Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Louis Rowe sat at a table, Matt Lewis and Deshon Parker flanking him to the right.
Rowe’s coaching tenure at JMU almost certainly ended minutes prior in a 63-61 loss to Elon.
It was a loss that perfectly represented the Louis Rowe era. JMU, led by an abundance of talent and athleticism, overwhelmed Elon out of the gate. The Dukes led 14-0 to start. The 10th seeded Dukes were rolling.
Then, slowly but surely, the wheels came off.
JMU unraveled. Elon lead just once, with three seconds left. The Phoenix ultimately prevailed 63-61, ending JMU’s season.
There was promise.
There was hope.
There was optimism.
In the end, there was heartbreak.
The Dukes won nine games during the 2019-20 season. Just nine. They lost 21 times. The only CAA team to lose to JMU was UNCW, which canned its coach during the season.
In Louis Rowe’s tenure, the Dukes went 43-85. In conference play, they went 23-51. After the loss to Elon, Rowe addressed his job security without ever specifically addressing his job security.
“I think that we all know the reality,” Rowe said.
The reality is that Louis Rowe coached his last game as JMU’s head coach. I know it. You know it. He knows it.
It’s the reality.
Rowe spoke about JMU releasing a midseason statement that said they were keeping Rowe through the end of the season. It was an act of grace toward a beloved former player. He deserved to finish out the year.
Once he talked about that statement and the “reality,” Rowe turned to his players, almost forgetting the media existed.
“I’ll tell you this, dude, this ain’t got nothing to do with y’all,” Rowe said to Lewis and Parker. “You understand? It’s got nothing to do with y’all.”
This is it.
This is the guy JMU fans adore despite his horrendous coaching record. This is the man that walks into living rooms and convinces talented recruits to come to Harrisonburg. This is the person Jeff Bourne and Charlie King fell in love with during the last coaching search.
“And what it is,” Rowe continued, “I’m telling you, come out clean on the other side. Say to yourself, ‘I’m not feeling this way next year.'”
Now Rowe was emphatically poking the table with his right index finger, hammering the point home.
“Because there’s talent in the locker room,” Rowe said passionately, “and you have to go through something sometimes. You understand what I’m saying?”
The players choked out a “Yes sir” through tears.
They know the reality, too.
“It’s just life, sometimes you just gotta go through something,” Rowe said, sharing advice that could well apply to his situation as well. “You hear what I’m saying? This was the next step. This was what y’all had to go through. This is what we had to go through. Face it. Head up. And go back and say, ‘We ain’t feeling this way next year.’ You feel me?”
Another round of “Yes sirs.”
“We ain’t feeling this way next year,” Rowe added, turning his gaze back to the media.
After handling a question about when his end-of-year-meeting with Bourne would take place, the next question was for Parker. A reporter asked what Rowe meant to Parker.
The sophomore point guard, forced out “He means a lot to me.”
That’s about all he could take. He choked up. His head slumped as he stared at the floor trying to gather himself.
“Head up, head up, head up,” Rowe said.
The coach, likely days away from being unemployed, wanted to make sure his sophomore point guard kept his head high.
Rowe put his arm around Lewis. Lewis put his arm around Parker. The players covered their eyes and cried.
The reality isn’t all that simple.
The reality is that Louis Rowe is a great man. The players love him. He represents JMU with class and integrity.
On the other hand, the university doesn’t pay Rowe about $300,000 annually to be a nice guy. They pay him to win basketball games, and anyone who tries to tell you that Division I men’s basketball is about anything other than winning games is crazy.
Rowe didn’t win games as JMU’s head coach. Ultimately, that will lead to him looking for a new job.
But that doesn’t make this easy.
Rowe played at JMU. Heck, he excelled on the court.
On the bench, he struggled mightily, and JMU will look for a new coach as the worst team in a mediocre league opening a massive new arena. Rowe leaves JMU in a rough position from a basketball perspective.
“He’s one of the strongest men, I know,” Parker said, fighting through tears and a shaky voice. “Going through what we just went through, like this whole year, him coming into every day, how he approached every day you don’t see that.”
Parker regained control of his voice, as his pride for how Rowe had coached this season was overtaking his sadness stemming from the notion that he wouldn’t get to play for the man next season.
“For me, it was eye-opening,” Parker said of Rowe’s attitude.
“Y’all make it easy,” Rowe chimed in.
“As young men, we’re going through this time just as he is, so we’re looking for him as the leader, and he put his head down and he worked,” Parker said. “Coming from Dayton, Ohio, I was kind of nervous coming here, but I knew I was in good hands with this guy. My family got full trust in him. I have full trust in him.”
Reality started to set in again.
“I’m honestly just grateful he got to coach me, and hopefully will continue to coach me,” Parker said.
The reality is that Louis Rowe has not performed well enough in his job to deserve to come back next season as the head coach.
The reality is that college basketball head coaches are paid to win games.
The reality is that Louis Rowe is a phenomenal dude and leader of young men.
The reality is that winning means more to a head coach’s job security than charisma and charm.
JMU’s next coach shouldn’t have much trouble producing better on-court results. Off the court, it’s going to be tough to match Rowe’s love, passion and energy for JMU men’s basketball.
The winning wasn’t there. The off-court leadership was.
I hope the next coach brings both.
Until then, let’s take a moment to appreciate Louis Rowe the man. Then, let’s say goodbye to Louis Rowe the coach.
The Rowe era was an on-court failure, but the man that led the program is anything but.