JMU Hires Bob Chesney as Head Football Coach

Image courtesy of Holy Cross

By Bennett Conlin

JMU named Bob Chesney its new head coach Thursday. Chesney comes to JMU after an extremely successful six-year run at Holy Cross, and he signed a five-year deal to come to JMU.

Chesney, who is considered a rising star in college football coaching, is slated to replace Curt Cignetti as the Dukes’ head coach. Cignetti left for Indiana after going 52-9 over five seasons in Harrisonburg. 

Matching that success will be a challenge, but Chesney has the coaching acumen to keep JMU atop the Sun Belt East in the immediate future. Chesney went 44-21 at Holy Cross in six seasons, inheriting a program that went 23-45 in the six seasons prior to his arrival. Chesney went 29-8 at Holy Cross the last three seasons, and two of the team’s losses in 2023 came to FBS schools (Boston College and Army). 

Chesney also went 23-9 over three seasons with Salve Regina from 2010-12. Chesney was 44-16 in five seasons as Assumption’s head coach from 2013-17. 

He’s 111-46 as a head coach, and he led Holy Cross to five consecutive first-place Patriot League finishes. His teams have never finished worse than fourth in a conference race, and his teams have finished first in the conference standings in eight of his 14 seasons as a head coach. 

“We were methodical and intentional in casting a wide net to identify the next head coach of James Madison football, and I confidently believe that we found the total package in Bob Chesney,” Athletic Director Jeff Bourne said via press release.

Editor’s note: Thanks to Christopher William Jewelers for their advertising support this season.

Bourne’s type

Bourne seems to have a type when it comes to football head coaching hires. Bourne likes to target coaches with previous head coaching experience. 

Everett Withers was North Carolina’s interim head coach in 2011, leading the Tar Heels to a 7-6 record. He took over JMU in 2014 and had multiple stops at high-level FBS programs as an assistant. 

Mike Houston succeeded Withers, and Houston found success as a head coach at both Lenoir-Rhyne and the Citadel. He went 37-6 at JMU. 

Cignetti took over after Houston and went 52-9 in his five years leading the Dukes. Cignetti was a successful head coach at both IUP and Elon before accepting the JMU job. 

Chesney fits that mold, having won at three different places. On paper, he’s a safe and logical hire. The former Holy Cross head coach was reportedly in the mix for the Syracuse head coaching job in recent weeks. He’s likely to be a Power Five head coach in the near future, if he can win at JMU. 

Likely question marks

Chesney’s previous head coaching experience comes in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. How will he adapt to recruiting for a team that plays in the Sun Belt?

That’s likely the No. 1 question fans will have of Chesney. How will he recruit Virginia and other southern states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida? 

Some of those potential concerns, while understandable and fair, are likely a tad overblown. Holy Cross is loaded with Pennsylvania and New Jersey players, two states that JMU wants to recruit well. The Dukes did well under Cignetti to land quality players from Pennsylvania. 

Holy Cross also had 12 players on its 2023 roster from Florida and another three from Virginia. The team’s leading receiver in 2023 is from Virginia and entering the NFL Draft. A freshman standout defensive lineman is from Ohio, and the team’s leading tackler is from Michigan. 

While Chesney’s primary recruiting focus at Holy Cross wasn’t southern states, he’s shown an ability to land talented players from outside the New England area. He may also retain a JMU staff member (or two or three or four) to help with recruiting.

Another possible question is how will Chesney’s coaching translate to the FBS level? There’s a difference between winning Patriot League titles and Sun Belt titles. Will he be able to successfully make the leap?

JMU’s ample resources and commitment to winning give Chesney a good head start on the path to success. There’s reason for optimism among JMU fans, as Chesney is a proven winner with a possible Power Five coaching future. Even with a question mark or two, Chesney’s hire looks like a home run for Bourne.

What if he leaves?

If Chesney lives up to the hype, he’ll earn immediate attention from Power Five programs in search of a head coach. 

That’s not a dealbreaker or a concern. JMU has lost each of its last three coaches to different programs offering more money, and the Dukes have found a way to reload immediately. 

It’s possible that if Chesney leaves JMU in the next few years, some of the same top candidates during this interview cycle will be considered again. Rutgers defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak has been considered a top candidate for the job in each of the last two hiring cycles, and he could be in the mix again in a few years. 

DeLane Fitzgerald is a name worth monitoring for the next 5-10 years. The former JMU player bleeds purple, and he was 62-19 as Frostburg State’s head coach. He’s in the middle of turning around Southern Utah, and with a 97-60 career head coaching record, Fitzgerald is rapidly becoming a name the Dukes will need to seriously consider during their next hiring cycle. He interviewed for the job this year as well. 

Even former JMU assistants Mike Shanahan and Bryant Haines could be given consideration should they find continued success with Cignetti at Indiana. Oregon assistant coach Drew Mehringer is a young name often floated as a possibility. Penn State co-defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter is also due for a head coaching opportunity in the next 3-5 years.

In short, if Chesney moves on following a successful stint at JMU, the administration will be well positioned to replace him.

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