HARRISONBURG, Va. – A man can pull up roots and become reestablished, especially if he is a football coach and finds peace in the valley which is the way it is for Mickey Matthews, a West Texan who is surrounded by more trees in his comfortable neighborhood here than there were in the entire county where he grew up.
It wasn’t the landscape that drew him to James Madison University, however. Opportunity was the allure, but nobody settles on the edge of the Shenandoah Valley without experiencing good living. Mickey, and his wife, Kay, find the view of the splendorous mountains from their deck as breathtaking, when they take respite there today, as they did when they first arrived in 1999.
Success has a way of making campus life more livable, and any coach who becomes a compatible partner in the community must give of himself. Some coaches take a guarded approach, and it is obvious that Matthews applies prudence with his decisions and his relationships, but he wants to be friends with the students, faculty, alumni and business community. He has a natural personality for connecting with people. He has time for everybody. Following him around, even on a short weekend, and you would think he might be running for mayor.
Mickey always stops and speaks even to those with whom he has no established relationship—students, diners at a restaurant, visitors looking for directions and old friends who want updates on the coming season or about his trip to Pebble Beach to play golf. If you ever go shopping with him, it might be a good idea to take a snack—you are going to be a while. There is no cynical agenda with his routine—like currying favor to bring about a camp contribution or a sky suite sale—but coming about by a genuine interest in people. Further, he happens to be one who believes a coach cannot have too many friends.
There is a pragmatism linked with his makeup and style. He knows that winning has a priority in his life as it does with any coach. He is fully aware that survival is abidingly linked with an annual good showing on the field with the caveat that it would be advisable to make a run for the playoffs each fall.
Matthews, who coached the linebackers at Georgia in 1996-97 and defensive backs in 1998, has seen his program move with upward mobility at James Madison since he took over a program sorely in need of improved facilities, increased budgets and a winning attitude. He was the right man for the job.
In his first year, he took the Dukes to the playoffs, posting an 8-3 record. It would get better. In 2004, he coached JMU to the 1AA national championship. Additionally, he has won three conference titles. Substantial in attitude adjustment was a revealing incident that reflects his ability to understand, emphasize and communicate. He found out that his players were troubled by with the cheap shorts they practiced in. When he learned their preference was mesh shorts, he instructed his equipment manager to place an order. “We can’t afford them,” was the response. “You buy them, and I’ll find the money to pay for them,” the head coach said.
“You can’t believe how morale went up,” Matthews smiled, recalling the incident. At the time, James Madison was not selling any season tickets and the one page football promotional sheet was on the flipside of the soccer information. Last year, JMU sold 10,000 season tickets and this season will play in a new and improved 30,000 seat stadium with 28 sky suites. “This may not be the SEC,” he was saying to a visitor in summer, “but when we fill it up and play one of our rivals like Delaware, this place rocks. When it is peak leaf season there is not a prettier place in the country.”
Matthews and JMU’s administration have not shied away from an ambitious schedule, taking on schools like North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech. It should be duly noted that it is best not to consider the Dukes a “breather.” Virginia Tech understands that after last year when James Madison caught the Hokies down after losing their opening game to Boise State. JMU celebrated a 21-16 victory.
Succeeding on any level requires administrative support. During Matthews’ times, he has had the good fortune of working for a president, Lin Rose, who understands the importance of a successful football program. When Mickey was hired, the two of them drove to an alumni meeting in Richmond and the President casually remarked, “You know there will be 300 people there tonight!” Rose could remember making that trip to speak to less than a dozen people. Later he said, in support of football, something that went like this: “The best thing we do at JMU is to have a football program where everybody wears purple on Saturday afternoon.” Mickey was warmed by the assessment, recognizing that the lead administrator took pride in seeing everybody coming together on campus for those special days fall days excluding no one—alumni, students, faculty and fans.
A heart-warming sidebar has taken place during the Matthews’ tenure in Harrisonburg. Their son Clayton, who quarterbacked Oconee County to the state AAA championship in 1999, later experienced a broken neck in a car wreck and was paralyzed from the waist down. In a subsequent wreck during rehabilitation, it was broken again, but the family rallied around Clayton who now is the JMU receivers coach. “You can’t imagine how grateful we are that he has managed an unfortunate situation,” Matthews said. “He has a car with hand controls and has become very independent. In fact, he drove himself to a reunion of his Oconee County championship team in the spring.”
While in Atlanta, Clayton did some recruiting and went by the Sheppard Center in Atlanta. He wanted to spend time with Georgia baseball player Jonathan Taylor who has suffered a similar fate, resulting from a collision with a teammate in the spring.
The family foundation with the Matthewses is as solid as the new construction at Bridgeforth Stadium. Like at home, a family atmosphere prevails on campus too. Making friends comes easy for Mickey Matthews, and he has done it so well at James Madison, that he is the most beloved figure in this part of the Shenandoah Valley.
[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]