HARRISONBURG, Va. — Linebacker Pat Williams, James Madison’s leading tackler the past two seasons, left campus for the summer to work at an internship in northern Virginia and was stunned when he got back.
Before him was a $62.5 million renovation to Bridgeforth Stadium that gives the Dukes a home field that looks like what a top college football program might have.
“It was kind of overwhelming,” he said of the purple-framed stands that rise 135 feet with 17 luxury boxes between the top section and the lower tier.
Along with the excitement over the renovated stadium, which now is the biggest in the Colonial Athletic Association, enthusiasm for the program may also be at an all-time high. James Madison is picked to finished second in the rugged conference. That would be a welcome rebound after consecutive 6-5 finishes left them out of the playoffs.
Expectations for the Dukes’ fan base rose significantly in 2004, when they claimed their first Football Championship Subdivision national title.
They had been to the playoffs four times in five seasons from 2004-08, but haven’t been back since losing 35-27 to Montana in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs at Bridgeforth in 2008.
“We’re very aware that we’ve set the bar very high here,” said coach Mickey Matthews. “Two 6-5 seasons and you’d have thought we’d won one game. That’s kind of where we are at James Madison now. The bar is very high and you’ve got to win a lot of games here.”
A year ago, the Dukes seemed back on track early when they stunned No. 13 Virginia Tech 21-16, but an injury to Thorpe, the starting quarterback, in the opener and four consecutive losses erased a 4-1 start, and when the field for the FCS playoffs was announced, JMU was out again.
Matthews compares the first impression visitors have shared of the stadium with that of going to the White House or their first up-close glimpse of the Empire State Building in New york. He says the renovations, made on the home sideline and in the only open end zone, give it “an SEC feel.”
“There are many people, when they first come to the stadium, that are kind of taken back because it hard to understand how tall it is, how big it is,” he said.
With the renovation, capacity has increased from about 15,700 to 25,000. That’s a boon for students because as many as 1,500 of them were turned away from some games last year, said athletic director Jeff Bourne.
“There’s an aura in here, and it’s unreal,” quarterback Justin Thorpe said shortly before dancing out onto the field for the team’s first practice in the stadium as music blared from the also-new gigantic video scoreboard that measures 60 feet across by 24 feet high.
The visiting sideline still has concrete stands, but Bourne said the next phase of upgrades could make that section look similar to the home side and increase capacity to about 40,000.
He said a shortage of restrooms also has been addressed on the new side, but parking could become a dicier proposition for the general public. The school has sold nearly 7,000 season ticket packages, and has increased parking areas for boosters closest to the stadium. The school intends to provide shuttle buses to some parking locations.
Bourne dispelled the notion the stadium’s expansion is a prelude to a move to the larger FBS, formerly known as I-A.
“I-A is really not on the radar screen at this point,” he said. “The bottom line is to be the absolute best program in the FCS right now, head to toe.”
Bourne said that means having the best facilities, a goal of getting into the playoffs and doing well every year.
“If we can do that, we’ve postured ourselves where we need to be with regard to the big picture,” he said. “Who knows? If something down the road were to ever change and we were to decide to look in that direction, we would at least be poised for it.”