a significant raise at a well-known company to perform the same job, you’d likely jump at the chance.

While most people won’t fault these coaches, it’s easier said than done to leave JMU and find the same levels of success at a new school. JMU’s fan base, facilities and commitment to athletics are elite. As we’ve seen with Withers, Brooks and Dean, the salary might be higher, but you might trade money for the chance to lead a worse team in a better conference.

In hindsight, only Withers’ move seemed rushed. He jumped at the Texas State opportunity when another bigger job may have presented itself had he waited another year or two and posted successful seasons in Harrisonburg. Brooks, Dean and Houston all left for larger programs with a reasonable likelihood of success.

As the Dukes remain in the CAA, it’s likely many of their top coaches will continue moving on to bigger and “better” jobs. If history is any indicator, Jeff Bourne will hire strong replacements and JMU will be more than OK.

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