HARRISONBURG — When James Madison University head football coach Mike Houston first took over the program two years ago he wanted the team to become more like North Dakota State University — and it has.
Houston said North Dakota State, which won five straight Football Championship Subdivision titles before last year, does things the way he felt all football teams should. Houston compared North Dakota State to the University of Alabama, which is going for its fifth Football Bowl Subdivision title in the last nine years on Monday against the University of Georgia.
“You look at Alabama (Monday) night you saw a physically dominant defense, a punishing ground game and a disciplined football team,” Houston said. “…That’s what I saw when I watched North Dakota State.”
JMU will play North Dakota State in the FCS championship game in Frisco, Texas at noon, Saturday.
Houston said that he knew when he took over in 2016 that the Dukes had the talent to win, but they were missing some key elements to win a championship.
“(During the 2016 spring practice) we were sitting there and I had a group of really, really talented players,” Houston said. “But they didn’t know how to win and they didn’t know how to compete. They didn’t know how to play physical, hard-nosed football. They were great when we spread everybody out. And in open space they had tremendous athleticism and they could make you look silly. And they had success scoring points, but they could not win ballgames at critical times.”
Before Houston arrived, the Dukes had lost in the first or second round of the FCS playoffs the previous two years. They were the favorite in both games.
Houston said the defense wasn’t physical enough and neither was the offensive line.
Houston said changing the culture of the team started in practice.
“We went about creating that kind of competition in practice. That’s the only way you can do it,” Houston said. “It’s the only way you can instill that mindset of being physically dominant at the point of contact. I always keep referencing that, and it’s a phrase I use a lot, but that’s what it comes down to.”
The Dukes have won 26 straight games, including a 27-17 win over North Dakota State in last year’s FCS semifinals.
Another key to the Dukes’ success has been the coaching staff.
Houston said it’s been important to have a coaching staff that knows how to win.
JMU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick has been an assistant coach at several FBS schools, including East Carolina University and the University of Louisville. Defensive coordinator Bob Trott was an assistant coach in the NFL for several years, working along side legendary coaches Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick.
JMU offensive line coach Bryan Stinespring was an assistant coach at Virginia Tech for 16 years. JMU special teams coach Roy Tesh worked with Houston at Lenoir-Rhyne, where they advanced to the Division II national championship game. JMU inside receivers coach Fontel Mines was an assistant coach at the University of Richmond for five years, where the Spiders advanced to the FCS semifinals in 2015.
“Coach Kirkpatrick, coach Trott, coach Tesh, coach Stinespring coach Mines, I have a group of coaches that have big game experience,” Houston said. “Coaches that have been through a lot and seen a lot, have been successful and been unsuccessful. Because you learn a lot from being unsuccessful — you learn what not to do.”
Houston said the experience the coaching staff has will definitely help them against North Dakota State.
“I think that experience not only has served us well in the past but will serve us well again this Saturday,” Houston said. “Because they also understand that they don’t have all the answers.”
Houston said it’s also important that the players believed in the coaching staff and each other in the locker room.
Houston said that both JMU and North Dakota State have built their programs the right way.
“I think the formula that these two teams use are what wins championships,” Houston said. “I don’t care if you’re talking about at the FCS level, or the FBS level or the NFL. You look at what wins these ballgames and it comes down to the intangibles these two teams have.”